Saturday, November 24, 2007

Feeding the Hungry

[This image has haunted me since the first time I saw it.]

There was well-intentioned post over at the I-I pod at Zaadz that referenced an online educational game that provides free rice to starving children just for playing the game. Seems like a great idea on the surface.

Except that rice is not the answer.

These were my replies (presented here as one post):

I hate to diss any organization trying to help feed people, but rice is not the answer.

Doctors Without Borders has been advocating and distributing plumpynut (60 Minutes story here), which is a fortified peanut butter with extra vitamins and milk protein. It's literally saving lives that could not have been saved before – best of all, it can be produced locally by the people who need it most.

Because it is so calorie dense, especially when compared to rice, it takes up much less space to store, costs less to make, and can be stored for much longer without fear of it going bad.

This may be the single greatest breakthrough in feeding the hungry, especially malnourished children. Lots of research supports the idea that increased protein and healthy fats in the diets of these children has a powerful impact on intelligence, with as much as a 20 point increase over those who do not get adequate protein and fats.

The body needs fats and proteins (plumpynut), but it does not need carbohydrates (rice) – in the absence of carbs, the body uses protein and fat to produce ketones, a kind of carbohydrate that the body uses to create glycogen (gluconeogenesis).

Peanut allergies seem not to exist in African nations, so there is no issue with possible allergic reactions

The choice seems obvious.

The WHO is getting behind plumpynut, so there is hope for wider adoption.

I think part of the reliance on rice has been due to lobbyists pushing rice, not nutritionists saying rice is best (although nutritionists are notoriously behind the curve on what actually constitutes good nutrition). I know that there were efforts to make rice a staple crop in Africa, but the lack of reliable water made that idea rather misguided from day one. Plus, who wants to use water to grow rice when people are dying from lack of clean water?

Peanuts, however don't need nearly as much water to be a viable crop, not to mention the greater harvest per acre of land.

I grew up thinking that rice was the answer to starvation because that is what I saw on the news so often. But it's BS. To get as much nutrition from rice as a child can get from one bottle of plumpynut would take pounds of rice. And rice has very little protein in comparison, and it's not a complete protein (all ten essential amino acids).

Watch the 60 Minutes story I linked to above -- this stuff is nothing short of a miracle for starving children.

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