Combating Malnutrition in the Developing World

There is a prolific and insidious killer of millions worldwide: one in three people fall victim to it, with the poor and those in developing countries being hit the hardest [1]. Malnutrition refers to the condition in which a person consumes insufficient amounts of the proper nutrients that the body requires for growth, repair, and other normal functions [2]. In developing countries, malnutrition is a consequence of starvation, as opposed to the malnutrition incurred as a result of eating too many calories and too little nutrients. The United Nations recognized the severe consequences of malnutrition for health and development by making the eradication of extreme hunger and poverty their very first Millennium Development Goal. With only two years left until the deadline, not nearly enough progress has been made in combating hunger worldwide [3]. The dearth of sufficient progress in reducing extreme hunger has unfortunate consequences for the success of many other Millennium Development Goals, considering that malnutrition negatively affects child mortality rates, maternal and reproductive health, disease susceptibility, learning ability, and social well-being [4,5].

Malnutrition has a plethora of negative effects on the human body. When the body does not ingest all of its essential micronutrients, such as Vitamins A and C, through a well-balanced diet, symptoms ranging from mild dizziness to weight loss can occur, sometimes even leading to death in the most severe cases [6]. When it is not caused by digestive problems or an underlying illness, malnutrition is one of the most preventable and most easily treated health conditions. Supplementing insufficient diets with the missing micronutrients can cure malnutrition, unless the nutritional deficiency has persisted for such a long time that symptomatic reversal is no longer possible. In these cases, physical and learning disabilities, severe illnesses, and fatalities are likely.

This information raises the question, if malnutrition is so easily treated, why is it a persistent global health problem? Unfortunately, access to the foods that are necessary for a well-balanced diet is not always guaranteed in countries with unstable political and economic structures. Additionally, chronic poverty, natural disasters, and disease epidemics can all contribute to food unavailability [6].

Through its Millennium Development Goals, the United Nations is trying to address chronic problems such as hunger, disease, and lack of education, and help the world’s poorest citizens achieve economic parity. Examples of success include the staggering reduction in extreme hunger in Brazil, Ghana, Vietnam, Malawi, and Nicaragua [7]. However, as of 2012, areas of Sub-Saharan and Eastern Africa, Asia, Oceania, Latin American and the Caribbean, and the Caucasus and Central Asia all reported moderate to very high levels of hunger [8]. While the United Nations has had an admirable amount of success in reducing the worldwide prevalence of extreme hunger and poverty, there is still much work to be done if the Millennium Development Goals are to be met by their target date of 2015.

The scientific community has approached the pervasive problem of malnutrition from many different directions. Research into dietary supplements by Karakochuk and colleagues has recently demonstrated that newly developed, “ready-to-use supplementary food” (RUSF) is more effective in treating malnutrition than conventional corn-soya supplements. RUSF is energy-dense and nutrient-rich, facilitating the recovery of malnourished children, as measured by their weight-for-height percentile [9]. Similarly, Lagrone and colleagues found that daily consumption of RUSF made of soy and peanuts resulted in the recovery from malnutrition of 80% of the children in the study. The soy and peanut RUSF contained one regular daily allowance of every necessary micronutrient, but it cost $5.39 per child [10]. Future research initiatives into RUSF should focus on maintaining the micronutrient content while at the same time reducing the price.

Considering that much of what impedes the success of the Millennium Development Goals is a lack of funds, priority should be placed on making RUSF more cost-effective so that it can alleviate the sufferings of a larger population of malnourished people. One possible way to achieve cost-effectiveness would be to use cheap, abundant, local ingredients such as nuts and seeds that contain high levels of essential micronutrients at low volumes as a natural way to alleviate malnutrition. These nut and seed mixes suggest many different possibilities for delivery, such as trail mix, granola bars, or flours, all of which are slow to spoil and easy to transport.

Other groups of researchers are interested in increasing the nutrient content of staple crops as a way to alleviate micronutrient malnutrition, which occurs when a person does not receive one or more of the 49 essential micronutrients via diet. Micronutrient malnutrition is unsettlingly common: over three billion people worldwide are deficient in at least one essential micronutrient [11]. Scientists have found that there is sufficient genetic variability within populations of staple crops such as wheat and maize to carry out artificial breeding programs to increase the micronutrient content, a phenomenon known as biofortification. However, several issues arise with biofortification experiments. For local farmers to remain financially viable and successfully cultivate these modified crops, the yields must be equal to or better than their conventional crops. Additionally, the added micronutrients in the crops must be bioavailable to humans, meaning that the human body must be able to absorb these nutrients. Finally, the taste of these biofortified crops must not be adversely affected by the micronutrient modification [11]. Biofortification offers an easily applicable, practical solution to the problem of micronutrient malnutrition that warrants further investigation.

Malnutrition is a biologically simple disorder that affects more than three billion people worldwide [11]. Effectively treating malnutrition has positive rippling effects for both the physical health of the individual human body and the social and economic health of the greater community. The development of affordable, readily available dietary supplements and of biofortified staple crops can not only improve the health of suffering individuals, but it can also alleviate the stress of malnutrition on the economies and governments of struggling countries, allowing them to be more successful and competitive in the global arena.


1. World Health Organization. “Turning the tide of malnutrition: responding to the challenge of the 21st century.” Geneva: WHO, 2000.
2. World Health Organization. “Water-related diseases.” Geneva: WHO, 2001.
3. United Nations. “Millennium Development Goals: 2012 Progress Chart.” UN, 2012.
4. World Health Organization. “Turning the tide of malnutrition: responding to the challenge of the 21st century.” Geneva: WHO, 2000.
5. World Food Programme. “What is malnutrition?” WFP, 2013.
6. PubMed Health. “Malnutrition.” A.D.A.M. Medical Encyclopedia, 2011.
7. United Nations. “The Millennium Development Goals work!” UN, 2010.
8. United Nations. “Millennium Development Goals: 2012 Progress Chart.” UN, 2012.
9. Crystal Karakochuk, Tina van den Briel, Derek Stephens, and Stanley Zlotkin. “Treatment of moderate acute malnutrition with ready-to-use supplementary food results in higher overall recovery rates compared with a corn-soya blend in children in southern Ethiopia: an operations research trial.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 96 (2012): 911-916.
10. L Lagrone, S Cole, A Schondelmeyer, K Maleta, and MJ Manary. “Locally produced ready-to-use supplementary food is an effective treatment of moderate acute malnutrition in an operational setting.” Annals of Tropical Paediatrics 30 (2010): 103-108.
11. Ross M. Welch and Robin D. Graham. “Breeding for micronutrients in staple food crops from a human nutrition perspective.” Journal of Experimental Botany 55 (2004): 353-364.

Viggy Parr is a rising junior majoring in the Biology of Global Health with minors in both English and Bioethics. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.