Researchers may have a simple way to help feed thousands of starving children in Africa: peanut butter. In a US professor's study, nearly 3,000 malnourished children were treated with an enriched peanut-butter mixture. Of those, 89 percent of the severely malnourished children and 85 percent of the moderately malnourished children recovered.
The recovery rate for children given standard therapies is less than 50 per cent, researchers said in the study published this summer in Maternal and Child Nutrition.
The mixture made of peanuts, powdered milk, vegetable oil, sugar, vitamins and minerals is distributed through Malawi's health-care system and given to mothers to feed their children at home.
"The peanut-butter feeding has been a quantum leap in feeding malnourished children in Africa. The recovery rates are a remarkable improvement from standard therapy," Dr. Mark Manary, a pediatrics professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said in a statement.
The Peanut Butter Project now produces about 300 tons (272 metric tons) of the food in Malawi each year.
International organizations are advocating similar programs, citing the work of Manary and others. Earlier this year, several suggested that providing specially fortified foods for home use is one step that can help save the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.
At 12 rural health centers, village health aides identified malnourished children based on World Health Organization guidelines. They followed up with the children every other week for up to eight weeks.
Mothers are given a two-week supply of the food and told how much to feed their children. Children can eat other food while receiving the peanut-butter mixture for up to two months.
Manary said the peanut butter mixture keeps well, is convenient and has a high energy density.
Traditionally, children who are severely malnourished are fed a milk-based porridge in hospitals, but they would have to eat roughly 25 spoonfuls of porridge to equal the calorie density in one spoonful of the peanut butter mixture, researchers said.
A community-based approach, where malnutrition without other medical complications is treated with such ready-to-use therapeutic foods, could prevent the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children, said the World Health Organization, World Food Program, UNICEF and a UN committee on nutrition in a joint statement in May. The World Health Organization estimated that nearly 20 million children under the age of 5 suffer from severe acute malnutrition. Most live in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.