DHA-enriched formula boosts infant brain development

By Stephen Daniells

- Last updated on GMT

Feeding babies formula enriched with the omega-3 fatty acid DHA may enhance their cognitive skills, compared to babies fed non-enriched formula, says a new study.

A dose of 0.36 per cent DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) was necessary to produce superior problem solving performance, according to findings published in Child Development​.

“Given that performance on means-end problem solving is correlated with later IQ and vocabulary, this implies that the cognitive benefits of DHA supplementation might persist well beyond infancy,”​ wrote the researchers, led by James Drover, formerly of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, and now at Memorial University in Canada.

The study used Mead Johnson Nutritionals’ commercial Enfamil with iron infant formula, with or without DHA (0.36 per cent) and ARA (arachidonic acid, 0.72 per cent). The DHA, ARA-containing formulas contained Martek’s single-cell oils, DHASCO and ARASCO.

“Currently, there is no clear consensus on whether infant formula should be supplemented with DHA,”​ said Drover. “However, our results clearly suggest that feeding infants formula supplemented with high concentrations of DHA provides beneficial effects on cognitive development.”

Infant formula is a highly emotive area, with watchdogs keeping a close eye on companies' marketing tactics lest they drift towards promoting their products as preferable to breast-feeding.

While it is agreed that breastfeeding is the best way to ensure an infant receives the nutrients it needs in its first months, formulas are indispensable in cases where mothers are unable to feed their children - be it for health or logistical reasons. Mothers' desire to give their children the best possible start in life means that there is scope for fortification.

The study, funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, followed 229 infants. Babies were randomly assigned to receive either formula supplemented with DHA or traditional infant formula. The babies were given the different formulas either shortly after birth, after 6 weeks of breastfeeding, or after 4 to 6 months of breastfeeding. At nine months of age the babies were given a problem-solving test.

Infants who started receiving the DHA-enriched formula shortly after birth were more successful on the tests, with a 51 percent success rate, compared to only 29 percent for children who received the traditional formula. Furthermore, children given the formula after 6 weeks of breastfeeding also performed better than their counterparts not given the DHA-enriched formula (46 compared to 13 per cent).

Industry welcome

The research was welcomed by fatty acid supplier Martek. A spokesperson for the company told NutraIngredients-USA.com that the study is “significant because it adds to the already strong body of research supporting the important benefits of DHA and ARA for infants.

“Many studies have shown that compared to infants fed formula not supplemented with DHA and ARA, infants fed formula supplemented with DHA and ARA exhibit health benefits like improved mental development and better visual acuity. This body of research has led experts at leading medical institutions, research organizations, regulatory and government agencies across the world to note that DHA and ARA are important nutrients for infant health.

“Human milk represents the optimal form of infant nutrition and Martek agrees that breastfeeding is the best method of feeding infants. However, those parents who need or choose formula should have access to the most nutritionally optimal formula available,” ​said the spokesperson.

The company’s DHA and ARA are found in 99 percent of infant formulas on the U.S. market, in formula in more than 75 countries around the world. “We believe that research like this will help to support the importance of DHA and ARA to infant nutrition and help to ensure that even more infants worldwide receiving infant formula will benefit from these vital fatty acids,”​ added the spokesperson.

Source: Child Development
September/October 2009, Volume 80 Issue 5, Pages 1376-1384
“Three Randomized Controlled Trials of Early Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation on Means-End Problem Solving in 9-Month-Olds”
Authors: J. Drover, D.R. Hoffman, Y.S. Castaneda, S.E. Morale, E.E. Birch

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