NEW DELHI (AFP) - Children in South Asia are bearing the brunt of spiralling food prices as malnutrition is on the rise with millions at risk, the UN children's fund said on Tuesday. The price of rice and wheat has doubled under the worldwide pinch. Poor households are consuming one less meal or substituting expensive ingredients, David Toole, regional director of UNICEF South Asia, told a press briefing. "When food prices double we have a near perfect storm affecting children in poverty," Toole said. In South Asia, "we are seeing increasing rates of malnutrition in the past several months in mostly western and midwestern areas. These are the poor areas." At 42 percent, South Asia has the world's highest underweight prevalence. "Because the rates of malnutrition in South Asia are so high, it's very hard to know if this is the cause for the change," he said, referring to the spiralling food prices. Still, a spokeswoman for UNICEF South Asia said many youth were at risk from the food crisis, particularly in India, where at least 43 percent of children are already suffering from malnutrition. "Nearly 1.5 to 1.8 million (Indian) children could become malnourished. That is what we fear," said Sarah Crowe, the spokeswoman. Toole said the higher food prices will persist for years since Asian economies have shifted their focus from agriculture to manufacturing. "This is a problem that is not going away. It is likely to continue for a couple of years, and children will take the brunt of this," he said. At a separate press conference, the Indian government said child malnutrition was a major challenge. M.K. Bhan, secretary of India's biotechnology department, told AFP that if malnutrition was not addressed by the age of two, children become vulnerable to diabetes and heart conditions as adults. "When Coca-Cola can infiltrate every village of this country, I can't see why this knowledge can't get to the people," Bhan said, noting that according to their data 46 percent of Indian children were suffering from malnutrition. International health expert Robert Black said an existing Indian health scheme was wrongly targeted at school-age children, when it is too late to fix the problem.