Nutrients taken in powder form are effective in preventing malnutrition in children, according to new findings.
Children throughout the developing world suffer from anemia - a shortage of red blood cells - and iron deficiency. In recent years, iron and other nutrients have been available in powder form.
In the study, scientists set out to evaluate the effectiveness of these micronutrient supplements.
Malnutrition is a complicated condition. Sometimes it's about not getting enough food. Other times, it's about not getting the right food. For young children, that can be the vitamins and minerals that are a key part of the nourishment they need to grow strong and healthy.
For decades, children at risk of not getting enough iron have been given iron supplements. But now scientists understand that other vitamins and minerals are important, too.
So in recent years, mothers of at-risk children have been getting little packets loaded with these important micronutrients to supplement their youngsters' usual diet. World Health Organization epidemiologist Luz Maria De Regil says they're easy to use.
"Basically they just sprinkle the powders into the foods, into the baby's foods," she says. "So the idea is fortifying the food at home or at any other place of consumption without changing the physical characteristics of the foods."
But what about their effectiveness?
De Regil and other researchers combined the results of eight previous studies involving thousands of children. The studies were done on three continents, in countries as varied as Haiti, Cambodia, and Ghana.
This systematic review found that the micronutrient powder was very helpful in preventing malnutrition.
"The use of multiple micronutrient powders is a very good option to fortify the infant food and reduce anemia and iron deficiency in children aged six months to two years of age," De Regil says.
Specifically, the supplement powder reduced anemia by about one-third and iron deficiency by half compared to no supplement or a placebo.
Compared with traditional iron supplements, however, the results were less clear. The micronutrient powder seem to be about equally effective as iron supplements, but the authors say that conclusion should be treated "cautiously," because of limited data.