By Ewan Robinson
When the issue of global nutrition is mentioned, the first image in many people’s minds – and beside many headlines – is that of an emaciated child clutching a foil pouch containing emergency food aid. Indeed, with the ongoing food crisis in the Sahel following last year’s famine in the Horn of Africa, these images of acute malnutrition have become too familiar. Now notice that ever-present foil pouch: it wasn’t there in images representing food crises 20 years ago.
The image of the foil pouch indicates the rapid rise of a product that today might be an unofficial symbol of emergency relief: the fortified peanut butter paste called Plumpy’nut.
Plumpy’nut is the dominant example of a type of product known as ‘ready-to-use therapeutic foods’. Because these foods are sealed in sterile packaging and do not require adding water, they have allowed acutely malnourished children to be treated without being hospitalised. This increases children’s survival rate and cuts the number of personnel needed to deliver emergency relief.
Today, Plumpy’nut dominates the market for therapeutic foods, making up 90 per cent of UNICEF’s supply (UNICEF is the largest single distributor). But Plumpy’nut has also triggered a controversy: the product is patented by French company Nutriset, which prevents potentially lower cost competitors in developed countries from entering the market. NGOs including Médécins Sans Frontiers have argued that patents should not be allowed on food aid, since they increase costs and reduce the number of people who can be reached (for more details on the Plumpy’nut story, check out this New York Times article from 2010).
From emergency relief products to everyday complementary foods
Yet if the market for therapeutic foods like Plumpy’nut is big, the potential stakes are much larger for the emerging field of processed, nutrient-fortified foods. Therapeutic foods are used to treat acute malnutrition, the kind that reduces children to skin and bones. But hundreds of millions of people are also chronically undernourished. Some are just plain hungry, not getting enough calories. Others suffer from so-called "hidden hunger". They may eat enough calories, but don’t get the vitamins and minerals (micronutrients) that are essential, especially for children’s development.
Alongside therapeutic food products, a range of other processed foods, such as fortified biscuits or nutrient sprinkles, could target these widespread micronutrient deficiencies.
The market for these ‘complementary foods’ (which provide micronutrients but don’t replace people’s normal diet) is potentially huge; around 1 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiencies. While the therapeutic food market is currently worth about 200 million USD, the complementary foods market might someday be worth 5 billion USD (check out this interview with the CEO of Valid Nutrition; scroll down to view a table estimating the size of the markets for processed nutrition foods).
5 billion is big enough that some major multinational agri-food corporations have expressed interest. The world’s largest snack producer PepsiCo is involved in trials.
Where do big agri-food businesses fit into nutritious foods?
The involvement of big businesses has critics. Companies like PepsiCo produce and market sugar- and fat-filled snack foods linked to the obesity crisis that affects 1 billion people, increasingly including people in the developing world (see this analysis of the link between under- and overnutrition). Will nutrient-rich processed foods become a gateway to unhealthy snack foods marketed by the same companies?
Of course, producing food products is only one piece of the puzzle. Much more is needed if we want to make sure people have access to nutritious foods. My next post will look at other key pieces in the puzzle.
Image credit: UNICEF Sweden / Flickr