Friday, January 25, 2008

How safe and effective are DHA and ARA additives in infant formula?

Infant formula companies say oils that have been added to infant formula in recent years make the products "closer than ever to breastmilk." But these additives -- DHA (an omega-3 fatty acid) and ARA (an omega-6 fatty acid) -- may be ineffective or even unsafe, according to a report released today (.pdf) by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based food policy advocacy group.
What is troublesome, however, is that some infant formulas contain DHA- and ARA-containing oils that are novel foods—extracted from laboratory-grown fermented algae and fungus and processed utilizing a toxic chemical, hexane. These algal and fungal oils provide DHA and ARA in forms that are structurally different from those naturally found in human milk. These manufactured oils are known as DHASCO and ARASCO, which stand for docosahexaenoic acid single cell oil and arachidonic acid single cell oil.

These oils are produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation and appear to be added to infant formula primarily as a marketing tool designed to convince parents that formula is now “as close as ever to breast milk.” Substantiating this thesis is a Martek investment promotion from 1996, which reads as follows: “Even if [the DHA/ARA blend] 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.'”

Scientists have conducted numerous studies that show little or no benefit to an infant’s development from adding DHASCO and ARASCO to infant formula. Overall, research results are inconsistent and inconclusive. Meanwhile, the formula companies have advertised aggressively in an attempt to convince parents that their DHA/ARA formula provides the same nutrients, and therefore the same benefits, as breast milk.

A former employee for the Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) in Texas explains: “Since they added these oils to formula, many new mothers seem to believe that formula is just as good for their babies as breast milk. It became much harder for us at WIC to convince mothers to breastfeed when formula ads claim that formula is as close as ever to breast milk.”
Mainstream web sources on DHA and ARA offer little reassurance. The Food and Drug Administration's FAQ page about infant formula says there is mixed evidence of short term benefit and no evidence of long term benefit. FDA says systematic monitoring is not in place to assess risks and benefits in countries where these addititives have been used, and the agency has asked formula makers to do postmarket surveillance of infants who consume these additives.


Charlotte said...

Thanks, Parke, for covering this important issue on your blog.

I'd like to add one especially troubling finding: these oils appear to cause diarrhea and gastrointestinal distress in a subset of the infant population. When we sent a Freedom of Information request to the FDA for access to adverse reaction reports, we found that 98 (out of hundreds) of reports could be linked directly to these algal DHA and fungal ARA oils in formula. Here is one example:

“My son began taking Enfamil Next Step Prosobee Lipil formula. He began having severe, explosive diarrhea. His stool was watery, loose, frequent and smelled horrible. He was obviously uncomfortable and gassy and his bottom became quite irritated from all the diarrhea. He had to drink pedialyte to rehydrate and he lost a considerable amount of weight. The diarrhea has lasted almost three months! He has had three stool samples done since December, all showing no sign of infection, bacteria or parasite. I read about the adverse effects that infants were experiencing form the Lipil formula and took him off the Next Step immediately. Today was the first day in three months that he actually had a firm stool with no sign of diarrhea. … My baby is not an experiment. Mead Johnson should be ashamed of itself for allowing this to happen and the FDA should take responsibility for our health and the health of our children.”

Anonymous said...

I just recently had a child in Dec. 2007. She was put on enfamil lipil and had diarrhea that was really watery and smelled awful. I had be reading online about different formulas and ran across these sites saying that DHA and ARA are not approved by the FDA and that they may actually be harmful instead of helpful to babies. I switched her to regular enfamil not containing these additives and she has not had diarrhea since. I want to know why in the hell the FDA would allow Mead Johnson to market this stuff without any proof that these additives are indeed without question safe for infants. In my opinion all the babies being born in this country are being used like lab rats and my child will not be one of those. I think with all the questions of whether DHA and ARA is actually healty and beneficial it should not be marketed at all. I've also read that the AAP has not made it known where they stand on this matter, could it be that they feel it's not healthy. I think it's a shame how Mead Johnson has put out a product for babies to consume not knowing for certain what damage it could be doing or what good if any it could be doing. I guess if they convince parents that this is better than formula not containing these additives than they will make more money. What a greedy company to put children at risk for unknown side affects just to make money. That's another thing, if all these side affects are known and how these additives are made and that they are not sure of benefits of this formula, I want to know why parents aren't made aware of the full story instead of just the half that's it's "supposed" to be good for them. I know one thing my child will not be a part of the "testing" of this product. I will not buy anything that has these additives for my child to consume.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I gave my daughter Good Start formula with DHA and ARA from the time she was born until she was 12 months old. She never experienced any adverse side affects. SHe is 18- months old now and is healthy and exteremly smart. If the DHA and ARA being put in formulas really is so bad, than wouldn't it have a bad affect on all babies. Maybe some babies are just sensitive to these additives, that doesn't mean it is harmful to all infants. That is just my thought. I would hope that these formula companies would not add DHA and ARA to experiment the affects on our children. That would be terrible.

Anonymous said...

My daughter just had her 3-year well baby visit and her scores were through the roof. 97th percentile in height and 95th percentile in weight. She is healthy, happy and is well beyond her friends of similar age in cognition and speech. My wife took prenatals with DHA and ARA, we fed my daughter generic (Kirkland brand) formula with DHA and ARA and we currently feed our daughter organic milk and other foods with DHA and ARA. We've never had the problems described in some of these comments. I'm no doctor, nor am I a nutritionist, but perhaps there was something else in those formulas that triggered the diarrhea, or the fact it was simply a new substance in an immature digestive system. I'm as skeptical as they come, so I can't say these supplements were, in fact, the difference maker. There are always unknown variables. However, based on my experice, DHA and ARA SEEMED to have had a very positive effect on our child, and I recommend these supplements to any pregnant woman or mother with a newborn.

Anonymous said...

Back in the day, before iron fortified formulas were invented, not every child was iron deficient and most grew up just fine, but then they learned that iron can be very beneficial. Babies were often prematurely given whole milk and turned out "smart". Slowly but surely we're finding that the things we put in our babies can have all sorts of long term effects. There are still tons and tons of stuff missing in formula that breast milk has. There are currently studies being done on the rise in all sorts of mental health illnesses, it wouldn't surprise me if they soon (or not so soon) find out that these illnesses (along with other illness) and be linked back to the diet that was nurturing the developing brain, and the current diet of that brain.

april- infant formula reviews said...

After reading a lot of reports and the debate of Dha and ara, it's scary. Some say it's fine and others say it isn't. Where they get these oils is troublesome. I know in Baby's only they get it from eggs. Isn't natural better than from labs? And I know breast milk is better but not everyone is able to do that.

Anonymous said...

to elaborate more on aprils coment regarding babys only formula: Babys only formula has linolenic acid and linoleic acid. for full term infants and older through adult these acids facilitate the bodys natural ability to produce its own natural dha and ara. after doing weeks of researche on a variety of the markets infant formulas i found that only the babys only formula has both of these acids. why give your baby a formula with chemically processed dha and ara if there is even a slight chance it could be harmful??? especially for those infants that are exclusively formula fed. thats a lot of processed additives, processed with only God knows what. Why take the chance on a child. Its just not worth it. As far as the food subsidy WIC I'm disgusted that mothers who have financial challenges are forced to give their babies enfamil with dha and ara0 WIC doesn't even worn them of the risks. Mothers regardless of their financial status should be offered the opportunity to choose. WIC should give the vouchers with a maximum on the dollar amount and let the mother choose which formula is best for her baby.