Infant Formula and DHA/ARA

February 19, 2013 at 4:40 am

About five years ago, I learned something disturbing about the DHA/ARA added to many infant formulas.

Based on a report presented by the Cornucopia Institute (a corporate watch-dog group), the DHA/ARA added to many infant formulas is created from fermented algae and fungus and is structurally different than the DHA/ARA found in breast milk. The FDA isn’t even convinced of the safety of these algal and fungal DHA/ARA additives. Apparently, there are reports of infants fed DHA/ARA formula who suffered from severe diarrhea, vomiting, dehydration, and seizures until being switched to a non-DHA/ARA-supplemented formula. Some infants even suffered death. Despite the FDA’s reservations, these additives were somehow still approved for infant/human consumption.

Formulas supplemented with DHA/ARA are marketed as being “more like breastmilk,” suggesting to consumers that they are somehow healthier than other formulas. In fact, scientific studies are inconclusive regarding the benefits of these DHA/ARA additives. Martek Biosciences Corporation, a manufacturer of these additives even acknowledged: “Even if [DHA/ARA] has no benefit, we think it would be widely incorporated into formulas, as a marketing tool and to allow companies to promote their formula as ‘closest to human milk'”(source).

Here’s what the Cornucopia Institute concluded about the motives of infant formula manufacturers: “Given the safety concerns and doubts within the scientific community, it is clear that the infant formula manufacturers’ claims are marketing tools designed to sell more formula, and sell it at a higher price”(source). So what it really comes down to is money. Adding DHA/ARA sells more formula, regardless of the fact that it’s very different from the DHA/ARA in breastmilk and may actually be dangerous.

I know for a fact that, if I had needed to feed my infants formula, I would have gone with the DHA/ARA version because I would have believed it was “better.” Get this… just one day before I learned about the dangers of this type of DHA/ARA, I bought some Yoplait drinkable yogurt. Which kind did I pick? The one that said “with DHA” on it, of course. I later looked at the label, and, sure enough, it had “omega-3 DHA algal oil”—the very stuff implicated the Cornucopia Institute’s report. Marketers certainly aren’t stupid. They know omega-3 DHA is all the rage. I’m especially prone to buy into the notion that anything with DHA is better, regardless of where that DHA came from. Oops.

While I do find all of this disturbing, I also recognize and accept that infant formula is a life-saver for infants who are unable to breastfeed. And, given this fact, I do believe that formula manufacturers should do everything they can to create a product as close as possible to breastmilk. Unfortunately, in the end, it’s really a lost cause because breastmilk is something technology, no matter how advanced, cannot duplicate. While formula saves some lives, it will never be ideal. I’ll end with this quotation from the International Baby Feeding Action Network:

While researchers fiddle with the balance of fatty acids in infant formula, and deal with the additional uncertainties of the complex cascade of interactions that each adjustment provokes within the omega families, breast milk will always be the simple, perfectly balanced source of each essential nutrient. (source)

More Info:

Midwifery Today, Volume 10, Issue 11

“Replacing Mother — Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory” (PDF file of the Cornucopia report)

Questions and Answers About DHA/ARA and Infant Formula

DHA used in infant formula products comes from genetically modified algae