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New food weapon for fighting malnutrition in Vietnam

Malnutrition can blight a nation, causing higher illness and death rates among children, as well as inflicting irreversible damage on those who survive into adulthood.

These individuals are then less able to contribute effectively to the economic development of a country. In Asia, this wider social impact of high malnutrition rates among children is now being understood and the problem is being addressed by many countries. Dramatic improvements have already been seen. The prevalence of stunted children in Asia has dropped from 49% in 1990 to 28% in 2010 and is expected to fall even further this decade to less than 20%.

But countries in Asia still face many challenges in tackling this stubborn problem, particularly in areas where diets are poor. In these places, one of the most effective ways of addressing persistent malnutrition is by providing families with fortified food supplements and educating mothers about the importance of adequate nutrition. In Vietnam, the National Institute for Nutrition (NIN), with support from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), is involved in programmes to help families with malnourished children. Nearly 800,000 children are underweight in Vietnam (over 200,000 are severely malnourished) according to UNICEF, while over 2 million children under five are stunted. The problem is particularly acute in certain regions, where nearly one in ten children is affected by stunting.

As part of its programme to tackle malnourishment, families with young children have been provided with Plumpy’Nut paste, which is made from peanuts. However, research conducted in Cambodia has found this supplement tastes very alien to people in this part of the world, who also find the form of the paste off-putting. According to a new article in IRIN, the NIN has therefore developed a new treatment for malnutrition based on mung beans, which looks and tastes like traditional bean cakes. These cakes, referred to locally as ‘hebi’, are proving more popular with some children.

The NIN is also working on a food supplement with fewer calories and micronutrients for less malnourished children. This could be provided to families at a lower cost. If these regional supplements prove successful, the NIN hopes to provide them to other countries such as the Philippines and Cambodia on a non-profit basis. One mother in Vietnam told IRIN, that having fed her three-year old son with ‘hebi’ cakes for just five days, he had already “put on nearly one kilogramme”. Any such new weapons are to be welcomed in the ongoing fight against malnutrition.

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