ARA and DHA: Breastmilk in a can

The addition of ARA and DHA into infant formulas is a marketing ploy to capture a larger share of infant formula sales.  And now it's getting harder to find the unfortified formula, because the advertising is working so well. DHA and ARA are two ingredients found in breastmilk that, until now, were missing in formula.  Instead of saying "hey, we fixed a problem" the companies roll out the correction of these deficiencies by saying that they are getting closer to breastmilk.

I'm not the only one complaining about this.   There are great debates taking place in the American Academy of Pediatrics, involving people much smarter than me, revolving around whether or not the advertising is true to the actual studies out there.  WIC offices have to decide if they  are going to pay more for the ARA and DHA stuff or go with the less expensive stuff.  (The more expensive it is, the less formula that families get each month.  And that has implications as well.)  Breastfeeding advocates all over the planet are crying foul as more and more people believe that these formulas are close to breastmilk.  And just guessing from the email I'm getting, message boards all over the internet are talking about this as well.

 I'm upset because of the advertising of these products -- it drives me crazy, playing on the heartstrings of new parents by suggesting that the addition of ARA and DHA to formula makes their products the "closest formula to breastmilk ever." The marketing also says "ask your doctor about the potential benefits" so here we go....

The oils that are added to these products, Crypthecodinium Cohnii and Mortierella Alpina, are manufactured by Martek Biosciences ( They are extracts from microalgae and fermented fungus that are "rich" in ARA and DHA, but contain other plant fatty acids.

Several studies, not funded by Ross or Mead Johnson, have shown no evidence to support their use in human infant formula.  In fact, the Ross data showed no difference between the vision and developmental outcomes in kids fed their fortified and unfortified formulas, but they made the fortified stuff anyway.  Mead Johnson showed that there was a difference, and they say that it's because they use more of the DHA and ARA than the Ross folks do. Maybe.  Maybe their original stuff just wasn't as good.

Since formula is a food, these additives only had to go through enough testing to get a "Generally Recognized as Safe" notification.  That is much less rigorous than the standards used to allow a drug to be released into the market. And because formula is a food, the policing of the advertising is much less stringent.  If it was a drug, they would have to be better at proving their statements.

The FDA has given Martek a "favorable review" of their "Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) notification" (see below for that definition) but on the stipulation that there should be post market surveillance. These formulas are now being studied by the Institute of Medicine for safety.  Now, the  FDA does follow up on all the products they review, but the situation with formula should be different. Right now, we recommend 6 months without solid foods.  That means that kids will potentially be taking the same food day in and day out for months.  If there is something wrong with the product, then we are creating a problem.  Formula is not like any other food out there...what other food do we recommend we eat exclusively for 6 months?  In Israel this year, 20 kids suffered neurologic damage when the formula they were taking day in and day out was found to be deficient in vitamin B1.


This page has drawn a lot of attention....

First off...this is my website, my soap box and my opinion.

I have heard things like "penicillin is made from fungus, and you'd give that to your child if they needed it, right?"  Sure you would, if they needed it.  I guess I'm saying that nobody needs this stuff. 

Another frequent email refrain is "well, my kid was on this formula and didn't have any problems" which is fine, but don't we want to hold the nutrition we give our children to a higher standard then "didn't have any problems?"   Shouldn't what we give them be something beneficial?  I don't think the data proves that these formulas are beneficial. 

I have heard also that docs are recommending it despite the fact that it's undergoing review by the AAP because "it may not do what it says it does, but it certainly doesn't do any harm."  So, then, you pay for it, but what are you paying for?  I don't think it's better IQ.  I think it's the marketing budget of several huge companies.  And that marketing budget includes many physician's offices (not mine!)  and hospitals getting "free" samples.  Even the AAP accepts huge sums of money from formula companies. The true aim of any company is to provide profits for its shareholders.  These new products have done just that.  Martek, Mead Johnson and Ross have all seen boosts in their profits because of these formulas.   And we don't know what long-term effects the formulas have.  The longest I've heard for the formula studies is 2-3 years. 

What I do know, and why I am so passionate about infant feeding, is that breastmilk is much, much  better for infants, that the recipe is so good, it hasn't changed for thousands of years, and that data repeatedly prove that without a huge marketing budget.  I think it is the best choice for all women who can nurse.

And those of you who are medically unable to breastfeed, I want you to know that it isn't just breastmilk or formula that makes a child special.  If you have tried to nurse, and were unable to or you have a medical problem that makes nursing impossible, then take heart in the fact that formulas now have the nutrition children need, and that you tried.  Your children are better for that effort.


Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS)  Refers to substances that are "generally recognized as safe" for consumption and can be added to foods by manufacturers without establishing their safety by rigorous experimental studies. Congress established the GRAS list in 1958.

The FDA established the GRAS process to provide a way to establish the safety of a product more quickly than the Agency's food additive petition procedure. Under the GRAS process, the same safety data normally submitted to the FDA under the food additive petition process is reviewed by a number of FDA-recognized food safety experts. If these experts determine that the product is safe, then the product may be sold in the U.S. just as if it had been through the FDA food additive petition process. The GRAS process is generally many years shorter than the food additive petition process, and provides expert review of the same data.



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