The September 5th New York Times Sunday Magazine told the compelling story of recent successful efforts to create a nutritional paste that is cheap, easy to produce, and may, to quote the text, “represent the cure to malnourishment around the world.”
Developed by a scientist, implemented by a pediatrician and professor, and ultimately tested by Doctors Without Borders, the paste called “Plumpy’nut” represents what experts have called “an enormous breakthrough” in attempts to deliver calories and nutrients to children who are severely malnourished.
It also tastes quite a bit like cookie dough.
This makes sense on one level. Sugars provide quick, accessible energy. It’s one of the reasons they were widely regarded as important “health” foods in the early twentieth century United States. Some of the leading experts of American nutrition, in fact, recommended sugar as especially important for the working poor.
And this was true, for a while. Sugar is an easy source of energy, and in small doses does not seem to be particularly bad for us (unless we have diabetes). The problem, at least for Americans, came when those doses were no longer small. With the rise of the industrial food system and the carbonated beverage market, sweet calories proliferated. We are now dealing with what some call an “obesity epidemic.” We live in a society where soda is cheaper, and often more accessible, than water.
One can only extrapolate so far from the context of the working poor, a century ago, and starving children in other parts of the world today. Yet there may be, in this history, a cautionary tale for those who are rightfully celebrating the arrival and massive distribution of Plumpy’nut.
The lessons we teach children today impact their food choices tomorrow. We now know that taste matters–that the sweet palate we have created over the last century–with the help of our industrial food supply–makes it difficult for consumers to make choices that are not loaded with calories we do not need.
Plumpy’nut should be applauded for providing quick calories and emergency nutrition to children at risk across the globe. But if it is doing this by simultaneously sweetening their palates, its creators would do well to consider a formula readjustment. With companies like Nestle at the forefront of emergency nutrition provisions, it may not be too far fetched to imagine this sweet, yummy brown goo preparing these children ultimately for unhealthful desires.