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Emergency Foods for Populations in Need

Published on

28 August 2018

Conflicts, natural disasters and epidemics create nutritional emergencies that can be difficult to solve. Droughts and flooding can ruin crops, leading to acute food shortages. Wars and natural disasters such as earthquakes and floods destroy infrastructure such as roads and bridges, making it difficult to get food where it is needed. Armed conflicts or political upheaval leads to population displacement, cutting off many people from their land and livelihoods. Infectious disease epidemics can affect the working population, creating acute labor shortages and leading to a loss of income for affected households. Access to nutrient-rich food is crucial to people affected by conflicts and disasters [1]. Humanitarian organizations such as the World Food Programme have developed specialized foods to assist people affected by nutritional emergencies. What are these foods, and how are they used? 

Emergency foods 

In the first days after a disaster occurs, there is an urgent need to provide people with enough calories, protein and micronutrients for them to sustain their health. Particularly in the early stages, the foods provided must be ready to eat, without the need for cooking. The foods are generally designed to be eaten during the first two weeks after the disaster has occurred [2]. While the emergency food can be any type of food as long as it is safe to consume, reasonably palatable, portable and nutritious [2], it is often a biscuit due to the long shelf life and low water content, making them easy to transport and keep in reserve.  

Relief organizations such as the World Food Programme and UNICEF use high-energy biscuits as emergency foods [3,4]. These biscuits are designed to be a palatable and to contain enough nutrients for survival for up to 15 days. Another example of an emergency food is BP-5™, a bar that can be airdropped from a height of 200 meters and has a long shelf life of at least five years, and also contains all the macro- and micronutrients necessary to sustain people in emergencies [5].  

Food assistance 

Emergency foods are only designed to be used in situations where cooking is not possible, directly after a disaster has occurred. Ideally, the situation should be stabilized within a couple of weeks to allow people to cook for themselves, even if they still need to be provided with food and supplies to do this. Food assistance, such as the World Food Programme Food Basket, is tailored to the local situation and can either entirely meet food needs or be supplementary when food is scarce but still available [3]. The food basket generally contains a starchy staple like rice or a cereal flour, a protein source in the form of a pulse, fortified vegetable oil, sugar, salt, and a supplementary ration to help people meet vitamin and mineral requirements. Relief organizations aim to use local foods to avoid putting local farmers out of business. Foods should be similar to what the population is used to eating and be culturally sensitive to ensure that they will be eaten. The addition of fresh produce to food assistance should be encouraged in areas where farming or market activity is possible, to improve the diversity and nutritional value of the diet. 

Ready-to-use therapeutic foods 

The most vulnerable people in disaster situations are those with special nutrient needs. These include infants, toddlers, and pregnant women, as well as the elderly and the sick. Ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTFs) can mean the difference between life and death for these individuals. These specially designed foods are generally in the form of a sweet paste with a base of peanuts or other legumes: they are provided as a single serve, they need no special preparation and are formulated to help people with the most severe type of malnutrition to put on weight quickly and safely. A key feature of RUTFs is that they are highly palatable.  

Under medical supervision, RUTFs can be used at home in patients with an appetite to provide all the nutrients needed for recovery [6]. They are only intended to be used until patients have made a nutritional recovery, for example patients have regained sufficient weight and no longer have the characteristic swelling found in people with severe, acute malnutrition.  

The most well-known product is Plumpy’Nut, a peanut and milk powder paste that is fortified with vitamins and minerals and is suitable for children from the age of 6 months [7]. However, other RUTFs that have a similar nutritional value but contain other protein sources with a more neutral taste, lower risk of allergy and lower cost, such as chick peas, can also be used to treat severe malnutrition [8,9].  

The future of emergency and ready-to-use therapeutic foods 

Food aid in disasters and emergencies is essential to help save lives. However, these crisis situations occur as a direct or indirect result of actions from humans. Some key issues on a global scale that cause disasters are: climate change, corrupt governments, poor management of natural resources, poverty and a lack of education. Addressing these problems with humanity is essential to reduce the number of people in need of food aid.  

On the other hand, major international aid organizations such as the World Food Programme are facing funding shortfalls at the moment that reduce their ability to provide for the world’s most vulnerable [10]. This has led to reductions in the amount of food aid that is given to the most vulnerable populations. If you have come this far reading this article, consider making a donation or volunteering to help with a charity that provides emergency or ready-to-use therapeutic foods to people in vulnerable populations.  


  1. The Johns Hopkins and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Food security and nutrition in emergencies. In Public health guide for emergencies, 2008.
  2. Institute of Medicine. High-Energy, Nutrient-Dense Emergency Relief Food Product. The National Academies Press: Washington, DC, 2002; p 156.
  3. Altman, M. A Food Basket That Fights Global Hunger. Medium May 20, 2016.
  4. Fleet, A. High Energy Biscuits; 2017; https://www.unicef.org/supply/files/High_Energy_Biscuit_UNICEF_PRODUCT_SPECIFICATION_21.03.2017.pdf.
  5. GC Rieber. BP-5™ Compact Food Product Description. 2018.
  6. UNICEF. READY-TO-USE THERAPEUTIC FOOD FOR CHILDREN WITH SEVERE ACUTE MALNUTRITION; 2013; https://www.unicef.org/media/files/Position_Paper_Ready-to-use_therapeutic_food_for_children_with_severe_acute_malnutrition__June_2013.pdf.
  7. Nackers, F.; Broillet, F.; Oumarou, D.; Djibo, A.; Gaboulaud, V.; Guerin, P.J.; Rusch, B.; Grais, R.F.; Captier, V. Effectiveness of ready-to-use therapeutic food compared to a corn/soy-blend-based pre-mix for the treatment of childhood moderate acute malnutrition in Niger. J Trop Pediatr 2010, 56, 407-413. 10.1093/tropej/fmq019.
  8. Choudhury, N.; Ahmed, T.; Hossain, M.I.; Islam, M.M.; Sarker, S.A.; Zeilani, M.; Clemens, J.D. Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food Made From Locally Available Food Ingredients Is Well Accepted by Children Having Severe Acute Malnutrition in Bangladesh. Food Nutr Bull 2018, 39, 116-126. 10.1177/0379572117743929.
  9. Nga, T.T.; Nguyen, M.; Mathisen, R.; Hoa do, T.B.; Minh, N.H.; Berger, J.; Wieringa, F.T. Acceptability and impact on anthropometry of a locally developed ready-to-use therapeutic food in pre-school children in Vietnam. Nutr J 2013, 12, 120. 10.1186/1475-2891-12-120.
  10. Schemm, P. A widening budget gap is 8orcing the U.N. to slash food aid to refugees. The Huffington Post January 1, 2017.

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