Many children in developing countries — particularly in Africa — are malnourished. Worldwide, more than 70 million children suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition.
Experts say poor nutritional status increases the risk of death 10 times in children who are ill with malaria, diarrheal diseases and other conditions.
The non-profit global health organization, Medecins Sans Frontier, or Doctors Without Borders, treats an estimated 300,000 children every year for malnutrition.
To see whether supplementation could hasten recovery from illness, MSF conducted two studies — one in Nigeria and the other in Uganda — comparing a brief, two-week course of food preparation to micronutrient supplementation.
Vitamins and mineral pills are easier and cheaper to administer at clinics in resource-poor countries. But global health officials wondered whether a food supplement was superior in relieving malnutrition.
In a study of 2,200 children in eastern Uganda between the ages of six months and 5 years old, investigators found the therapeutic food supplement reduced malnutrition by 33 percent among youngsters in the treatment group. That's compared to children who were not treated with the food supplement.
However, supplements of vitamins and minerals alone did not show a significant reduction in malnutrition.
The therapeutic food preparation used in the study was peanut butter mixed with dried skim milk, vitamins and minerals.
In Nigeria, MSF's Saskia van der Kam said neither the food preparation nor micronutrients improved malnutrition in the children.
Van der Kam noted that the level of malnutrition is higher in Nigeria where the study was conducted, and a longer course of supplementation might be more effective.
Two articles were published in the journal PLoS Medicine.
The authors concluded that more research is needed to find ways to reduce deaths in children in areas where malnutrition is more prevalent and severe.