Curbing Malnutrition through Emerging Technologies

Published on 07 Sep, 2022

Malnutrition is a serious global issue, especially in emerging countries, with India being no exception. The number of malnourished children in the country is rising at an alarming rate, leading to high mortality among children under 5 years of age. To fight this situation effectively, it is imperative to precisely identify the affected population and suggest initiatives to distribute dietary supplements. Many new and innovative technologies are being researched and developed to address malnutrition.


Globally, the malnutrition count has been growing steadily due to a combination of factors – rising population, lack of fertile land, and logistical issues. As per a UN report, the global hunger numbers increased to 828 million in 2021, 46 million more than in 2020 and accounting for ~9.8% of the world’s population.

India has been combating malnutrition, especially among children, for decades. An enquiry under the Right to Information Act revealed over 33 lakh children in the country are malnourished and more than half of these fall under the severely malnourished category. Due to their low levels of immunity, these children are at a greater risk of infections, have less energy, and are unable to reach their full human potential. Moreover, inexperienced or untrained ground staff are at times unable to correctly measure and input data on malnourished children. This leads to inaccurate estimates, due to which many affected children do not receive help.

Technological Intervention

Technology can help accurately monitor and combat malnutrition. A few relevant innovations are described below:

  1. Child Growth Monitor – Welthungerhilfe, a German autonomous non-profit relief organization, developed Child Growth Monitor, a cloud-based smartphone app that facilitates Hyperspectral Sensor Imaging (HSI). The app takes 3D measurements of a child's height, body volume, weight ratio, and head and upper arm circumference down to the millimeter using a small 3D infrared sensor; then, the data is scanned by the app. Using artificial intelligence (AI) solutions, the software tool assesses the nutritional status and gaps to categorize the child as malnourished or healthy.
  2. NutriPhone – Dr. Saurabh Mehta and his team are developing NutriPhone, a mobile device-based diagnostic tool that can assess the content of nutrients in blood from a single finger prick. Currently under research, this technology on commercialization will greatly benefit community health workers for rapid and accurate analyses. Nutrition International is supporting this development through its Innovation Agenda. The app can check for levels of various micro and macro nutrients, including Vitamin A, iron, and C-reactive protein.
  3. AI-enabled app for elderly care - The University of Waterloo, Schlegel-UW Research Institute for Aging, and the University Health Network collaborated to create an AI-enabled smartphone software tool for long-term care facilities to prevent malnutrition in the elderly population. After residents finish their meals, the app checks the color, depth, and other aspects of the plates of food to determine the amount of each type of food eaten and estimate the nutritional consumption. This helps ensure the elderly residents meet their daily nutrition requirements.
  4. MERON-based smart image app A Kenyan firm, Kimetrica, created an AI-based software tool equipped with Methods for Extremely Rapid Observation of Nutritional Status (MERON) technology. The tool can gather critical information by analyzing a child's nutritional requirements on scanning a single picture. The software uses a library of images to detect malnutrition by identifying facial characteristics, such as round cheeks. Based on the data collected from the image, the tool can classify the child as healthy, underweight, or highly underweight.
  5. Microparticle platform MIT researchers are creating a novel microparticle platform with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The platform can fortify food with vital micronutrients. The scientists created a new method of encapsulating nutrients to conveniently fortify meals by encasing them in a biocompatible polymer compound (BMC), which stops the degradation of the nutrients during storage or cooking. Using this platform, the team successfully encapsulated 11 micronutrients and co-encapsulated up to four nutrients.
  6. Paper-based diagnostic tool In 2019, a student in India developed an ultra-low-cost paper-based sensor to detect pre-symptomatic Protein-Energy Malnutrition (PEM). The tool can detect protein biomarkers from a child’s saliva samples. The resulting change in color of the paper indicates nutrient deficiency. On scanning through a mobile app, the nutrient percentage and extent of malnutrition can be monitored. The sensor is a breakthrough owing to its low cost (INR2 per strip), rapid detectability (<2 minutes), and minimal biomedical waste generation.
  7. NIR-based screening – A team at the University of Sydney developed a low-cost malnutrition screening device based on near-infrared (NIR) technology. The device assesses an infant’s body composition and measures the amount of fat beneath the skin without requiring a scanner or skin pinch test. Moreover, the device does not require measuring physical attributes such as height or weight (which are difficult to measure in agitated infants). The tool works well with limited electricity supply and technical expertise. As low-fat diet is a risk factor for high mortality and morbidity in children, early detection can help prevent malnutrition. 


India ranks 94th among 107 nations in the world according to the Global Hunger Index (2020), which is determined by factoring in child stunting, wasting, death rates, and overall population undernourishment. Therefore, it is critical to combat this challenge. Technological intervention can facilitate rapid identification and treatment of malnourishment and potentially aid in creating smart solutions.