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

If you believed a certain baby formula would make your child smarter, would you buy it?

Infant formula manufacturers are banking that you would. That's why, since 2002, several companies have fortified their products with synthetic versions of DHA and ARA, long-chain fatty acids that occur naturally in breast milk and have been associated with brain development.

The oils are produced by Martek Biosciences Corp. from lab-grown algae and fungus and extracted with hexane, according to the company's patent application. Hexane is a neurotoxin.

A growing number of parents and medical professional believe these additives are causing severe reactions in some babies, and it has been repeatedly shown that taking affected babies off DHA/ARA formula makes the problems go away almost immediately. The FDA has received hundreds of letters to this effect by upset parents, even as products containing the additives are being marketed as better than breast milk.


Karen Jensen says that due to health complications she was unable to breastfeed her daughter, and so fed her daughter Neocate, a formula with DHA/ARA.

"At two weeks, my daughter would often stop breathing in her sleep and was having various other serious health conditions. She cried constantly and couldn't sleep due to gastrointestinal upset."

After many trips to the hospital, a CT scan, an EEG, time on an apnea monitor and thousands of dollars in bills, "we tried the Neocate without the DHA/ARA in it. Within 24 hours, we had a brand-new, entirely different baby. She had no abdominal distress, no gas, she smiled and played, and for the first time ever we heard her laugh."

Jensen's story is echoed many times over in similar letters urging the FDA to ban DHA and ARA from baby foods, or at the very least to put warning labels on the product advising that some babies may experience adverse reactions like bloating, gastrointestinal distress, vomiting, and diarrhea.

While only a fraction of babies seem to react in this way, it's a common enough occurrence to have earned DHA/ARA baby formula the nickname "the diarrhea formula" in the neonatal unit of an Ohio hospital.

In 2001, the FDA expressed concerns about the safety of adding DHA and ARA to infant-formula additives and notified Martek of the agency's plans to convene a group of scientists to study these concerns.

Martek wrote back: "... convening a group of scientific experts to answer such hypothetical concerns would not be productive." Within months, the FDA wrote to Martek that it would allow DHA and ARA in infant formula, without any scientific review of its own.

While quick to protest hypothetical safety concerns about DHA/ARA, Martek was ready to pounce on the hypothetical benefits of its oils.

In a 1996 investment brief, Martek explained, "Even if [the DHA/ARA blend] has no benefit, we think it would be widely incorporated into formulas as a marketing tool and to allow companies to promote their formula as 'closest to human milk.' "

Mead Johnson Nutritionals took this opportunity to heart, drawing the ire of breastfeeding advocates when it began promoting its DHA/ARA Enfamil Lipil as "The Breast Milk Formula."

Mead Johnson was also involved with a report in current issue of the journal Child Development, in which a Dallas team of scientists provided evidence that DHA and ARA in baby food improves brain development. Several members of the team have received Mead Johnson money in the form of research funding, as well as the coveted currency known as "consulting fees."

The report claims that infants fed DHA/ARA baby formula (supplied for free by Mead Johnson) showed greater ability to solve certain problems, like pulling a blanket with a ball on it toward them. The researchers say this problem-solving ability correlates with enhanced IQ and vocabulary development.

"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.

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