DHA and ARA in Infant Formula

In recent years there has been a great deal of talk about the importance of certain fatty acids known as DHA and ARA. These fatty acids are found naturally in breast milk, and can be made by the body from other fatty acids in the diet. They are believed to be essential for proper eye and brain development in babies, and a synthetic version is now added to nearly every baby formula on the market.

What are DHA and ARA?

DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid) are polyunsaturated fatty acids that are naturally found in some foods such as fish and eggs, as well as in breast milk. Also called lipids, these are essential to the body, and are known to be present in large quantities in the eyes and brains of newborn babies.

What are the Benefits of DHA and ARA?

These fatty acids are part of a group of fats known as Omega-3’s, which are considered to be the healthiest fats for the human body. Omega-3’s have been connected with a reduction in heart disease in adults. The evidence for the benefits of adding these substances to infant formula is mixed. Some studies suggest that the additives can have a short-term positive impact on visual and neural development. Because these additives are fairly new, however, there is not much in the way of long-term evidence of benefits to baby.

DHA and ARA in Formula

Because breast milk contains natural DHA and ARA, and babies who are breast fed have higher levels of the important lipids in their systems, formula manufacturers have started adding the synthetic forms of DHA and ARA to their products. Although they claim this makes their formula a lot closer to breast milk, it is important to recognize that the versions of the fatty acids being added to formula are not the same as the natural version found in breast milk.

Until more research is done, it is difficult to say whether or not these additives are beneficial or even safe. There is some concern that the synthetic versions of fatty acids could cause some side effects. The FDA has approved these additives for use in infant formulas, however, and at this time almost all formulas do contain them.

Although formulas already contain other fats that the body can use to create DHA and ARA, they will not reach the same levels as breastfed babies. Adding the synthetic version of the lipids brings the levels of DHA and ARA in a formula fed baby up to a level nearly on par with a baby who receives them through breast milk.

The bottom line: if you are really concerned about the DHA and ARA your baby needs, the best choice is to breast feed, as your baby will receive the natural version of the fats that is the same as those the body produces. If it isn’t possible, then infant formulas fortified with fatty acids are a good alternative. Until much more research is done, however, it is impossible to know for sure that these additives are providing any real long-term benefit to babies.

If you would prefer to feed your baby a formula that does not contain DHA and ARA additives, there are some still available, but you might pay more for them. Discuss the benefits and possible risks of the options with your baby’s doctor in order to make an informed decision.

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