Malnourishment is a major cause of death for children in countries all around the world. By some estimates, almost 10 percent of all children younger than 5 years old in poor countries don't have enough food. Now research from an international relief organization finds supplementation with preprepared, highly nutritional foods can reduce malnutrition - and by extension, mortality - in these children.
Medecins Sans Frontieres/Doctors without Borders (known by its French acronym MSF) worked in Niger to provide supplementation to children in a region called Maradi.
The region experiences an annual decrease in food quantity and quality in the months which precede the harvest - usually between August and October.
MSF researcher Rebecca Grais says this annual food shortage is associated with an increase in wasting in children.
"[They] have a lower weight for height than compared to normal, in children under five," she says. "And this happens every single year."
Grais and her MSF team focused on 12 villages in Maradi. The workers gave a highly nutritional food called Plumpy Nut to some of the children in these villages during the months when food was scarce. Throughout the study, they monitored all of the children in all the villages, whether they received supplemental food or not.
"And what we found is actually that children that received Plumpy Nut had a significant decline in becoming malnourished... or in becoming severely or moderately wasted," Grais says.
This research wasn't without controversy, both in Niger and within the development community.
Grais points out that poor people can't afford this kind of relatively expensive supplementation when there are shortages. But international organizations worry that providing these foods for free allows governments to avoid correcting the conditions that contribute to famine.
Apart from the controversy over whether and how to provide these supplements, Grais says she was surprised at how effective they were at preventing childhood malnutrition.
"It speaks to the incredibly dire situation that these populations face," Grais says. "If you think about that in the sense that these children were provided with … glorified peanut butter, and they ate it every day for an extended period of time... that speaks to the situation in which they live on a daily basis."
Grais' research is published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association. There's also a commentary in JAMA which addresses the controversy over nutritional supplementation.