Are infant formulas with DHA and ARA safe?

Studies show that the naturally occurring polyunsaturated fats docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) found in human milk are beneficial for babies’ brain, neural, and eye development. However, the synthetic versions of these compounds manufactured under the names DHASCO and ARASCO, but commonly referred to as DHA and ARA in infant formula, are a source of great controversy.

For years, infant formula manufacturers have been touting synthetic DHA and ARA as fatty acids that benefit infant brain development, but there is little evidence to support these claims. As early as 1996, some experts raised concerns about their use in infant formula. In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) called for a ban on the addition of DHA and ARA to infant formula sold with the “USDA organic” seal. Without commenting on the additives’ safety or appropriateness in standard formulas, the USDA found that the synthetic DHA and ARA oils should not be allowed in organic foods, particularly since they are extracted from fermented algae and fungus through a process that utilizes the known neurotoxic chemical, hexane. In 2011, the National Organic Standards Board voted to allow the synthetic fatty acids to be included in organic foods as long as hexane isn’t used in the manufacturing process (even though the process for extracting the fats uses genetically modified substances that are not organic). According to the Cornucopia Institute, a consumer advocacy group, it is unknown what substance Martek currently uses to extract DHA and ARA from its algae and fungus. Cornucopia observes that “[a]lthough Martek told the board they would discontinue the use of the controversial neurotoxic solvent n-hexane … they did not disclose what other synthetic solvents would be substituted.”

A systematic review of the scientific literature updated by the Cochrane Collaborative in 2016 concluded that there is no scientific evidence of benefits to healthy, full-term babies, and when available research is pooled, the same is true for premature infants. One study suggests that DHA needs may vary widely among infants, raising questions about a manufacturer’s ability to identify appropriate levels. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require pre-market testing of infant formulas and accepts the manufacturers’ statements of safety and effectiveness without independent review, making parents’ assessment of risks and benefits even more difficult.

Formula-feeding mothers will need to make their own decisions about whether they want to give their baby formula with added DHA and ARA knowing that there may be some risks to ingesting the synthetic oils. The Cornucopia Institute has reported on babies experiencing symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea that resolve with a switch to a DHA- and ARA-free formula, as well as instances of dehydration and seizures requiring hospitalization. However, DHA and ARA-free formulas are becoming more and more difficult to find. While a study of such food additives by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that they are typically not worth the added cost, the December 2015 Consumer Reports found only one formula without the additives available in the U.S. market, and that was marketed for toddlers rather than infants.

If you do choose to use a formula with these additives, you may want to contact manufacturers and find out the specific levels of DHA and ARA in their products, since some contain more than others. Contacting the makers with product questions ensures that you get the most up-to-date information. If your baby experiences signs of gastrointestinal upset with a formula that contains DHA and ARA (symptoms may include diarrhea, foul-smelling gas, vomiting, abdominal cramping, or dehydration), speak to his pediatrician about other options, including donor milk. Alternatively, you may be able to take steps to relactate. Even if you are unable to fully breastfeed your child, you may be able to reduce the amount of formula—and therefore DHA and ARA—that he consumes. 

Last updated November 21, 2020

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