DHA and ARA: What are they and why are they in infant formula?


Posted 3.12.13 | Mallory West


If your baby consumes Neocate or another infant formula, you have most likely heard of DHA and ARA. You may be wondering “What are DHA and ARA?” and “Why are they added to infant formula?” We’ll fill you in with today’s post!

Docosahexaenoic acid, better known as DHA, and arachidonic acid, better known as ARA, are fatty acids found in breast milk, as well as in some foods, like fish and eggs. (Fatty acids combine to make fat molecules.) Both DHA and ARA are classified as long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids, or PUFAs, a special type of fatty acid. They each play important roles in our bodies and health throughout our lifetimes.

The human body can make small amounts of DHA and ARA from α-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA), respectively. ALA and LA are also classified as PUFAs.  In fact, ALA and LA are known as "essential fatty acids”. They are the only two essential fatty acis, and are essential because, unlike other fatty acids, our bodies cannot make them, so they MUST be obtained from our diet. ALA and LA are found various foods, as well as in breast milk and in infant formulas.  

DHA and ARA play very important roles in early brain and eye development, although they aren't yet classified as "essential." The levels of DHA and ARA in the brain rapidly increase during the last trimester of pregnancy and throughout the first two years of life. While breast milk naturally contains ALA and LA, it also contains DHA and ARA. Generally the more fish in a lactating mom's diet, the higher the levels of DHA and ARA in her breast milk.

It turns out that infants create very little DHA and ARA from the ALA and LA they get from breast milk and/or infant formula. Years ago, infant formulas contained ALA and LA, but no DHA or ARA. Research from back then found higher blood levels of DHA and ARA in breast-fed infants in comparison to formula-fed infants, and there's also evidence that there may be some benefits to having preformed DHA and ARA during infancy.

Because of these findings, almost all infant formulas are now fortified with pre-formed DHA and ARA. Although experts agree that breast milk is the ideal nutrition for infants, and we agree, there are some situations where breast feeding is not possible or has to be supplemented with infant formula. One great example is infants with severe and/or multiple food allergies. In such cases where an infant formula is needed, experts recommend using an infant formula which contains between 0.2% and 0.5% of total fatty acids as DHA, and at least as much ARA as DHA (Koletzko, 2008).

For those of you with little ones drinking Neocate, you can feel confident that the levels of DHA and ARA fall right in the middle of this range. In fact, the level of DHA in Neocate infant formulas is comparable to the worldwide average found in breast milk of about 0.32% (Brenna, 2007). Here are the levels of DHA and ARA in Neocate infant formulas available in the United states, expressed both as a percentage and as milligrams in 100 calories (5 fluid ounces of formula, when prepared as directed):

  Neocate® Infant DHA/ARA Neocate® SyneoTM Infant
DHA, % Total Fatty Acids 0.35% 0.35%
DHA per 100 calories 16.9 mg 16.2 mg
ARA, % Total Fatty Acids 0.35% 0.35%
ARA per 100 calories 16.9 mg 16.2 mg


The use of DHA and ARA in infant formulas is supported by the US Food and Drug and Administration (FDA), the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the American Dietetic Association, and various other regulatory bodies around the world.

We hope this helps answer your questions about DHA and ARA, but feel free to ask if you have any more!

-Mallory & Rob, Nutrition Specialists                                                                                                                              

 

Photo:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/pfly/115546916/sizes/m/in/photostream/

Sources:

  1. FDA/CFSAN Office of Nutritional Products, Labeling and Dietary Supplements July 2002.
  2. The US Food and Drug Administration. Questions & Answers for Consumers Concerning Infant Formula. http://www.fda.gov/Food/FoodSafety/Product-SpecificInformation/InfantFormula/ConsumerInformationAboutInfantFormula/ucm108079.htm.   Updated December 14, 2012. Accessed March 3, 2013.
  3. International Formula Council (IFC) Statement on DHA/ARA and Infant Formula. http://www.infantformula.org/news-room/press-releases-and-statements/infant-formula-and-dha/ara. Published March 1, 2010. Accessed March 12, 2013.
  4. Koletzko B, et al. The roles of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in pregnancy, lactation and infancy: review of current knowledge and consensus recommendations. J Perinat Med. 2008;36:5-14.
  5. Uauy R et al. Term infant studies of DHA and ARA supplementation on neurodevelopment: results of randomized controlled trials. J Pediatr. 2003 Oct;143(4 Suppl):S17-25.
  6. Birch EE, et al. The DIAMOND (DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development) Study: a double-masked, randomized controlled clinical trial of the maturation of infant visual acuity as a function of the dietary level of docosahexaenoic acid. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:848-59.
  7. Brenna JT, et al. Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007;85:1457-64.

Read Comments (6)

  • 2013-03-21 | Anne

    Seeing all the benefits of DHA and ARA, why are they not added to the Neocate, Jr.?  Thanks!!

  • 2013-03-22 | Mallory

    Hi Anne,
    Most of the research on the role of DHA and ARA in early brain and eye development has focused on the first year of life. This led us to add DHA and ARA to the Neocate Infant. Since the Neocate Junior is used in children beyond 1 year, DHA and ARA was not added. Hope this helps answer your question!

  • 2014-11-16 | diwata alejo

    Where is the DHA used in Neocate derived from? Algae or fish oil?

  • 2014-11-17 | Rob McCandlish, RDN

    Thanks for your question. The oil that is the source of DHA in Neocate Infant DHA/ARA is derived from a single-celled algae, NOT from fish. Almost all infant formulas worldwide that have added DHA use this oil source.

  • 2017-05-06 | Lina

    I am trying to compare amounts of DHA in other formula. What is the DHA mg in each 5 fluid ounces of Neocate? 100MG is recommended daily for infants, but the percentage you are providing is not helpful for comparison.

  • 2017-05-08 | Nutrition Specialist

    Hi Lina,
      Thanks so much for your question! We’ve updated the blog above to display the content of DHA and ARA in both Neocate Infant DHA/ARA and Neocate Syneo Infant. Thanks for helping us improve the post!
      Almost all evidence-based recommendations for DHA and ARA made by expert groups are based on a percentage, not a milligram value. There are lots of “recommendations” floating around on the internet, some less reputable than others. Make sure you check with your healthcare team if you have any questions!
      Best,
    Rob

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Food Allergy Living is a resource for parents of children with food allergies, brought to you by Nutricia, the makers of Neocate. For more in-depth information about our purpose & authors, see our About Food Allergy Living page.