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A silver bullet for world hunger? Scientists find new ways to help the starving.

Published: Sunday, Nov. 6 2011 10:51 p.m. MST

Babies in a Mozambique are fed Plumpy'Nut, a fortified food hailed as changing the way to end childhood malnutrition.

Elizabeth Stuart

MOZAMBIQUE, Africa — The baby gives the silver pouch a squeeze and a thick, brown goo gushes out over his chubby fingers. His eyes are wide as he mashes the food between his gums, but as soon as he swallows, he gives a "gah" of glee and kicks his legs against his wooden high chair. Next to him, another of the 60 or so African orphans he shares a cinder block home with, licks her fingers.

It's yummy. That's one thing that Plumpy'Nut, a paste made of peanut butter, oil, sugar and vitamins, has going for it. A staple in many orphanages in the developing world, Plumpy'Nut has also been hailed by organizations like the World Food Programme and the UN Standing Committee on Nutrition as a sort of miracle in the fight against child hunger. During the 2005 food crisis in Niger, 90 percent of the 60,000 children treated with the ready-to-use therapeutic food recovered from severe malnutrition. Now, as the international aid community rushes to help those suffering from the effects of famine in Somalia, foods like Plumpy'Nut, developed by scientists to pack an extra punch of vitamins and minerals, are on the front line.

These ready-to-use therapeutic foods, which don't require any extra ingredients or preparation, are the newest innovation in the quest to bring the benefits of vitamins to the developing world. Their easy-to-open silver packages have made addressing world hunger a tangible, tasteable thing for would-be advocates and inspired the launch of a growing number of new nonprofits devoted to financing, producing and distributing the peanut butter product. Their success in treating malnourished children over the past five years has turned a magnifying glass on the nutritional content of international food aid across the board.

"The development of new products we really have the tools now to respond better," said Rene McGuffin, senior spokesman for the World Food Programme. "We fortify wherever we can. Whether it's oil, salt, or cereal, when you're dealing with something like the crisis in Africa getting those vitamins and nutrients in there is of the utmost importance."

Miracle peanut butter

Plumpy'Nut, which was developed by a French pediatrician, is patented — a fact that has raised eyebrows in the humanitarian aid community. But, since its widespread introduction, plenty of knock-offs have popped up anyway. Some nonprofit organizations have even struck up partnerships with peanut farmers in developing countries and put the locals to work blending the formula.

"The development of Plumpy'Nut has been a huge, almost unprecedented way to get people excited about aid," said Steve Hansch, a Georgetown University nutritionist who sits on the board of the World Hunger Education service. Just three packets a day of ready-to-use therapeutic foods for six weeks will bring a starving child from the brink of death to chubby, happy, normal nutritive health. Specifically designed for children, the paste not only saves lives, but provides the needed nutrients for healthy brain growth.

Mark Moore, founder and CEO of MANA Nutrition, got involved in the ready-to-use therapeutic food business after hearing about the product's success during a Capitol Hill information meeting on hunger in Africa. Elizabeth Stoltz, a New York City college student, founded a nonprofit dedicated to raising money for the little packets of peanut butter after reading about it in an issue of CosmoGirl. R.I. Navyn Salem, founder of the Rhode Island-based Plumpy'Nut manufacturer Edesia Global Nutrition Solutions, fell in love with ready-to-use therapeutic foods during an episode of "60 Minutes" during which Anderson Cooper compared the development of the paste to the discovery of penicillin.

"People love a silver bullet," Hansche said — or what appears to be a silver bullet.

The peanut butter paste is also inspiring because it makes the discussion of world hunger "tangible," he said.

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