The online news portal of TV5
WASHINGTON - Babies and toddlers at risk of malnutrition weren't helped by special energy-dense food supplements given along with normal food aid, according to a new study Tuesday.
Humanitarian groups usually provide staples, like grains and beans, to help families facing food shortages. But some groups wondered if specially-formulated supplements could help more kids stave off malnutrition.
These "ready-to-use supplementary food" products, often with a peanut butter-base, are already used as an extra boost of calories, fats and nutrients to help get malnourished kids back on track.
But new research indicates the food supplements, given as a preventative measure on a wider scale, may not have the hoped-for impact.
The study was published Tuesday in the online journal PLOS Medicine.
In Chad, where annual dry seasons leave a four-month "hunger gap" between harvests, researchers monitored over 1,000 babies and toddlers aged six months to three years old.
Half of their families were given standard food rations, and the other half received the same rations, plus a daily dose -- about three spoonfuls -- of the special food supplements for the targeted children.
At the end of the four months, despite the extra supplements, "8.6 percent of both groups were found to be undernourished," or below the desired threshold for height and weight, explained lead researcher Lieven Huybregts.
"We had to refer them to a treatment program outside the study," the Ghent University researcher told AFP, which was the opposite of what they'd hoped for.
The kids who got the supplements did grow a bit taller, however, had better hemoglobin levels -- meaning a decreased risk of anemia -- and had lower rates of fever and diarrhea.
These side-benefits could be traced to the extra vitamins and minerals packed into the supplements, Huybregts suggested. But it is not clear why the supplements didn't help the kids gain weight.
It may have their overall diet: the kids who got the supplements, which were spread among several children, ate less of the other rations, said Huybregts.
He said the researchers are analyzing the data "to see if the supplement was really consumed and what the pattern was."
For now, he said, the data suggest widespread distribution of the food supplements, which are pricier than traditional food rations, may not be a cost-effective solution to famine in these hunger-prone areas.
And if the side-benefits are related to the vitamins and minerals in the supplements, "maybe there are more affordable strategies to provide micronutrients," perhaps in syrup and tablet form, he said.