How important is food to survival? In the long term, it is critical, but short term, not so much. In the 2 or 3 day window we are hoping for when our survival kits are needed, food will not be a major factor in your survival. Still, it will make the experience less unpleasant, and improve your odds a bit, or a lot more in longer term situations.
Unfortunately, food is large, heavy, tends to not survive temperature extremes well and generally deteriorates over time. These factors make including food in your survival kit a challenge.
Consider the effects of not eating on your regular dining schedule. First of all, you feel hunger. Annoying, but not life threatening or even damaging. As time without eating goes on, you start to become lethargic and your thinking becomes less focused, less reliable and subject to impulsivity and rashness. This is not dangerous itself, but can reduce your ability to deal with the overall situation, or deal with it in the most effective manner. And this could have unfortunate results. After a while, your body starts to fight back, first by throttling back your metabolism. This can have negative effects when you are back where food is plentiful, but may actually seem beneficial during the survival event. Finally, the body starts to cannibalize itself, not only using up fat, but also muscle tissue. This is best avoided.
So although it is not a critical necessity, your kit design should address food after it makes provision for the more critical survival issues. There are really only two options. Include food in the kit, or get food at the disaster site. Or both.
Gathering food at the site is the focus in the design of most survival kits. They include some equipment for fishing and snaring small animals and birds, and this is quite reasonable, since these materials are small, light and cheap, and utilizing them is fairly low energy. Hunting is generally not a practical option for many survival kits, as the equipment tends NOT to be small, light or cheap, and the hunting activity can be physically intensive. Gathering grubs and other insects can be done with minimal equipment and effort. Gathering plant material is also generally easy to do, but in many cases is a waste of effort unless you are intimately familiar with the plant life IN THE AREA. Many wild plants will not provide much, if any nutrition, and some will make you sick or even kill you. Very often, there will be a poisonous plant which looks very similar to an edible one. Sometimes there is a plant where one part is edible and another is poisonous, or at some times in the year is edible and other times not, or which is edible when prepared using one technique and poisonous otherwise.
Carrying some salt and pepper and/or other seasoning (some people include hot sauce in their kits) can improve the palatability of some of the food acquired at the site.
What food would be appropriate to consider for inclusion in a kit? My first thought, ham and swiss on rye with mayo, lettuce, tomato, sprouts, mushroom and onion, might be a taste delight and highly nutritious, but unless refrigerated would be biologically toxic within a day and look it after not much more time. No, we must be much more rigorous in our selection.
The most compact option would be some hard candy. This is not really food, but can provide some comfort, and even more useful, energy (from the sugar calories). Obviously, diet candy (sugar free) should not be considered. Probably individually wrapped pieces of good quality would be the most convenient. Jolly Rancher is compact and individually wrapped, although the wrappers can be very difficult to remove if they get hot, old or damp. Worthers Original have a superior wrapping, but I’m not sure how the creamy center will stand up to harsh storage conditions. Peppermints are easy to find if you like them, and there are fruit flavored disks available. I would vacu-seal the candy or store it a waterproof tube to give it extra protection. Chocolate would, of course, be right out due to its low melting point.
The next option would be small envelopes of “mixes”. These will need to have water added, which may be a problem, but if the water is available, it is a way to get major benefit from minor packages. Choices include coffee or tea, which would primarily be for comfort. Bouillon (chicken or beef) would also seem to provide a bit of nutrition, so would be my preference.
Jumping to the other extreme, we have the famous “MRE”, the military “Meal, Ready to Eat”. This is indeed of use, but is really too big and heavy for most kits. A more compact option is freeze-dried hiking meals. They can be small and light, healthy and tasty, but do require significant water and cooking to be prepared. So we look instead for something which is small, light, self-contained, edible with little or no preparation, and balanced nutritionally. Good taste would be nice, but we have already defined something rather difficult to produce.
There are various “bars” available at the grocery and health food stores which might seem to meet these criteria reasonably well. And if you are heading out of town, by all means toss in a few. However, these tend not to have a particularly long shelf life, so would not be optimal as a “permanent” part of the kit. A “better” choice for long term inclusion might be one of the “survival rations”. There are several primary providers, Datrex, ER (VitaLife), Mayday, SOS FoodLab and Mainstay (Survivor Industries), generally available in 1200 calorie, 2400 calorie and 3600 calorie bars. These are considered a 1 day, 2 day and 3 day supply of food, respectively, although they could be stretched, as 800 calories is considered the “minimum” daily calorie intake to minimize physical damage. Usually the rations consist of individual pieces to make it easy to split up for “breakfast, lunch and dinner”.
