Saturday, April 19, 2008

Food Technology: Plumpynut

An extremely malnourished child is fed PlumpyNut (source: CBS 60 mins)

Once in a moment of desperation, I was trying to figure out how to become rich in the developing world - help people and get rich at the same time. So I got together a group of international development folks from different backgrounds and they all agreed that the best way was to start a Plumpy'Nut factory in Africa. The only problem is that Plumpy'Nut is patented and I don't have their formula. And I think my riches would be gone if I stole their recipe and they sued me.

Plumpy'nut has revolutionized malnutrition management in the developing world. Like ORS (Oral Rehydration Salts) it has brought people back almost from the brink of death. Considering the food crisis and the topic of the day, I thought I'd just highlight this technology.

Technology Name: PLUMPY'NUT

Plumpy'Nut is a high nutrition paste that combines fortified peanut butter, milk, and vegetable oils in a foil packet.

Plumpy'Nut Specs:
Inventor: Michel Lascanne and Andre Briend, Food Scientists and Nutritionists
HQ: Nutriset (founded by Lascanne)
Year of invention: 1997
Franchisees: 4 (Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger, Ethiopia, with one set to open soon in the Dominican Republic)
Calories per packet: 500 kCal (usually 1 packet = 1 meal)
Cost per packet: $5

My review:
I heard about Plumpy'Nut from aid worker colleagues when I was taking nutrition classes a year ago. I was so fascinated by the product that I went straight back and did a bunch of research on it. Then CBS 60 Minutes and Anderson Cooper did a whole thing on it and that got the world talking. I recommend watching it.

The good:
Plumpy'Nut does not require dilution and can be eaten as is. This is really critical, because for a long time powdered mixes didn't work because clean water in disaster zones could never be guaranteed. Plumpy'Nut takes that major concern away. It can also be used by babies from 6 months up (most babies cannot have food other than milk before).

Plumpy'Nut is amazing and a lifesaver. I can't say more.

The what:
The main complaint from aid workers is the cost. US$5 per meal may not seem like much to you and me, but in a country where an entire family can eat sumptuously on that money, it seems ridiculous. After all, milk, peanuts and oil are ubiquitous in Africa and should be able to be combined locally to make this product. So why is it so expensive??

Well, Plumpy'Nut is patented and they won't sell their formula to anyone. You can only buy the product from one of their franchisees, and the only people who can afford it are the aid agencies and the military.

Lascanne insists that he is not profiting from the sales of Plumpy'Nut, only fueling the money back into R&D (Research and Development) of other products and for salaries. They won't reveal how high salaries are. I believe him, but I also think there needs to be a way around this cost (atleast its not $90 for a plastic drum, like with Hippo Roller!). Maybe the WHO can subsidize Nutriset's R&D and operating costs, and let the products be priced at cost, so that more people can access and afford it (rather than having to come to a refugee camp or aid clinic).

I must say that it is testament to Lascanne that no one has taken the sample and studied it to come up with their own competitive formula (I'm sure any food scientist could do this).

Variations I would suggest:
None. But the cost is a very frustrating component. Maybe competition would be good in this field.

Other reviews/information:
The official Plumpynut Page
Wikipedia: Plumpynut

Nutriset's page
CBS 60 mins: PlumpyNut
There were quite a few articles from 2005 that were excellent but that I can't find links online to. If I could upload a pdf here, this would help!
Thurow, R. (2005), In Battling Hunger, A New Advance: Peanut-Butter Paste. 12 April 2005,
The Wall Street Journal.


A said...

A couple of things that might interest you:


2) I collaborated with NutriSet at my last job, and their defense of patenting was basically that they needed to control the quality of Plumpy'nut when it was produced - they use it to license production, not make tons of money. They actually send consultants to help NGOs set up Plumpy'nut factories and do not to my knowledge take royalties.

pragzz said...

Wow, thanks for shedding light on that. Insightful and informative!

I'd also like to know your thoughts on the cost and whether its possible to find a way to mitigate it, while making Plumpy'Nut more scalable. I wish it was as ubiquitous as coca cola in the malnourished areas...

A said...

One thing NutriSet was doing was looking at other RUTF products. You don't need Plumpy'nut in every situation. It's for very malnourished children, and intended to replace F100. Children in less serious states can have other, cheaper kinds of supplemental foods. I remember there is one that is based on a cheaper protein source that tastes exactly like a peanut butter cup. - the May 15 2007 project was the one I was part of.