Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis are lauding fortified peanut butter as a potential saviour for the world's malnourished children.
The research team has spent several years researching the use of the enriched peanut-butter mixture, called Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), with small groups of malnourished young children in Malawi. Their findings, published in July's Maternal and Child Nutrition, showed an 89 percent recovery rate in severely malnourished children given RUTF at home.
Providing easily accessible aids to curbing severe malnutrition could not only save millions of lives every year but also overcome an initial hurdle in many children's lives that has a far-reaching socio-economic impact.
"Mothers in Malawi know that malnutrition is the single biggest threat to their children's existence," said Dr. Mark Manary, co-author in the study as well as professor of pediatrics and an emergency pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
In developing countries, one in four children - approximately 146 million - are underweight, according to UNICEF figures. Every year, 10.9 million children under the age of five die in the same countries and malnutrition and hunger-related diseases cause 60 percent of these deaths.
The RUTF mixture contains peanuts, powdered milk, oil, sugar, and added vitamins and minerals. For the project, the food was produced in a Malawian factory and donated to the project through funding from UNICEF and the World Food Programme.
As part of the three-year project, village health aides identified severely and moderately malnourished children based on World Health Organization guidelines and then gave the peanut butter to the mothers of those children to give to them at home.
The village aides followed up with the participants every other week for up to eight weeks. Of the 2,131 severely malnourished children treated with the mixture, 89 percent recovered, and of the 806 moderately malnourished children, 85 percent recovered.
"The peanut-butter feeding has been a quantum leap in feeding malnourished children in Africa," said Manary. "The recovery rates are a remarkable improvement from standard therapy."
While the researchers had previously seen positive resulting using the peanut butter for malnutrition, it did not have the opportunity to use it on a large-scale feeding program until recently.
"What's really exciting to me is that we've demonstrated that we can put this research into practice on a large scale, it can benefit tens of thousands of kids, and there are not going to be operational barriers in some very remote settings like sub-Saharan Africa," said Manary.
In 2001, he founded a non-profit organization, the Peanut Butter Project, which produces approximately 300 tons of the RUTF in Malawi each year.
Combating malnutrition through a non-medical method can be important given the lack of on-site medical personnel in many areas. The research team found that the peanut butter feeding program and the involvement of village aides accomplished the task.
The recovery rate for children given standard therapy is less than 50 percent, they said.
The results of the project point to the potential for dietary supplement and functional food companies to get involved in development projects.
NutraCea is one such company that has been leading the way in trying to bring its stabilized rice bran ingredient to such products and projects in developing countries. The manufacturer developed a rice bran technology that provides a rich source of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
The company has been promoting the ingredient as a means of eradicating malnutrition around the world, through the use of what is generally discarded as a waste product.
Linneman, Zachary et al. "A large-scale operational study of home-based therapy with ready-to-use therapeutic food in childhood malnutrition in Malawi." Maternal and Child Nutrition (2007) 3, pp. 206-215.