Freeze-Dried Foods vs MREs: What's the Difference?

MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) and freeze-dried foods differ significantly in their preparation, storage, and usage. MREs are fully-cooked, ready-to-eat meals packaged in durable, weather-resistant materials, designed for immediate consumption without the need for additional water or heating, though they often include a flameless ration heater for warming. Contrarily, freeze-dried food involves the removal of moisture from raw or cooked food via a high-tech freezing process, and it requires rehydration with water prior to eating.

The weight and volume of freeze-dried food are lower than MREs, making them lighter and more compact for packing and transport. In terms of shelf life, freeze-dried foods generally outlast MREs, offering preservation that can extend up to 25-30 years under ideal conditions, compared to the 5-7 year shelf life of MREs. Nutritional content is also a differentiator; freeze-drying maintains more of the original food's nutrients, flavor, and texture, while the canning and cooking process of MREs can lead to some loss of these qualities. However, MREs offer the convenience of immediate, no-prep-required consumption, which can be crucial in situations where time, water, or cooking resources are scarce.

Both types of meals have their specific applications in survival situations: MREs are suited for short-term, immediate sustenance, especially where portability and quick consumption are key, whereas freeze-dried foods are more appropriate for long-term sustenance, requiring a stable water source for rehydration but offering more variety and better retention of original food characteristics.

What are MREs?

MREs, or Meals, Ready-to-Eat, are self-contained food packages designed for immediate consumption without the need for additional preparation or cooking. Originally developed for the military, MREs have become a staple in the survivalist and prepper community due to their portability and long shelf life. Each MRE typically contains a main course, side dish, dessert, and an assortment of accessories like condiments, utensils, and sometimes a flameless ration heater for warming the meal. While MREs are packed with essential nutrients and calories to provide sustenance, it's important to note that some may not offer an ideal nutritional balance for every situation, especially if relied upon for an extended period. Their vacuum-sealed packaging ensures durability and protection from external contaminants, making them suitable for outdoor enthusiasts facing unpredictable conditions. However, the weight and bulk of MREs compared to other food options like freeze-dried meals might be a consideration in situations where space and weight are significant constraints. With a shelf life that can extend up to 5-7 years, depending on storage conditions, MREs are a reliable food source for emergency preparedness and long-term survival planning.

What are benefits of MREs?

MREs (Meals, Ready-to-Eat) provide several benefits that include convenience, long shelf-life, durability, and flameless ration heaters.

  • Convenience: MREs offer convenience, as they're designed to be consumed directly from the packaging with minimal or no preparation. This design eliminates the need for cooking facilities. This feature is also crucial in scenarios where resources are limited or in emergency situations where time and safe cooking methods are not available.
  • Long shelf-life: MREs are also known for their long shelf life, typically lasting from 5 to 7 years, which is essential for long-term emergency food storage. They are formulated to deliver a balanced diet, providing a mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats, along with essential vitamins and minerals needed to maintain energy and nutrition during strenuous activities or survival conditions.
  • Durability: The durability of MRE packaging, which is rigorously tested to endure extreme conditions, ensures the food remains protected and consumable in diverse environments, from wet and humid to dry and hot. 
  • Flameless ration heaters: Additionally, MREs often include flameless ration heaters, allowing for a hot meal without an external heat source — a comfort and morale booster in challenging situations. These advantages make MREs a practical, nutritionally balanced, and reliable food source for those preparing for uncertain conditions or engaging in outdoor adventures.

What are drawbacks of MREs?

MREs have several drawbacks that include high sodium, weight and bulk, shorter shelf life than freeze-dried foods, sensitivity to extreme climates, and availability.

  • High sodium: Firstly, due to the processing and packaging required for extended shelf-life, MREs often contain high levels of sodium and preservatives, which can lead to health concerns like increased blood pressure when consumed regularly over a long period. Furthermore, the taste and texture of MREs might not appeal to everyone, as the preservation process can alter the natural flavors and textures of food items.
  • Weight and bulk: Another significant concern is the weight and bulk of MREs compared to dehydrated or freeze-dried alternatives. Each MRE pack is heavier and takes up more space, potentially posing a logistical challenge in situations where carrying capacity is limited.
  • Shorter shelf life: MREs are designed for a relatively shorter shelf life, typically around 5 to 7 years, which is shorter than some other emergency food options like freeze-dried foods. This limitation requires more frequent monitoring and replenishment of supplies, which can be inconvenient and costly. While MREs offer the advantage of not requiring water for preparation, the lack of need for rehydration does not always compensate for their shorter shelf life and bulkier nature.
  • Sensitivity to extreme climates: Finally, reliance on MREs in extreme climates can be problematic. In cold temperatures, MREs can become hard and difficult to eat, while in hot climates, their shelf life may be drastically reduced. These factors combined can make MREs less suitable for extended or repetitive use, particularly for those in the survivalist and prepper communities who prioritize long-term sustainability, health, and efficiency in their food supplies.

What are freeze-dried foods?

Freeze-dried foods are products from which nearly all moisture has been removed through a process called lyophilization, maintaining the food's structure and nutritional value. This technique involves first freezing the food and then placing it in a strong vacuum, causing the frozen water in the food to vaporize without passing through a liquid phase, a process known as sublimation. The result is a lightweight, dry product that is resistant to spoilage.  You can check out our selection of freeze-dried survival food to see what freeze-dried foods look like and how much they cost.

What are benefits of freeze-dried foods?

The benefits of freeze-dried food include long shelf life, lightweight, versatility, and nutrient retention.

  • Long Shelf Life: Freeze-dried foods have an extended shelf life, often lasting up to 25-30 years in comparison to the 5-7 years typically associated with MREs. This longevity is attributed to the effective removal of moisture in the freeze-drying process, drastically reducing the risk of spoilage and maintaining food safety over longer periods.
  • Lightweight: In comparison to MREs, freeze-dried foods are significantly lighter, primarily due to the removal of water content during the freeze-drying process. This weight difference is particularly advantageous for backpackers, hikers, and survivalists who need to manage their load efficiently during long treks or in situations where every ounce of weight counts.
  • Versatility: Freeze-drying offers the ability to preserve a wider variety of foods compared to the typically more limited selection found in MREs. This diversity means outdoor enthusiasts and preppers can enjoy a broader range of meal options, from fruits and vegetables to complete entrees, thereby avoiding palate fatigue during extended periods of reliance on stored food supplies.
  • Nutrient Retention: The freeze-drying process generally retains more nutrients, flavor, and texture of the original food than the cooking and canning processes used in MREs. This retention is crucial for maintaining a balanced diet, particularly in survival situations where optimal nutrition is paramount.

Check out our selection of freeze-dried survival food to

What are drawbacks of freeze-dried foods?

The drawbacks of freeze-dried foods include costs, dependency on water for rehydration, and availability.

  • Cost: the cost of freeze-drying food is high due to the complex technology required, impacting the price for consumers and making it a more expensive option than other preserved foods like canned goods or traditional dried foods. This cost factor is crucial for those stocking up for long-term emergency preparedness.
  • Water dependency: freeze-dried foods necessitate access to sufficient water for rehydration, a critical consideration in environments where water supply is limited or needs to be conserved. Without rehydration, these foods are hard to consume and might not provide the palatable textures expected.
  • Availability: Freeze-dried foods are not as commonly available in local stores as other forms of preservation, such as dehydrated foods.

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