Traditionally, laddoos are grain-based roasted snacks handed out at Indian festivals that can fit in the palm of kids’ hands. Like donut holes in the U.S., they’re a familiar and well-loved finger food. That’s also why a new, nutrient-fortified laddoo could also serve as a much-needed source of iron for kids in malnourished communities.
“It’s sweetened, and the variety of laddoos that exist in India is pretty mind-boggling,” says Anisha Shankar, who headed back to her home city of Pune recently to try and create a more healthy laddoo for 350 local, impoverished kids. Some 45,000 children in the Indian state of Maharashtra, where Pune is located, die of malnutrition each year, and 50% of the kids in Shankar’s first pilot qualified as severely malnourished.
“Poverty is one reason, but parents are also extremely busy,” says Shankar, who was commissioned by the social good nonprofit Design Impact and an Indian charity called the Deep Griha Society to conduct her work. “They don’t have time to prepare traditional meals, so children are given a few rupees to go and spend, which they will spend on candy and other high-energy foods that are basically not nutritious.”
Shankar describes her six months of product testing as trying–it was difficult to get the kids, as well as the employees and volunteers at Deep Griha, to be honest with her about the various types of laddoos she would cook up. At first, Shankar tried using a smiley face versus frowny face evaluation system, but those failed.
“None of those evaluation records ever worked, because in India, people would never say to someone that they didn’t like something,” Shankar says. (Shankar is Indian, but had lived in the United States for many years, she adds.) “The way to respond truthfully was to have them compare two or three different snacks, so they could tell me which one was their favorite, and which one was their second favorite.”
Eventually, Shankar found a winning recipe consisting of whole wheat flour, whole roasted peanuts, milk, cardamom, unclarified butter (ghee), sesame seed, and jaggery, or cane juice pressed into cakes, which is a rich source of iron. Normally, laddoo is made with lots of ghee, which is both expensive and not particularly nutritious, but Shankar’s recipe relied on largely cheap goods, with altered proportions.
After Shankar’s fellowship ended, parents bought into the pilot program at 15 rupees a week, or about $0.24, and Design Impact and the Deep Griha Society continued to monitor the heights and weights of 68 kids who ate the laddoos three times a week for six months. More than half of the children shifted from severely malnourished to moderately malnourished (based on height), and 42% shifted from severely malnourished to moderately malnourished (based on weight).
The Deep Griha Society has continued feeding laddoos to the children at their day care centers, though Ramsey Ford, cofounder of Design Impact, is looking into a more rigorous trial to measure the health impacts of the modified laddoo. The project was recently nominated for a World Design Impact prize, and Ford says he’s been in talks with larger Indian nonprofits about expanding the food’s reach to 5,000 kids. He’s also speaking to local Indian distributors about what it might look like to have a Popeye-type character who eats laddoos instead of spinach as a marketing plug.
Eventually, Ford hopes the laddoo can be turned over to a local non-governmental organization and sustain itself. “A lot of our projects in India are about empowering local organizations to find market-based solutions,” he says.