The miracle peanut butter

October 30, 2011

Laura Stone, Staff Reporter

It’s got a cutesy name — or a dirty one, depending on where your mind is — that serves a very serious purpose. Plumpy’nut is a packet of goo that has become critical in helping groups such as UNICEF Canada treat severely malnourished children. This fall, the United Nations warned that 750,000 people could die in East Africa’s worst drought in 60 years. More than 70,000 have died already, more than half of those children. “It’s a game-changer,” said Paul Molinaro, senior manager at UNICEF supply division in Denmark.

What it is: A high-calorie peanut paste mixed with vegetable fat, dry skimmed milk, sugar and cocoa, which gives it a slightly chalky hue. It comes in a 92-gram foil packet and has a cookie-dough consistency with a sweet, dense taste (which for the record isn’t half bad). But the magic of Plumpy’nut isn’t the flavour but the secret — patented — mix of vitamins and minerals.

What does it help: Helps nourish children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. A series of medical studies support the claim on the patent-holder’s website: a seven-kilogram child suffering from severe acute malnutrition would hit his standard target weight by eating 2.8 packets of Plumpy’nut a day for eight weeks. While products like dried milk serve a similar purpose, they require clean water, which isn’t always available. Plumpy’nut was a breakthrough for several reasons: it doesn’t require cooking or refrigeration, it keeps for up to two years and, most importantly, it can be eaten at home, freeing health-care professionals and beds at cramped field hospitals.

Who invented it: A team of researchers from France, including pediatrician Andre Briend, wanted to find a simple, efficient way to help starving children. Legend has it Briend was inspired by the hazelnut spread Nutella. Plumpy’nut was developed in 1996 and was officially launched at a trial in Niger in 2005.

Who makes it: Plumpy’nut is patented in 38 countries by Nutriset, a Normandy-based company. Nutriset partners with 11 companies around the world to distribute “ready-to-use therapeutic foods” (RUTF), which many not be called Plumpy’nut but have the same ingredients and pay a portion to Nutriset. Affiliates, most in West Africa, grind their own peanuts and distribute the product locally. Since 2005, shipment from France has risen from 125 tonnes to an estimated 13,500 tonnes in 2010.

Who uses it: Buyers include governments and aid agencies in countries such as Niger, Malawi and Ethiopia. UNICEF Canada recently mounted a fundraising campaign to send Plumpy’nut to the Horn of Africa, particularly Somalia, where an estimated 35,000 malnourished children visit feeding centres each month. Canadians can buy 21 packets of Plumpy’nut for $10 as part of Unicef Canada’s Survival Gifts campaign.

Controversy: Just as with the patented antiretroviral medicines for treating HIV in Africa, some experts claim Nutriset is turning a life-saving product into an exclusive industry. “We are always very concerned when there is a monopoly on technologies that save lives,” said Robert Fox, executive director of Oxfam Canada. The palm-sized silver packet of peanut goo has become, for some, a symbol. “It’s a problem,” said Stephane Doyon, nutrition team leader at Doctors Without Borders in France. Doyon said the patent could prevent innovation because Nutriset ultimately owns the rights. “At the end of the day, your work is patented and serves the interest of a company.”

Cost: It costs about $35 to feed a severely malnourished child on Plumpy’nut for four weeks. According to Nutriset, it can take six to 10 weeks to bring a severely malnourished child back from the brink of starvation. Nutriset sold $95 million euros worth of Plumpy’nut last year, pocketing about 7 per cent of the profit, or almost $7 million, said Adeline Lescanne, deputy general manager at Nutriset. It’s a deal-maker, too: a few weeks ago, the U.S. Agency for International Development announced a $4.4 million (U.S.) deal with three American firms to sell RUTF. Only one of those is associated with Nutriset.

What's in a name: The paste was named in a brainstorming session by French-speaking employees who may not have understood how quickly the quirky name would catch on. (Even at the United Nations several weeks ago, where representatives from Plumpy’nut’s American franchise, Elysia, were in attendance, the name apparently elicited amused curiosity on Twitter.)

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