In the summer of 2010, after a monsoon flooded 20% of the country and displaced millions of its population, Pakistan found itself in a crisis that first-world nations across the planet might themselves confront in the coming decades (and which Nepal is now facing as well): no water and no food for the many, not just the marginalized.
It was a worst-case scenario. Malnourishment among displaced children skyrocketed, but a quick solution came in the form of a curiously named paste made out of chickpeas.
Wawa Mum is the brainchild of the World Food Programme, which scrambled to create nutritious, tasty, and sustainable meal replacement products using local resources and facilities. One ton of Wawa Mum can feed 20,000 kids. A 50-gram serving, which costs cents on the dollar, supplies a day’s worth of protein, vitamins, and minerals. And, in what is arguably the strongest selling point, it doesn’t require any water to mix.
The name—translated from the Pashto meaning “Good food, Mom!”—came from actual children after they tasted it, making for the highest-stakes focus group in the history of marketing.
Five years later, production continues apace. Pakistani factories process Wawa Mum using a minimalist recipe. Similar operations exist in Afghanistan, India, and other South Asian countries.
This isn’t the WFP’s first incremental victory over hunger. In Africa, they came up with the “RUF” (ready-to-use food) Plumpy’nut, a kind of super peanut butter designed to bolster a deficient daily diet. In other food supply emergencies, they’ve deployed FBFs (fortified blended foods), HEBs (high-energy biscuits), CFBs (compressed food bars), and even micronutrient powder “sprinkles.”
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These Special Nutritional Products, as the WFP calls them, along with meal replacement products in the private sector, are direct descendants of MREs (meals ready to eat).
Disaster aid in developing countries, field rations for armies, space chow for astronauts, and underground stockpiles for apocalypse fetishists have begotten shakes, powders, and bars for bustling professionals, harried parents, and fitness athletes.
The modern desire for quick, clean, and complete food is growing. The meal replacement industry finds itself at a sweet spot where consumer demand is colliding with the capacity for global change. Once reserved for the infirm or the super-firm, meal replacement products are now a $3 billion business with a 6% average annual growth rate in the United States alone, according to research firm IBISWorld.
There are plenty of critics of the trend toward “efficient eating” that lament the loss of food’s communal power—the spirit of place, the nostalgia, the romance—and they undoubtedly have a point. But they are also neglecting to recognize the potential for a new kind of communal power.
For some, meal replacement products are nothing more than a lifestyle choice; for others, though, they might mean survival.
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By 2050, nine billion people will be living on Earth. A quarter of them won’t have access to food that satisfies their basic nutritional needs.
Frustratingly, the food supply will be insecure, even though it shouldn’t be; we waste around 40% annually of what we already have, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. Today, the United Nations reports, 12 plants provide for three-quarters of the world’s food (rice, wheat, and corn for half of it), and four companies—including Tyson and Cargill—control 80% of the beef market, research from the University of Missouri shows.
It’s time to diversify our options. Do some of meal replacement products defeat their own purpose with complex ingredient lists full of artificial sweeteners and chemical isolates? Of course. Can a protein bar save civilization? No way.
But at Exo, we don’t want you to sacrifice taste, quality, and sustenance. Far from it. With Exo protein bars, we’re giving you a shortcut to the future of food. Will you take it?