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Today, some 160 million children under five years of age don’t get the food and nutrients that their bodies need for optimal growth and development. One hundred and sixty million children that are likely to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of malnutrition and poverty. No wonder the ‘new’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have ‘no poverty’ and ‘zero hunger’ as the first and second of the 17 Global Goals. This makes the eradication of malnutrition, with a special focus on children, a top priority for countries as they turn the SDGs into actions.

Over the last four decades, much of the focus in addressing chronic malnutrition was on ensuring that children received sufficient micronutrients – particularly vitamin A, iodine, iron, zinc, and folate. There was the widespread assumption that they were receiving enough protein from their basic diet. So micronutrient malnutrition also known as ‘hidden hunger‘, because vitamin and mineral deficiencies are not often obvious to the eye, has dominated efforts and innovations to improve the nutrition of children under five.

Potentially important insights going forward have come to light in a paper just published in EBioMedicine. This new research, carried out by scientists at the Johns Hopkins University, the National Institute on Aging, University of Maryland, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Malawi, and the Sight and Life Foundation, analyzed blood samples of over 300 children with and without stunting. The children, aged between one and five years, lived in villages in rural Malawi. Instead of focusing on micronutrients, the research looked at the essential amino acids that are the building blocks of proteins, and must come from the diet.

The striking finding of the study is that all nine essential amino acids were significantly lower in stunted children compared with non-stunted children. In fact, most of the amino acid levels were as much as 15-20% lower in the stunted children. This is important because it tells us that stunted children are in reality not receiving sufficient quality protein from their diet and this lack of essential amino acids means children will not grow normally even if they receive the necessary micronutrients.

How did protein fall off the international development map?

Click here to read the full story in the Huffington Post by Dr Klaus Kraemer together with Dr Richard Semba, JHU.