by Marion Nestle
Sep 3 2010

The Plumpy’nut furor: International food politics in action

The New York Times Magazine has a long article this week about Plumpy’nut,  the peanut butter-based product designed to feed malnourished kids in emergency situations.  The product is made and patented by Nutriset, a French company.

You might think that a food product aimed at saving the lives of starving kids would be uncontroversial, but not when patents are involved.  Nutriset holds intellectual property rights to this product and defends them to the hilt.   The company extends its patent to line extensions of the product, as well.

Patents mean that people in developing countries who want to produce their own product based on local ingredients can’t do it.  It also means that anyone making the product has to follow the formula, even if ingredients are expensive and not locally available.

In September 2007, I wrote about Plumpy’nut, describing how peanut butter had become the basis of a “ready-to-use therapeutic food” (RUTF) for aiding recovery of severely malnourished children in Africa.

The study itself is published in Maternal and Child Nutrition and the authors make the point that people administering this RUTF do not need to be medically trained so this therapy can be used at home. I’m always amazed when researchers discover that feeding malnourished children helps them to recover. Peanut butter is highly concentrated in calories and the investigators mixed in some vitamins along with it, so I guess it can be considered a superfood.

Since then, much has been written about the controversy over this product, particularly about its formula, cost, and sustainability.

Its formula includes:

  • Peanut Butter
  • Dry Skim Milk
  • Vegetable oil
  • Powdered sugar
  • Minerals & vitamins

It contains about 500 calories in a 92-gram foil package.

Of these calories, one-quarter to one-third are from the added sugar.  No wonder kids like it!

What about its cost? A recent article about local production of Plumpy’ nut in Niger illustrates this particular problem.

UNICEF pays US$60 to purchase and ship a box of 150 packets from the main producer and patent holder of Plumpy’nut, Nutriset, in France. It costs $65 in Niger. The difference adds up to an extra $15,000 for the 3,000 boxes purchased in Niamey every week.

“The luxury of having no production delays and not fully depending on an external provider is a price we are willing to pay,” UNICEF’s nutrition manager, Eric-Alain Ategbo, told IRIN. Ategbo said it took at least eight weeks for the nutritious peanut butter-like paste to arrive from France.

Here are some other cost concerns:

Electricity is expensive, taxes are high and money is expensive as interest rates are high. It would be cheaper if the products we use were bought locally, but they are not available.  Peanuts are the only ingredient from Niger. Others, such as milk, sugar and oil, are purchased internationally. We also have the obligation to buy specific products [such as micronutrients and packaging] from Nutriset in order to respect the formula.

As for its sustainability:

  • Who is going to pay for these products?  And for how long?
  • Does it make sense to promote a peanut-based product in countries that do not grow peanuts?
  • Is it a good idea to give packaged, sweetened products to kids whose families cannot continue to provide such things once the crisis is over?
  • Is it a good idea to give kids the idea that sweet things in packages are what they supposed to eat?
  • Will products like this pave the way for other sweetened products in packages—soft drinks, for example?

These are all complicated issues.  Read the article and ponder.

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  • http://www.hetn.org HETN

    Plumpy’nut is promoted and marketed across Africa as a major breakthrough in the fight against malnutrition.

    Based on peanut butter, milk powder and sugar, it was designed to be used for a maximum of 2 to 3 weeks in cases of severe acute malnutrition. This may be appropriate, but is not the reality on the ground, and therein lies the problem.

    For ongoing supplementary feeding, it is HETN’s contention that:

    – The high level of protein in Plumpy’nut is not appropriate.
    – The milk powder base can cause diarrhoea in the many who have lactase deficiency.
    – The high levels of oil and refined sugar (30%) are inappropriate and would make such a product unacceptable for children in the UK.
    – The high cost of the components makes it unaffordable, and therefore unsustainable in the African context, without donor funding.
    – Plumpy’nut uses a micronutrient cocktail of chemical isolates. These are not effectively absorbed, and have little impact in addressing the nutritional needs of the malnourished. For example:

    – The recommended daily intake of Plumpy’nut contains 13mg of inorganic iron with a bio-availability of about 0.26mg (2%).
    – Where inorganic iron is combined with inorganic zinc, some 60% of the iron is blocked. This further reduces the absorbed iron to about 0.1mg.
    – A healthy child requires 1mg per day of absorbed iron and, if malnourished or sick, could need 2mg.
    – So, how could Plumpy’nut ever address iron deficiency in a child when it delivers less than 10% of a child’s daily needs?

    So, far from being a miracle food, HETN does not agree with WHO, UNICEF and MSF that Plumpy’nut is a suitable nutritional supplement for children with moderate malnutrition. The product is high in fat, protein and sugar, and the added vitamins and minerals have low bio-availability. Plumpy’nut may increase Body Mass Index, but this is not a useful measure of nutritional status.

    People everywhere, malnourished or not, need a diet that is based on whole grains.

    – It should be low in fat and sugar.
    – It should contain all the vitamins and minerals that would ideally be sourced from fruit and vegetables in a form that is bio-available.

    See http://bit.ly/A63WE

  • Cyn

    It seems outrageous that a recipe for what is pretty much a peanut butter cookie dough (minus egg) with the addition of a nutritional supplement can be patented. I thought that recipe ingredients couldn’t be copyrighted or patented.

    Thanks for posting this. I had seen the “60 Minutes” segment about Plumpy’nut a while ago, but I didn’t know until now that a greedy company was trying to patent enriched peanut butter/cookie dough so that it could maximize profits off of starving people or that it was trying to grow that product into related product lines to try to hook poor communities (and the aid agencies) on its stuff indefinitely.

    PS – I have no problem with the sugar or fat content for an emergency nutritional supplement such as Plumpy’nut. After all, if it’s a choice of either death or sugar, I think sugar is the lesser short-term evil. And I doubt that the fat content of a daily packet of nut butter for a month or so raises the total fat intake of a starving child to critical levels. A human body needs SOME fat. It’s not as though starving children are already eating too many rib eyes.

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  • http://jipende.com Mary Materu

    I do not mind something like this being used to treat severe malnutrition when needed. My greatest worry is using is to prevent malnutrition and marketing it to the poor families instead of promoting the usual food/ normal food. This will result in more deaths because the little resources available will be used to buy this stuff which is not a balanced food!!
    I am from Tanzania

  • http://www.shapethenoise.com Nani Mathews

    I have found even more info about the way Plumpy Nut effects world markets and the American corporate interest in that.
    http://shapethenoise.com/?p=43

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  • Fenton bevan

    Hi there. I think people need to look into the truth about whole grains. They cause leaky gut and are not processed by the human body correctly and there use actually inhibits the uptake on bio available vitamins and nutrients.
    I also agree that plumpy nut is a disgrace.
    The product and the underhanded patenting and the greed behind it smacks of the vaccine industry.
    I’m positive that in the future this product will be found to be detrimental.
    What is it with big charities and eugenics.