Greatist’s #WTFis series looks at new trends in health and fitness to explain what the heck they are, why people care, and if they live up to the hype.

At Greatist HQ we’re all peanut butter fiends, slathering the stuff on fruit, bread, and yogurt. So we were excited to learn about Plumpy’nut, a nutritional product not so far from our beloved PB. It’s been used since 2009 to combat severe malnutrition in children across the world. What exactly is this Plumpy’nut stuff? And why did Anderson Cooper compare it to penicillin?

The Lowdown

In the late 1990s, humanitarians and scientists alike were frustrated and befuddled by the problem of malnutrition, which affected hundreds of millions of children every year. The conventional treatment for severe malnutrition since the 1960s — a slow remedy of nutrient-rich intravenous fluids — was pricey and inconvenient, given that it had to happen within a hospital or clinic.

Looking for an at-home solution to severe malnourishment, the humanitarian organization Action Against Hunger invented a nutritionally-dense milk supplement called F-100 in 1994Can optimal combinations of local foods achieve the nutrient density of the F100 catch-up diet for severe malnutrition? Ferguson EL, Briend A, Darmon N. Department of Human Nutrition, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. J Pediatr Gastroenterol Nutr. 2008 Apr; 46(4):447-52.. F-100 proved useful in combating hunger, but it had to be mixed with water, which can be contaminated by bacteria in developing countries. It also tasted awful.

Inspired by a jar of Nutella (who says chocolate breakfast spread can’t save the world?), French pediatrician André Briand invented a paste that combines F-100 with peanuts, sugar, oil, and milk.The 500-calorie packets are rich in nutritional all-stars like vitamins and minerals, fat, and protein.

What’s the Deal? Is it Legit?

Plumpy’nut is a ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), which means that it can be safely administered at home by anyone, not just by a doctor or nurse in a hospital. The paste is shelf-stable for 24 months, does not need to be refrigerated, and requires no special equipment.

Plumpy’nut is more effective than both traditional IV treatments and F-100 in promoting weight gain in childrenComparison of the efficacy of a solid ready-to-use food and a liquid, milk-based diet for the rehabilitation of severely malnourished children: a randomized trial. Diop el HI, Dossou NI, Ndour MM, Briend A, Wade S. Equipe de Nutrition, Labatoire de Physiologie, Département de Biologie Animale, Faculté des Sciences et Techniques, Université Cheikh Anta Diop de Dakar, Sénégal. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003 Aug; 78(2): 302-7.. Two or three 92g packets a day of the sweet stuff can bring a severely underweight child to a healthy weight range in three to six weeks. In some regions, Plumpy’nut treatments boast a 90 percent success rate. The paste has been embraced wholeheartedly by humanitarian organizations like UNICEF, WHO, and the World Food Programme (WFP), which buy thousands of tons of Plumpy’nut each year.

The Buzz — Why Do People Care Now?

According to the United Nations, up to 925 million people in the world face hunger every day, most of them in developing nations. In 2008, one third of worldwide child deaths were due to malnutrition and its side effects. Although hunger statistics in recent years are much lower than they were in the past, starvation is still a huge problem worldwide. Currently, nearly 20 million children are severely malnourished, between one and two million of which receive RUTFs like Plumpy’nut. The war against hunger is clearly nowhere near over, but making emergency malnutrition treatments more affordable and available is an important step in the process.

The Verdict

Plumpy’nut has been called a “magic bullet” cure for malnutrition, but it’s not perfect. At $60, a 2-month dosage of the nutritional paste is much pricier than the Skippy All-Natural PB we snack on every day. This is partly due to the cost of the fortified ingredients, but also because the company that produces Plumpy’nut, Nutriset, is a for-profit enterprise that fiercely protects its patents. After a legal kerfuffle a few years ago, look-alike pastes like Medika mamba and Nourimanba have popped up due to relaxed patent laws. The product is clearly designed for emergency hunger relief, but critics worry Plumpy’nut will replace a regular diet and breastfeeding for children in developing countries. Despite these qualms, there can be no question that Plumpy’nut is helping malnourished children and helping cure extreme hunger around the world.

Do you think Plumpy’nut can end world hunger? Not convinced? Tell us about it in the comments below or tweet Sophia @SophBreene.

Photos: © Michaël Zumstein / Agence Vu