To an ordinary person with regular access to food, malnutrition may not like a problem that’s hard to treat, but severe malnutrition is a life-threatening condition. It is much more difficult to treat in a child than a mature adult. About 20 million children are affected by malnutrition around the globe which can result in conditions such as edema, stunted skeletal growth, weaker immune system, and even neurological problems. According to the World Health Organization, 8 million of these children are in India alone. The fatality rate for the condition is about 30 percent, and the traditional treatment of malnutrition is quite expensive to be optimum for the poverty-ridden India. MIT is working to develop an anti-malnutrition milkshake that will reduce the cost of therapy while minimizing the risk of water-borne diseases.
The reason why it is hard to treat extreme cases of starvation is that the human body adapts to the situation by reprioritizing all the functions. The body begins to feed off of the fat reserves and the liver. As the situation worsens, it starts extracting food from muscles and other organs. Bringing the body back from such behavior to its normal functioning is a long process which generally requires 100 special meals of Ready to Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF). The food is made with a paste of milk powder, peanut butter, oil, and sugar. Each such meal in India costs Rs. 30 (US$0.47) which is unaffordable for most such families. Since the paste is quite thick, it is difficult to eat without water, which is another problem in the land where clean drinking water is not accessible to everyone either.
A chemical engineer at MIT Tonghan Gualong along with the Ralph Landau Professor in the Chemical Engineering department, T Alan Hatton took to finding an alternative to RUTF, particularly for the Indian conditions. The recovery food was meant to be cheaper and less water dependent. Developments in nanotechnology have helped create stabilizing emulsions that make it possible to create low-viscosity food that can be dried for storage and transport. Gu explains:
“We are trying to make something more like a milkshake. It’s a mix of high-energy components, using local foods like [chickpeas]. We can even add spices to create different flavors. We’ve found that children really like the drinkable version.”
The team has demonstrated the effectiveness of the anti-malnutrition milkshake that it created using spray drying and a colloid mill. Inside the solid dry powder, the oils and nutrients are micro-encapsulated giving the product a good shelf life. The powder can be made into a drink using clean water or milk with just 30 seconds of hand stirring. Milk is preferred to avoid dangers of water contamination.
The MIT team worked with the Indian Institute of Technology in Bombay for the project. They hope that all the minor issues will be resolved to move the product to mass production and marketing.