Guatemala's nutrition lottery

Protein shakes doled out 35 years ago pay economic dividends down the line. Somewhere, Adam Smith is pleased


Andrew Leonard
January 26, 2008 4:36AM (UTC)

Between 1969 and 1977 residents of four villages in eastern Guatemala participated in a strange lottery. Twice a day, in mid-morning and mid-afternoon, villagers were provided free drinks. But in two of the villages, the participants gulped down a fortified protein shake version of the local hot gruel known as atole. In the other two villages they were given fresco, a drink free of protein supplements. Everyone in the village was allowed to participate but detailed records were only kept for pregnant women and children under seven.

"The main purpose of the initial study was to assess the effect of improving protein intake on the mental development of preschool children," wrote the authors of one summary of results from the study. But the eventual goals of a series of follow up studies became much more ambitious. Researchers are now hoping to understand what role proper nutrition at an early age plays in the development of "human capital" and in the potency of humans as economic actors.

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Next week, The Lancet will publish a report revealing the latest round of research findings from the Guatemala study. An e-mail sent out on Friday publicizing the piece claims that "The research provides new and compelling evidence that the first two years of life are the window of opportunity when nutrition programs have an enormous impact on a child's development, with life-long benefits, including economic returns to individuals and societies." If you were one of the lucky ones who drank the atole protein shake, cha-ching! But if you were one of the poor suckers who just got the fresco, well, too bad.

Is there something spooky about the thought of those biomedical researchers in Guatemala bestowing the gift of economic vitality with one cup of nectar while denying it to others? Talk about your random social engineering! And given the intense reader reaction both at Salon and at Megan McArdle's Asymmetric Information blog today on the topic of food stamps, the lessons for the proper role of government in manipulating the popular diet take on a special resonance. Give those kids a good nutritional head start and they'll become great workers!

In their assessment of the preliminary findings of the Guatemalan nutritional study the authors noted that it was rare to find biomedical researchers and economists collaborating on the same research effort. But they drew inspiration from one of the great fonts of all economic theory.

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Adam Smith, the noted political economist of the 18th century, believed that the ultimate source of a nation's wealth is the quality of its labor force and that the achievement of an "abundance of the necessities of life," made possible by the "the liberal reward of labor" (i.e., adequate wages) is both an indicator of national economic development as well as an engine for further growth. Interestingly, Smith attacked a prevailing notion in his time that hunger, poor health, and economic necessity make workers more industrious out of sheer desperation. He proposed the contrary, that poor health and malnutrition lower the productivity of workers. He wrote: "…that men in general should work better when they are ill fed than when they are well fed, when they are disheartened than when they are in good spirits, when they are frequently sick than when they are generally in good health, seems not very probable."

Makes the original invisible hand man sound like kind of a modern liberal, doesn't it?


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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