Ever wonder why you can buy frozen pizza that stays “fresh” for five-plus months? Thank the U.S. military, which has outsize influence on the contents of our modern-day grocery carts, writes Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. For decades, it has worked to perfect meals that are ready for combat–meaning they won’t go bad, even in extreme conditions. That has yielded many civilian-friendly (though not always healthy) advancements that trickle down to companies like Nabisco and General Mills–everything from preservatives that stop bread from going stale to the reconstituted meat in, say, the McDonald’s McRib. During WW II, the military even worked with the USDA to pioneer a method for “dehydrating” cheese. It’s now used to make one of America’s most popular snack foods, the Cheeto.
This appears in the August 17, 2015 issue of TIME.