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

Posted 3.12.13 | Mallory West

If your child 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 in 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 oil, eggs, algae, and fungi. 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.

Our bodies can make DHA and ARA from α-linolenic acid (ALA) and linoleic acid (LA), which are also classified as PUFAs.  ALA and LA are known as the “essential fatty acids”. They are considered essential because unlike other fatty acids, our bodies cannot make them, so they must be obtained from the diet. ALA and LA are found various foods, in breast milk, and in infant formulas.  

DHA and ARA play a very important role in early brain and eye development. 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.  Although DHA and ARA can be made from ALA and LA in breast milk and infant formula, breast milk also contains pre-formed DHA and ARA. Previous studies have found higher blood levels of DHA and ARA in breast-fed infants in comparison to formula-fed infants, indicating that there may be some benefit to having preformed DHA and ARA during infancy.

Because of these findings, most infant formulas are now fortified with pre-formed DHA and ARA. Although experts agree that breast feeding is the ideal feeding method for infants, there are some situations where breast feeding is not possible. In such cases, experts recommend using an infant formula which contains at least 0.2% of total fatty acids as DHA and 0.35% as ARA (Koletzko, 2001). For those of you with little ones drinking Neocate, this the amount provided by Neocate Infant. 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!





  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. B. Koletzko et al. Long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFA) and perinatal development. Acta Paediatr, 90 (2001), pp. 460–464.
  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.

Read Comments (4)

  • 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.

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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.