Peanuts May Offer Nutrition Important to School Success
The World Food Programme (WFP) plans to invest $1.75 billion a year over the next decade in school feeding programs, and the Feed the Future Peanut Innovation Lab at the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences is working to see how peanuts might provide the protein, minerals, and micronutrients those kids need to thrive.
“One of the reasons why peanuts are so good for children is because we know that proteins are involved in many different areas of the body and brain development. We are talking about bone formation for children, muscle growth, immune system, and of course brain development,” said Samara Sterling, the research director for the Peanut Institute, a non-profit that supports research and awareness of the nutrition in peanuts.
Numerous research projects have connected peanut consumption with cognitive and physical health and shown that the particular proteins found in peanuts are much easier for the human body to absorb than animal protein.
Research underway through the Peanut Innovation Lab — with funding from USAID, Birdsong Peanuts and the National Peanut Board — could directly show that eating peanuts helps children succeed in school, the goal of WFP’s new Decade of Action plan. Through the plan, WFP aims to ensure that school-aged children around the world receive adequate nutrition through school meals and snacks by 2030. Making children healthier is an important goal, but the WFP also makes the point that healthy children do better in school, maximizing the impact of billions of dollars spent on primary school education.
Because peanut is nutritious, relatively inexpensive and shelf-stable, the nut already is the main component in Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food to help children recover from severe malnutrition and supplementary foods to prevent malnutrition. Numerous studies show cognitive benefits to people who consume nuts.
“We zeroed in on the potential for school feeding several years ago as a way to reach hungry kids, so we’d already put a lot of thought into how to go about it,” said Jeff Johnson, a retired executive with Birdsong Peanuts who serves on the External Advisory Committee for the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Peanut.
“We’ve been working on feeding in Africa for 15 years strictly from a humanitarian standpoint, but if the World Food Programme is going to spend $50 billion and completely change the food-aid trends in Africa, they are going to have to have a lot of product,” Johnson said. “We think peanut products are the only thing that can be done as conveniently and inexpensively and in the volume that will be required.”
Birdsong Peanuts and the National Peanut Board each is investing through the Peanut Innovation Lab in a research project in Ghana to evaluate the effectiveness of a school snack developed by Washington University’s Mark Manary.
“Peanuts are considered to be a superfood, in other words, peanuts are a nutrient-rich food that is extremely beneficial for human health. What makes peanuts so unique is that with just a small amount of consumption, it delivers huge benefits to the human body,” Sterling said. Peanuts also contain an antioxidant called “resveratrol” that helps blood circulation, benefitting the heart and brain, according to Sterling.
Additionally, peanuts contain a variety of nutrients that support proper brain development in children, including coleen, which is important for making neurotransmitters, and copper which helps with concentration, according to Sterling.
Many students in Ghana, like children in other low- and middle-income countries, receive sporadic school meals, but they are starchy and may not contain the best ingredients to help a hungry child grow and concentrate in class. Manary, one of the key inventors of the peanut-based therapeutic food that’s become the standard for emergency feeding, is producing and testing a peanut-based snack with students in northern Ghana to gauge the effects on physical growth and cognitive learning.
“The results will help determine whether the power of the peanut, which has been such a game-changer in other food aid products, can be channeled to school-age children as well,” Manary said.
In the randomized clinical trial, 750 kids ages 6 to 9 will eat one of three school snacks: a peanut-based food, the same peanut-based food with milk included, or a snack made with a local tuber or cereal. At the end of the school year, the students will be measured for height and change in cognitive testing. All the snack formulas will include the same supplemented micronutrients.