Indian scientists have designed a ready-to-eat therapeutic food that could cater to the needs of millions of children afflicted with severe acute malnutrition (SAM), the most dangerous level of malnutrition, and have handed over the associated scientific findings and technology to an industry partner.
SAM is globally responsible for the death each year of 2.6 million children under the age of five.
The research undertaken by scientists of the agricultural and food engineering department, at the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur, led to creation of five varieties of TF-RTEs which, in paste form, can be administered to the children until they have gained adequate weight.
According to WHO, severe acute malnutrition is when children suffer severe wasting that may or may not be accompanied by swelling of the body from fluid retention. The afflicted have been tagged as the most vulnerable people in the world.
Out of the 20 million children worldwide afflicted with SAM (mainly in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia), India is home to 8.1 million SAM children.
"SAM is diagnosed when the circumference of the upper arm is less than 115 mm or when the weight for the height of a child is severely reduced. They are very thin as most of their fat and muscle has been used by their bodies to stay alive," H.N. Mishra, professor of food technology and principal investigator of the project, agricultural and food engineering department at the IIT, told IANS over phone.
"As per WHO guidelines, the SAM children who do not require hospitalization, can be administered specially formulated nutrient-rich foods at home for treatment...the proportions of essential nutrients required have also been designated," he elaborated.
Mishra's team came up with five formulations using peanut, potato and Bengal gram as the core ingredients, as part of a project sponsored by department of biotechnology and a Delhi-based industry partner (Gattapu Chemicals Pvt. Ltd.).
"The raw materials are easily sourced, cheap and stable at room temperature. Since they are in a paste form, they can be consumed easily by the children," said Mishra, adding that the food technology used is a secret.
Following the technology transfer process Feb 10, Mishra said they would be distributed in square-shaped, screw-capped pouches of various quantities by the industry arm.
"Until it is distributed by the industry, for the mean time, we have set up a pilot scale unit in our lab where we can produce the TF-RTE," said Mishra.
However, Vandana Prasad, a social activist advocating child nutrition and health, stressed the need to apply the formulations in a community-based approach.
"There is nothing wrong with the formulations per se, but they should be introduced to the community... the family, the community should be able to make such nutrient-rich foods... this would generate livelihood as well. Commercialization is not the answer as SAM affects the poorest of the poor," Prasad, founding member, the Public Health Resource Network, told IANS.
Mishra hoped some kind of an understanding can be worked out with the industry partner to spread the know-how of the product at the grass-root level.
"The way it has been designed, starting from the formula to the package, everything is for the ease of the children. Mothers can screw open the cap and place it into the child's mouth," he said.