11/01/2017 11:19 AM AEDT | Updated 11/01/2017 8:50 PM AEDT

Australian-Made Fish Sauce To Protect Cambodian Babies From Deadly Beriberi

There's a special ingredient that fortifies babies against a deadly deficiency.

Pamela Valente Photography
Cambodia's babies can be protected with a simple nutrient.

Fish sauce is the pungent, salty key to Khmer cooking, and now, it's also protecting babies from a deadly deficiency.

Researchers at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute are using fish sauce to combat beriberi -- a potentially deadly condition for newborn babies caused by B1 or thiamin deficiency.

Principal nutritionist Tim Green told The Huffington Post Australia that beriberi kills more than 700 infants in Cambodia each year.

Families were given free fish sauce for the trial.

"This is a condition that really shouldn't be a problem in this modern century," Green said.

"It's fixed by thiamin, so we started looking at products it could be added to."

Green said the aim was to find something most Cambodians ate, no matter wealth level, location or gender.

"In Australia, it's bread, and that's why flour and bread is fortified with folic acid to reduce neural tubes defects," he said.

Children are tested for any signs of change from the six-month thiamin trial.

"In Cambodia, most calories are coming from white rice, but when you turn brown rice into white rice, you remove all the nutrients including thiamin. We couldn't fortify rice though because most of it is milled by individual women at a village level.

"Cambodians love fish sauce, they put it on everything, and it's got a centralised production facility. Also, it's already fortified with iron so there was a precedent there."

The cost of adding thiamin is about 1c per bottle.

Three groups of women took part in the double-blind, randomised trial, published in The Journal of Pediatrics and Green said the next step was convincing the Cambodian Government to make thiamin mandatory for fish sauce.

As for what fish sauce tastes like?

"In Australian terms, I think most would describe it as 'feral'," he said.

"It's got a very, very strong odour, that's very fishy. When you make it, you sort of let the fish ferment a little.

"It's an acquired taste."

It looks like any other fish sauce and tastes identical.