The Infant Formula Debate: Better nutrition or just hype?

June 14, 2010

The most crucial time for brain growth and development occurs between birth and age two.

The most crucial time for brain growth and development occurs between birth and age two. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), infancy is defined as the first twelve months of life. Supermarkets shelves are stocked with infant formulas; most boast significant functional health claims - and a higher price tag. Claims include: supports brain and eye health, growth, and immune function.  Isn’t this what all infant formula is supposed to do? So now mothers are left to decide between the formula for better brain development and the formula without such a claim. The Lempert Report believes infant formula should provide the known and reproducible elements of mother’s milk and the 29 nutrients specified by the FDA. The addition of other functional ingredients seems like a questionable, partially irresponsible, marketing ploy at best.
The addition of the long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, DHA and ARA, to infant formulas and the marketing techniques used by infant formulators has sparked the recent debate. DHA and ARA are non-essential fatty acids and can be made from other ‘essential’ fatty acids in the diet; in this case, infant formula. Some studies suggest that some infants, such as premies, may demonstrate visual and cognitive benefits from consumption. Other studies fail to demonstrate any benefits. The FDA reports that currently there are no available published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist.
What is known is that DHA accumulates in the brain and eyes of the fetus, and both DHA and ARA are found in human breast milk.  Breast fed children typically have higher blood levels of the two fatty acids. For exactly these reasons, formula manufacturers are interested in providing consumers with formula that contains these elements.     
Under The Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, infant formula is, “a food which purports to be or is represented for special dietary use solely as a food for infants by reason of its simulation of human milk or its suitability as a complete or partial substitute for human milk.” So if human milk contains ARA and DHA, why isn’t it a mandatory component of infant formula? Well, both the FDA and American Academy of Pediatrics aren’t convinced its necessary since it can be made in the body.  

DHA and ARA are fairly new formula additions; they were added to products sold in the US beginning in 2002 and have been used in other countries for only a few years. In fact, the FDA has asked manufacturers to do a post market surveillance of infants consuming these formulas. The FDA believes that the evaluation of the safety of new food ingredients is a time-dependent judgment based on general scientific knowledge as well as specific data and information about the ingredient. Therefore, scientific data that become available after specific products containing a new ingredient enter the market must be considered as a part of the totality of information about the ingredient.  The FDA continues on to say that, “for all these reasons, manufacturers have been asked to closely monitor these new infant formulas in the marketplace.” So all of the infants being fed formula with DHA and ARA are actually part of a large scale, long term FDA study?

Without convincing scientific evidence to support the addition of functional ingredients to infant formulas, which very well may justify the price, the addition of DHA and ARA seem nothing more than a marketing ploy. 

It is important to note that there have been no reported negative effects of DHA and ARA supplements.