The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Project Peanut Butter

Project Peanut Butter

In the News

November 26, 2013

A delicious staple found in most American households, Peanut Butter is a popular pantry item filled with heart healthy fats, protein, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. According to the National Peanut Board, Americans consume on average over 1.5 billion pounds of peanut butter and peanut products each year. That’s why it’s so hard to believe that something so basic and common in American homes could be a literal lifeline for children in Africa. But that’s exactly what peanut butter has become for them.

Project Peanut Butter (PPB) is a non-profit organization focused on treating severely malnourished children in sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. Founded in 2004 by Dr. Mark Manary, a professor at Washington University Medical School, PPB uses effective, ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) to bring children back from the brink, with the goal of eventually eradicating severe acute malnutrition (SAM). SAM is the greatest contributor to child mortality in the world today and is almost exclusively found in very poor circumstances where refrigeration is not available. 

Manary says that the genesis of the project was simple. They had been treating malnourished children for seven years (from 1994 to 2001) with standard therapies and the recovery rate of their patients was at only 45%. Manary then considered peanut butter as a possible RUTF because of its very low water activity that will not support the growth of bacteria. Also, peanut butter does not spoil at ambient conditions and needs no cooking.

Then Manary had another idea. If the mothers of the patients at risk could treat their children at home, instead of in the hospital, they might have a better chance of completing the treatment and making a full recovery.

“Home is in general cleaner and less contaminated with germs than the hospital. At home, the family is not disrupted by the treatment, and mothers can remain as farmers in their needed role with an ill child at home. When the child is in the hospital, mother needs to stay in the hospital too – and care of other children suffers,” says Manary.

On average, a child is treated for six weeks. RUTF works in a person of any age, but most of the malnourished children PPB works with are between the ages of 1 and 3 years. For those being treated under PPB, the results have been impressive, with a recovery rate of 95%. The ultimate goal is to save 2 million children by 2015 using this inexpensive therapy made from a special combination of peanuts, sugar, vegetable oil, vitamins, minerals and milk. And no, Manary says, there are no food allergies in Africa.

Not only was Project Peanut Butter the first to use RUTF of any kind to treat malnutrition, but they were also the first to make the product locally. This type of home-based manufacturing gives the RUTF a local identity, a local name, and local ownership of the product. In addition, the process supports area farmers. In fact, PPB Malawi supports 3,000 local, smallholder farmers in the production of RUTF that in turn nourishes some of their own children.

The method of using RUTF at home was endorsed by the joint UN agencies as the best way to treat malnutrition in 2007. In 2009, UNICEF started a worldwide campaign encouraging the developing world to treat malnutrition in this manner. So in terms of international clout, the home-based therapy with RUTF is preferred.

Even so, says Manary, many at-risk families are still not using this type of therapy at home. Why? Because finding an effective system of identifying and delivering RUTF to those children with severe malnutrition is key to its adoption – and that’s no easy task with limited resources. Severe malnutrition, while a known health condition, does not require a very skilled health worker to identify it. And severe malnutrition is more likely to be found where there are no health workers. In Malawi, PPB uses village health aids to identify and treat severe malnutrition. It requires only a measuring tape to measure the arm circumference and the ability to look at the child's feet to see if they have objective evidence of swelling. But a staff has to be in place to take these simple measurements.

“If either swelling is seen or the arm circumference is below a certain number, then the child will benefit from RUTF. So in addition to effective technology to treat malnutrition (RUTF), there needs to be a local champion, who will determine what is an effective delivery system. In the three countries where PPB works, we are committed to being the champion,” he says.

PPB is willing to spread the word, says Manary, and solve the distribution problem of RUTF locally. However, they need the resources to do so at about $35 per child. Manary hopes that the project with continue to grow with the support of generous donors so that they can fund ongoing operations in Malawi and Sierra Leone and expand their operations in Ghana. They plan to open clinics and food production facilities in at least three more countries in sub-Saharan Africa during the next several years.

Learn more about Project Peanut Butter here.