For chemical engineer Tonghan Gu, a typical day of fieldwork in Mumbai, India, begins not in a lab, but with a visit to Shree Char Bhuja Dairy. The clerks at this small shop in the city’s northern suburbs are friendly, if slightly puzzled, as they handle his request for 10 one-liter pouches of milk. The daily transaction takes only a minute or two, but it is part of a project that seeks a lasting impact in the fight against child malnutrition.

Gu, an MIT Tata Fellow and a PhD candidate in the Department of Chemical Engineering, works with ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), a high-calorie, nutrient-dense paste that is the most widely-used outpatient treatment for severe acute malnutrition. While RUTF has seen success in many African countries, it has failed to get the same foothold in India due to issues with palatability, reliability of water supply, and cost.

However, patent-pending research from Gu and T. Alan Hatton, the Ralph Landau Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering, describes a new RUTF formula that uses local ingredients to increase palatability for Indian children, can be powdered and spray-dried to make transportation and storage easy, and is affordable in the poor communities where severe acute malnutrition is most prevalent.