How good are they? I have not tried any of them yet, but I did research the ingredients as a preliminary indicator.
Datrex: Wheat Flour, Vegetable Shortening, Cane Sugar, Water, Coconut flavor and Salt
ER: Enriched wheat and malted barley flour, Palm Oil, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Soy Flour, Cornstarch, Natural and Artificial Flavors, Vitamins and Minerals
Mayday: Enriched Flour, Vegetable Shortening, Sugar, Corn Syrup, Soy Flour, Corn Starch, Potassium Sorbate, Vitamins and Minerals, Apple Cinnamon Flavor
SOS: Wheat Flour, Vegetable Shortening, Sugar, Coconut, Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Lecithin, Guar Gum, Vitamins, Salt
Mainstay: Enriched Flour, Vegetable Shortening (Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Cottonseed Oils),
Granulated Sugar, Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Natural Lemon Flavor, Artificial Butter Flavor, Artificial Vanilla Flavor, Artificial Color
All claim a 5 year shelf life. Their storage temperature ranges are:
Datrex: Not specified
ER: -22°F to 149°F
Mayday: up to 149°F
SOS: Not specified
Mainstay: -40° F to 300°F
Datrex appears to not have any added vitamins or minerals; not critical short term but an odd decision. If the “wheat flour” is whole wheat, that might not be a problem, but the odds of that being the case are pretty small since it is not specified as such. The vegetable shortening is probably partially hydrogenated, or a “trans-fat”. I prefer to avoid processed flour, but in a short term survival ration I would not worry about it. The trans-fat worries me though, and with coconut flavor, which I dislike, this one is a non-starter for me.
ER seems one of the better choices. It has processed flour, which I would avoid under normal circumstances, but should not be a problem in a survival situation, and it has no trans fat, plus vitamins AND minerals, and a decent storage temperature range.
Mayday has processed flour and perhaps trans fat, and an acceptable-sounding flavor and adequate storage temperature range. It would be a distant second choice. SOS probably has processed flour and possibly trans fat, and coconut flavor; I’d probably pass on this one. Mainstay has processed flour and trans fat, and no minerals. The flavor sounds interesting, so possibly a distant third choice.
SOS also has the “New Millennium” Energy bar, with 400 calories each, available in multiple flavors. Ingredients are: Wheat flour, Vegetable shortening, Sugar, Coconut, Corn Starch, Corn Syrup, Natural Flavors, Multi-Vitamin Supplement, Lecithin, Guar Gum and Salt. This appears to be pretty much the same thing as 1/3 of their daily survival ration with added flavor. And for something completely different, they have the “Exotic” Energy bar, with the odd value of 2012 calories each. The ingredients are: Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Shortening (Soybean & Cottonseed Oils), Whole Wheat Flour, Brown Sugar, Dextrose, Corn Starch, Quinoa Flour, Honey, Baobab Dried Fruit Pulp, Soy Lecithin, Dessicated Coconut, Guar Gum, Natural & Artificial Flavor, Salt, Vitamins. I like the whole wheat and brown sugar, the Quinoa and Baobab and honey, but that the primary ingredient is a trans fat is worrisome. Plus that odd calorie value. I suppose it could be a “low value (about 1000 calories)” two day supply, a “very high value” one day supply, or you could add a pair of 400 calorie bars to make a “high value (about 1400 calories)” two day supply.
The last option I found was “survival tabs”. This is a bottle of “food” tablets in Chocolate or Vanilla Malt, with a claimed storage life of 10 years. The ingredients are: Non-fat dry milk solids, sucrose, vegetable oils (including sunflower and/or safflower oil), natural and artificial flavors, vitamins and minerals. From the description, this appears a real contender, until you check the calories. Each tab only provides 20, so the recommended 12 tabs per day is only 240, which is nowhere near enough to prevent starvation. As a supplement, perhaps this would be of value, but not as your sole food source.