Banishing Hunger in a Jiffy: Project Peanut Butter Fights Malnutrition in Malawi

Author:  Mao Frances
Date:  September 2007

In Malawi, a small country in Southeast Africa, thousands of children fight a daily battle against hunger. Now, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis have formulated a new high-calorie, high nutrient content food that is more effective against malnutrition,an enriched peanut butter mixture called Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food' (RUTF). Previously, severely starving children were fed a milk-based porridge in hospitals, while moderately starving children were fed a corn-based porridge at home. Since it takes 25 spoonfuls of porridge to equal the caloric content of one spoonful of enriched RUTF, researchers believe that the administration of RUTF to malnourished children presents an attractive alternative to the standard treatment of porridge.

So what does this cryptically-named substance contain, exactly? Aside from the standard ingredients found in peanut butter (peanuts and oil), RUTF contains powdered milk, sugar, and added vitamins and minerals. The paste is convenient for a number of reasons, including its resistance to bacterial contamination in all weather conditions (due to its low water content), and also because it does not require cooking.

To determine the efficacy of RUTF as a treatment for malnutrition, a pilot study was initiated in which RUTF was distributed through 12 rural health centers in southern Malawi, where health aides selected the most severely malnourished children to receive treatment. Then, the aides made follow-up visits to the children every other week, over a total period of eight weeks. The end result was astonishing: of the 2,131 severely malnourished children that were treated with RUTF at home, 89 percent made a full recovery. The rate of success was similar for the 806 moderately malnourished children, in which 85 percent was reported to have made a full recovery.

"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," says Dr. Mark Manary, professor of pediatrics and emergency pediatrician at St. Louis Children's Hospital, and head of the project. "Mothers in Malawi know that malnutrition is the single biggest threat to their children's existence." With an increase in the manufacture and distribution of RUTF, it seems that we may now drastically reduce the number of starving children around the world.

Author: Frances Mao

Reviewed by: Andrew Wang

Published by: Konrad Sawicki