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Dangerous Hype: Infant Formula Companies Claim They Can Make Babies 'Smarter'

Companies have fortified their products with synthetic versions of certain fatty acids associated with brain development. But evidence shows it may be making children sick.

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"New evidence favors baby formula," announced the Los Angeles Times, in an ambiguously worded headline that begs the question: Over what is baby formula favored?

Breastfeeding advocates went on the warpath over the suggestion that formula could be better for babies than breast milk.

"Parents will be encouraged to forgo breastfeeding in favor of a hyped-up infant formula," complained Barbara Moore, president and CEO of Shape Up America. "Breast milk has other benefits not related to mental development. It confers protection against infection, including viral infections, and the CDC promotes breastfeeding to confer maximal protection against swine flu and other infections."

Charlotte Vallaeys, a researcher for the Cornucopia Institute, wrote a substantial report on the risks and benefits of DHA/ARA in baby formula. She says the Mead Johnson-funded team behind the Child Development story is "the only group that has found real differences in cognitive development" resulting from the addition of DHA and ARA to formula.

Not that other research teams haven't looked. To make sense of the growing body of research on the subject, a team of scientists led by Karen Simmer compiled a review, published in January 2008, of all available literature. The team found "feeding term infants with milk formula enriched with [DHA and ARA] had no proven benefit regarding vision, cognition or physical growth."

A March 2009 review by the European Food Safety Authority also found the available data "insufficient to establish a cause-and-effect relationship" between DHA, ARA and brain development.

Nonetheless, the use of DHA and ARA has grown, and has even won approval for use in organic baby formula, as well as in organic milk.

In an article for the Washington Post on the eroding integrity of the "certified organic" label, Kimberly Kindy described how these laboratory produced oils received organic approval.   

... in 2006, [USDA] staff members concluded that the fatty acids could not be added to organic baby formula because they are synthetics that are not on the standards board's approved list. ... Barbara Robinson, who administers the organics program and is a deputy USDA administrator, overruled the staff decision after a telephone call and an e-mail exchange with William J. Friedman, a lawyer who represents the formula makers.

While the FDA has raised serious questions regarding the safety of DHA/ARA, the issue remains in limbo, with concerned parents, medical professionals and advocacy groups pushing one way, and the deep-pocketed corporations pushing the other.

The FDA did instruct Martek and the formula companies to conduct post-market surveillance of its DHA and ARA products, but after seven years none has been submitted.

Until conclusive proof emerges on the safety and/or benefit of DHA and ARA in baby formula, it's buyer beware for parents of newborns. And last I checked, breast milk -- the product of millions of years of evolutionary shaping into the perfect food for babies -- remains widely available and free of charge.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

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