Charity claims ready to use foods are crucial to reduce childhood malnutrition

BMJ 2008; 336 doi: (Published 28 February 2008) Cite this as: BMJ 2008;336:471
  1. Peter Moszynski
  1. 1London

    A charity is calling for greater use of nutrient dense ready to use foods (RUFs) at this week’s annual meeting of the United Nations standing committee on nutrition in Hanoi.

    Médicins Sans Frontières is lobbying for their increased use “as an effective response that can save the lives of acutely malnourished children,” as well as to help the 40% of the world’s children who are chronically malnourished.

    These products come in the form of milk and peanut based pastes enriched with the vitamins and nutrients needed for rapid recovery. Because they do not need refrigeration or preparation most malnourished children can be treated at home. But so far these products are available only to a tiny fraction of the severely malnourished children who need them, and campaigners are calling for greater production and resourcing.

    Milton Tectonidis, the charity’s nutritional adviser, explains that because ready to use foods do not need to be mixed with potentially contaminated water, the supplements offer the potential of safe care at home and so are “the most important development in international nutrition in the past 10 years.”

    Michael Golden, a nutritionist at the University of Aberdeen, who is presenting a paper on experiences and innovations using ready to use foods in Africa at a satellite meeting organised by the charity at this week’s Hanoi symposium, told the BMJ that recent field trials had shown the “importance of delivering the full spectrum of micronutrients to acutely malnourished children” and the effectiveness of these supplements in achieving this.

    In Niger in 2007 Médicins Sans Frontières launched a pilot programme using a modified food as a supplement to prevent some 62 000 children from becoming malnourished during the period of seasonal food shortages. The programme has helped to staunch a rise in acute malnutrition in one of the country’s districts with high prevalence.

    Professor Golden said that the initiative of using complete food as supplements had produced “extremely exciting results” because it had “prevented malnutrition in an entire district in a very dramatic way.”

    He claims that these findings “conclusively put nutrition back centre stage,” pointing out that humans need about 40 essential nutrients: “You need to have them all to be healthy. It’s not just a question of iron, iodine, and vitamin A supplements; there are still another 37 nutrients required. RUFs give them all in a balanced way.”

    Médicins Sans Frontières is urging international donors “to support systematic purchasing and use of ready to use food in countries where it’s needed.” The charity maintains that it is not only useful for treating severe acute malnutrition but “also has the potential to prevent children from becoming acutely malnourished by treating at earlier stages.

    “This means international food aid programmes targeting young children must incorporate RUFs to treat less severe forms of malnutrition and to prevent acute malnutrition from developing in areas of high prevalence.”

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