Even as he pondered the potential uses of the peanut, famed Tuskegee Institute researcher George Washington Carver probably never imagined that this legume crop ultimately could help eradicate world hunger as we know it.
A fortified peanut product quaintly named Plumpy'nut appears to be doing just that in one of the most severely malnourished countries in the world — Niger, where the sight of sagging flesh on skeletal bodies is as common as the sand dunes for which this landlocked Sub-Saharan country is famous.
Plumpy'nut, a pasty substance encased in a silvery foil wrapper, packs a powerful nutritional wallop — 500 calories of peanut butter enhanced with milk, vitamins and minerals — for developing world toddlers, who tend to be the most vulnerable to the effects of malnutrition.
At Auburn University, Robert Keith, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System health and nutrition specialist and professor of nutrition and food science, describes Plumpy'nut as a sort of developing world energy bar, designed to provide toddlers in deprived nations with the nutrition they typically lack.
Malnutrition is manifested in many different ways, Keith says, though the most typical form is associated with protein/calorie malnutrition, sometimes described as protein/energy malnutrition.
“These kids simply are not getting enough protein and they're not getting enough calories from anywhere,” he says.
That's precisely what nutritionists with Doctors without Borders had in mind when they developed Plumpy'nut
“The thing about this supplement is that it addresses both of those problems, by including peanut paste and powdered milk,” Keith says.
Together these provide high-quality protein, precisely what a malnourished child needs to survive, he says.
“It solves the protein side of protein-calorie malnutrition, and the fact that it's high in fat and high in sugar addresses the calorie issue.”
Mothers are advised to give each baby at least two packets of Plumpy'nut each day.
Doctors have been astonished with the results: Badly malnourished children undergo a miraculous physical transformation in no time, gaining up to two pounds a week eating the product.
“This product, it's beyond opinion — it's documented, it's scientific fact,” says Dr. Milton Tectonidis, a Paris-based nutrition specialist with Doctors without Borders, who was quoted in 2005 by the New York Times.
Equally encouraging, he says, is that the product enables these children to be treated as outpatients instead of being hospitalized to receive fortified milk.
Before the advent of Plumpy'nut, children, following hospitalization, typically were sent home with powdered milk formula to complete their recovery — an expensive proposition in terms of the cost of the milk coupled with the fact that milk is susceptible to spoilage.
Additionally, dirty water sometimes mixed with the milk often brought on more sickness, complicating the children's trek toward a speedy recovery.
But thanks to its packaging and long shelf life, Plumpy'nut solves this problem, requiring neither refrigeration nor preparation before consumption.
Its sweet taste also carries advantages.
“It's very sweet, so kids in Niger are going to eat it just as American kids would,” Keith says, adding that while sugar isn't necessarily good for young kids, it can be used effectively to entice children to eat nutritious foods.
Keith is not surprised developers settled on peanuts, a common ingredient in energy bars, and milk as two of the principal components of the product.
“Beside protein, peanuts contain essential fats, while powered milk has all kinds of vitamins and minerals, including calcium,” he says.
“All around, it's a good product.”
Another virtue associated with Plumpy'nut is that it can be made virtually anywhere with local materials. Versions of the same product are being manufactured in Niger's capital, Niamey, and in the southern African nation of Malawi.