Blog Global Health Center

Project Peanut Butter

Project Peanut Butter (PPB) was founded by Mark Manary, MD, a pediatrician who currently serves as the Helene Roberson Professor of Pediatrics at Washington University School of Medicine.

According to the WHO, malnutrition is credited as the largest contributor to child mortality in the world. Dr. Manary is one of the world’s foremost experts in childhood malnutrition, and the majority of his clinical field work has been in Malawi and Sierra Leone. In these locations he has worked with local communities to establish feeding centers and nutrition programs where he and his teams conduct research projects and programs aiming to eradicate malnutrition.

Dr. Manary speaks with a mother holding her child in a village in Malawi.
Dr. Manary interacting with Malawian woman and child.

In 1999, Dr. Manary spent 10 weeks living in a village in Malawi, becoming familiar with the lives of rural Malawians and what an effective treatment of malnutrition needed to entail. He concluded that the therapeutic food had to be something that didn’t spoil, didn’t need to be cooked, was easy for mothers to give in small amounts to their children at home, and was energy dense.

The food became known as Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). RUTF is an energy-dense, peanut butter like paste, but it is more than just peanut butter. It consists of roasted ground peanuts (peanut paste), powdered milk, vegetable oil, sugar, and vitamins/minerals. Peanuts contain mono-unsaturated fats, which are easy to digest, and they are rich in protein and zinc, which is good for the immune system. RUTF’s intended use is for severely malnourished children ages 6 months to 5 yrs.

Child eating RUTF and another child sitting on a weight scale.

From 2000 to 2004, the doctors and their small teams tested various formulas with thousands of malnourished children in a series of controlled clinical trials within Malawi. The results of these trials were striking: 95% of these children recovered! Compare that to the 25% to 40% who fully recovered using traditional hospital therapies.

Project Peanut Butter was officially founded and began producing food in Malawi in 2004. In 2007, the United Nations, World Health Organization, and World Food Programme recognized RUTF with home-based therapy as the standard of care for severely malnourished children worldwide.

In previous years, the food factories made more than 900 tons of the life-saving peanut butter for children in Malawi and Sierra Leone. Some was shipped to Somalia and Zimbabwe. Manary estimates the enhanced therapy is saving in the neighborhood of 750,000 children annually. Others put the figure much higher.

Staff at the Project Peanut Butter’s factory in Ghana.

In addition to running its own production facilities in Malawi and Sierra Leone and now in Ghana, PPB has helped other nonprofits develop and make their own RUTFs on a small scale in the Philippines, Somalia and Kenya. The goal of PPB is not only to produce food but also distribute it to malnourished children in the community. Several feeding clinics are run in Malawi and Sierra Leone by PPB nurses and staff. Feeding clinics will also be started in Ghana later this year.

Producing the peanut supplement locally multiplies its benefits, says Manary. The factories use mainly local ingredients, generate jobs and support local economies. Making supplements where they are needed instead of importing them avoids shipping costs and customs fees. And communities take pride in running the factories and caring directly for their own children.

Recently, a new food has been developed and produced in Malawi for pregnant malnourished women to reduce stunting in infants. The food is a standard peanut-based supplement, formulated differently from the one for children—it includes dairy protein, whey and more micronutrients. A study is underway to test the effectiveness of this treatment.

Malawi Project Peanut Butter faculty and staff.

Currently, a peanut processing facility is being built adjacent to the factory in Malawi. With the completion of this new facility, PPB will have control over every  step in the process, which can reduce costs and even better ensure the quality of the peanut paste used to make RUTF.

Information adapted from the Project Peanut Butter website.