The National Institute for Nutrition in Vietnam is hoping a new locally produced food to treat malnutrition will offer a regional alternative to the peanut-paste treatment known as Plumpy’Nut that is widely used in sub-Saharan Africa.
Until recently there was no formally marketed, nationally distributed “therapeutic” foodstuff to treat malnutrition in Vietnam, and a 2009 study in neighbouring Cambodia revealed that Plumpy’Nut did not appeal to local tastes.
“It’s [Plumpy’Nut] a paste eaten straight from a package, which is not normally something… eaten in Vietnam or Cambodia,” said Frank Wieringa a senior researcher at the Research Institute for Development (IRD), based at the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) in Vietnam.
“Health workers didn’t like it, mothers didn’t like it - it was not just the taste but the whole form of the paste and cultural acceptance.”
NIN and IRD, with support from UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), have developed a treatment for malnutrition in Vietnam made from mung beans rather than peanuts, and looks and tastes like traditional bean cakes.
Malnutrition affects 780,000 children in Vietnam annually, 210,000 of whom are severely malnourished, according to UNICEF. An additional 2.1 million children younger than five years are “stunted”, or shorter than the average height for their age, either because they did not get enough food, or the food was not nutritious enough, during their early years.
As part of a broader programme to fight malnutrition, the mung bean product was introduced in 2011 in the central Vietnamese province of Kon Tum, where the rate of stunting was 9.2 percent in 2010, the highest level recorded nationwide.
“I fed it to my three-year-old son for five days and he put on nearly one kilogramme,” said Y Khi, 34, from the Ro Ngao ethnic minority group in the mountainous Central Highlands. Y Khi grows rice and cassava to make a living, and says she struggles to feed her seven children.
Known locally as “hebi”, the mung bean cakes are popular with some children, she said, but not others.
“They first gave me 10 packages for my youngest daughter, who is 13 months old, but she couldn’t eat it because she didn’t like the taste,” Y Khi said, speaking via telephone from a health centre in the Dak La commune in the highlands.
“I am trying to give my daughter milk to prevent her from becoming more malnourished, but it’s difficult to buy milk. It’s difficult to give babies hebi, but for children who can eat it, it’s very good.”
Both institutes are developing another product with fewer micronutrients and calories to treat moderate malnutrition at a lower cost, and plans to supply both products to other countries in the region on a non-profit basis.
“The Philippines [is] very interested in this product, Cambodia as well,” Wieringa said, noting that countries eventually need to produce their own therapeutic foods. “I think that countries would like to change the taste and texture a bit, depending on local preference.”
Whether to manufacture or import would be determined by need. Importing therapeutic foods can be expensive due to customs paperwork, fees and storage, said Huynh Nam Phuong from the NIN.
“It depends on how big the problem of malnutrition is, the capacity of health, nutrition and food production [systems], and the culture.”