Infant Formula Supplementation Questioned

February 3rd, 2012 · No Comments ·

Parents of infants are intensely concerned about feeding their babies the most appropriate and healthful foods. While breast-feeding is widely acknowledged as the “gold standard” for infant feeding, many women are unable or choose not to breast-feed their babies. Thus, since infant formula may well be a baby’s only food for the first few months of life, and a significant contributor to its nutrition for at least the first year, it is imperative that formulas supply all necessary nutrients in appropriate quantities.

Recently, some researchers have suggested that two long-chain, polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), abbreviated DHA and AA, be added to infant formula because they are found in human breast milk. These PUFAs are thought to be important for brain and nervous system development of infants, and some proponents claim that they are responsible for the slightly higher IQs of breast-fed versus formula-fed infants.

It is not clear, however, whether there is any difference in IQ between breast-fed and formula-fed babies that cannot be accounted for by differences in factors other than formula composition. In the United States, the typical breast-feeding mother is slightly older, more highly educated, and wealthier than mothers who choose not to breast-feed. These factors, rather than the precise composition of breast milk, may explain the slightly higher IQ of breast-fed infants.

Researchers conducted a combined analysis of 11 studies that examined infant feeding practices and cognitive or mental development. After factors like those mentioned above were taken into account, the difference in IQ score between formula-fed and breast-fed babies was only 3 points.

There is little information on whether any long-term benefit (or harm) would result from adding DHA and AA to infant formula. Most studies of PUFA supplementation and infant development have been short-term — not lasting more than 24 months at most.

In some European and Asian countries, consumers have a choice between formula that is supplemented with AA and DHA and formula that is not. In the United States, though, no commercial baby formula has yet had either DHA or AA added to it.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) closely monitors the composition of infant formulas. An expert panel convened by the FDA in 1998 recommended against formula supplementation with DHA and AA, in part because panel members thought that the evidence of benefits was inconclusive. They recommended that the issue be reevaluated after five years, so that additional research in this area could be completed.

Dr. Gilbert M. Ross, medical director of the American Council on Science and Health, agrees with the FDA position. “We should wait until we have solid evidence that DHA and AA supplementation will actually benefit babies before changing infant formula composition,” Ross said. “Current formulas support excellent growth and development; we shouldn’t alter them without a strong reason to do so.”

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Tags: Nutrition & Health Promotion