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

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 (we do too!), 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 cases where an infant formula is needed to supplement or replace breast milk, 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).

The levels of DHA and ARA in Neocate infant formulas 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® Syneo®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 addition of DHA and ARA to 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.

You might have also come across EPA, or eicosapentaenoic acid (what a mouthful!), in your readings. EPA is another type of fatty acid. The human body can make EPA from ALA, and the human body can then convert EPA into DHA. EPA in the diet is naturally found in fish. EPA is not yet added to any infant formulas in the US, as ALA and DHA are already in formula.

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                                                                                                                             

Last updated January 24, 2019



  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.
Published: 03/12/2013
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