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Jamais Cascio, 19 Apr 05

plumpy.jpgOne of the big problems with fighting malnutrition in refugee camps and areas of extreme poverty is that the standard foods used for treating malnutrition -- powdered milk formulas called F-75 and F-100 -- require mixing with clean water, which is often not in abundant supply. Moreover, in order to make sure they're mixed properly, these powdered milk formulas are usually only administered at hospitals and feeding centers, often requiring miles of travel to reach, and where crowding can lead to the spread of disease. Milk-based products are also prone to bacterial growth. F-75 and F-100 are far better than nothing, and can be enormously beneficial, but this situation clearly calls for a new solution.

Nutriset SAS, a French maker of therapeutic foods, thinks it has that solution: Plumpy'nut (PDF).

Plumpy'nut is a peanut-based paste with the nutrition value of F-100 milk formula. Tasting like a slightly sweeter kind of peanut butter, it's far more palatable than earlier efforts at a food based treatment for malnutrition. Plumpy'nut requires no preparation or mixing -- it can be eaten right from the bag, actually -- and is categorized by WHO as a Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). Because plumpy'nut doesn't require monitored mixing with clean water, it can be distributed directly to affected communities.

Plumpy'nut's first major use was in Darfur, where over 300 metric tons have so far been distributed; as a result, malnutrition rates there have been cut in half. Plumpy'nut was also used in tsunami relief efforts, and in Malawi, "Project Peanut Butter" is making plumpy'nut with local materials:


Mark Manary, a pediatrician at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis established Project Peanut Butter in Malawi, in southern Africa. To reduce costs, it uses local ingredients as well as a mix of vitamins and minerals supplied by Nutriset. Dr. Manary hopes to crank out 150 metric tons a year to treat Malawi's estimated 15,000 severely malnourished children.

Dr. Manary initially used Plumpy'nut he'd received as a donation in 2001. Recovery rates soared to 95% from 25%. "We didn't need a statistician to tell us this was better," he says. "We figured if we wanted to continue, we needed to make it locally."

[...] Despite the competition, Nutriset says it is open to local production. The company is hoping to establish a franchise network of local producers; it would supply its nutritional mix for a fee and offer advice on production and quality.

A simple idea, well-executed, with significantly positive results and opportunities for local empowerment. Plumpy'nut may have an odd name, but it's clearly a worldchanging idea.

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Ooo... is it wrong that I kinda want to try some?

Would it be even more wrong to admit that the thought occured to me that these would make great snacks at the Worldchanging annual meeting in August?

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 19 Apr 05

Only quibble I see is the prevalence of peanut allergies. Be really bad to treat someone for malnutrition only to have them go into anaphalactic shock.

Posted by: gmoke on 19 Apr 05

That would be a concern for its use outside of Africa; peanut allergies are almost unknown in Africa (where the peanut originated).

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 19 Apr 05

I was wondering about allergies, and about simple acceptance. (I'd read that in Afghanistan, the peanut butter from emergency ration packs was fed to donkeys.)

But, from the article:

"In many African countries, the peanut is a staple food and Nutriset found no cases of peanut allergy."

This stuff could be like the sugar / salt solutions used to help dehydrated kids. A drop-dead simple and cheap idea so successful that it's amazing no one thought of it before.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 19 Apr 05

What about spirulina and chlorella? I've heard some good things about them, and some bad. Does anybody know if algae is really viable for treating malnutrition? Algae can be produced cheaply on marginal land that's for sure. Anyone know about this?

Posted by: Matthew Broudy on 19 Apr 05

Here's a radical idea, why don't we use food to treat malnutrition!

Seriously though. My fear is that the ability to airlift bars, which obviously do not constitute a proper diet, will actually decrease the urgency of getting food to the places where it's needed most. I understand how this stuff is useful but my feeling is that it's use is much more limited than we imagine.

On another level I find this whole story somewhat disturbing.

Posted by: Zaid on 19 Apr 05

What do you find disturbing, Zaid?

As for using food instead of this, remember that malnutrition is a medical condition, not just a lack of food. Feeding these kids regular food would make them sick, and probably kill them; F75/F100 or plumpy'nut is designed as a temporary therapeutic food, to bring their bodies back to health. The typical plumpy'nut treatement lasts for no more than 3 weeks -- this is not used as a permanent alternative to real food.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 20 Apr 05

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