by Heidi Green
May 23, 2010
Natural. Pure. Wholesome. Good. Those are the words that come to mind when I see the “USDA organic” seal. At a time when we are all more mindful of the dangers of pesticides and chemicals in the foods we eat, it’s reassuring to see the small green-and-white emblem that means you don’t need to worry–this product is natural and good for you.
However, a recent ban of synthetic fats commonly found in some organic products raises serious questions about such thinking. A statement on the ban was recently issued by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and will impact infant formula and other foods that contain the synthetic additives widely known as DHA and ARA. As reported by the Washington Post last year and last month, these synthetic oils were added to a list of non-organic ingredients allowed into organic products through a decision by a Bush administration official after discussion with a formula industry lobbyist and over the objections of several USDA employees who had determined such action a violation of federal standards. Deputy Secretary of Agriculture and organics expert Kathleen Merrigan acknowledges that the synthetic oils should not be allowed in organic foods. New guidelines will be developed by the USDA. The process will include a 60-day period for public comment, and could take a year or longer.
What does this mean for parents?
The changes that result from the USDA’s decision may be noticed first by parents who feed their children formula, since the synthetic oils currently are added to nearly all infant formulas. In fact, except for some prescription formulas, the Cornucopia Institute notes that “only one over-the-counter formula is available without synthetic DHA/ARA.” Every other formula on the market includes them. The USDA’s decision ensures that more infant formulas will be available without DHA and ARA.
While the USDA does not, in its statement, challenge the safety of the additives, others do. For years, the Cornucopia Institute and the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy (NABA) have questioned the appropriateness and safety of adding these substances to infant formula and other foods.
Its report, “Replacing Mother – Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory,” is an examination of the synthetic oils from production to inclusion in formula, a caution about reports of side effects experienced by infants who consume them, and a look at relevant federal policies.
Why include DHA/ARA in formula?
DHA and ARA are polyunsaturated fats naturally found in human milk. In recent years, these fatty acids have received heightened attention in both the laboratory and the media as a result of ongoing controversy about healthy levels of fish intake for pregnant and breastfeeding women. Authorities have agreed that the fatty acids are important for brain, neural, and eye development; as discussion turned to how much DHA and ARA pregnant and breastfeeding women should consume for their infants’ health, formula companies saw a marketing opportunity. If they included synthetic versions of these oils (manufactured under the names DHASCO and ARASCO) in infant formula, the companies could assuage parents’ concerns about their baby’s development while suggesting that formula is “as close as ever to breast milk.” As noted in a Martek investment promotion from 1996 (and quoted in the Cornucopia Institute’s report), “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.’”
In fact, leading formula manufacturer Mead Johnson admits on its Enfamil website that numerous scientific studies have shown little or no benefit to infant development, lending support to the theory that inclusion of these oils is just a marketing gimmick—much like the inclusion of prebiotics.
Unfortunately, it seems to be an effective gimmick. The percentage of people who agreed that “infant formula and breastfeeding are equally good ways of feeding an infant” doubled from 12 percent to 24 percent between 2003 and 2004, when the formula companies began advertising their supplemented formulas.
What is the cause for concern?
There are several causes for concern about the synthetic DHA and ARA added to formula and other foods and beverages.
First, parents should be aware that even though their infant formula may be labeled “USDA organic,” the process by which these additives are made is about as far from natural as possible. Martek Biosciences Corporation, extracts the oils from fermented algae and fungus with the use of a synthetic solvent hexane, a neurotoxic chemical. It’s possible that hexane residues evaporate before the oils are consumed, but according to the Cornucopia Institute’s report, tests have shown that hexane residues do appear in some edible oils. We don’t know the effects of hexane on health, but organics experts feel that the process would cause the National Organics Standards Board to deny the inclusion of these synthetic fats on the list of allowable additives to organic foods. Fats produced in this way hardly sound like the sorts of things parents who are shopping organic want to feed their children.
Second, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not affirmed the safety of the synthetic oils, noting that “[s]ome studies have reported unexpected deaths among infants who consumed formula supplemented with long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids … attributed to SIDS, sepsis or necrotizing enterocolitis. Also, some studies have reported adverse events and other morbidities including diarrhea, flatulence, jaundice, and apnea in infants fed long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.”
Unlike the natural DHA and ARA in breast milk, many infants are unable to digest the synthetic oils. The FDA has received what NABA Executive Director Marsha Walker calls “scores of reports on the adverse effects of these ingredients,” in which infants experience gastrointestinal symptoms ranging in severity from vomiting and diarrhea that cleared up when the baby switched to a non-DHA/ARA formula to severe dehydration and seizures that required hospitalization. Still, infant formula manufacturers have resisted calls for the addition of “warning labels” to product packages. As a result, parents cannot make informed decisions about the risks of DHA/ARA formula relative to other feeding options, and they often don’t know that their children’s health problems can be solved by switching to a formula without these additives.
What can parents do?
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