Study supports omega-3 in baby formula

February 11, 2010

     Adding the omega-3 fatty acid DHA to infant formula may improve the visual acuity of the infants according to a new clinical trial. Addition of DHA, one of the two important fats in fish oils, led to improvements in eye health of infants, compared to infants fed non-supplemented formula. “The [DHA Intake And Measurement Of Neural Development] (DIAMOND) is the first double-masked, randomized, controlled, parallel-group, prospective, dose-response study of DHA in term infant formula,” wrote the researchers, led by Eileen Birch from the Texas-based Retina Foundation of the Southwest.
     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 follows hot on the heels of, and vindicates, backing from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for DHA-related brain and eye health claims for infants. EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) said DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) levels of 100mg of per day were appropriate for 7-24 month-old infants along with 200mg per day for pregnant and lactating women. The DHA claims relating to eye health stated: “DHA intake can contribute to normal development of the eye of the foetus, infant and young children”, and “DHA intake can contribute to the visual development of the infant”.
     Dr. Birch and her co-workers enrolled 244 healthy formula-fed infants between one and nine days of age born in Kansas and Dallas. The infants were randomly assigned to one of four groups. The study was funded by Mead Johnson Nutrition and used the company’s Enfamil with Iron as the control formula, and Enfamil LIPIL fortified with 0.32 per cent DHA, or with 0.64, and 0.96 per cent DHA (Martek Biosciences; the ingredient in InVite DHA Tx). The DHA-supplemented formulas also contained 0.64 per cent arachidonic acid (ARA).
When the infants reached 12 months of age, measures of the clarity of the infants’ vision showed that those fed the DHA-supplemented formula had significantly better vision than infants fed the control formula.
There was no difference between the three DHA doses, however. Importantly, there were also no differences in the incidence of adverse events between any of the groups, added the researchers. “Our data speak directly to the safety and tolerance profiles of DHA levels as high as 0.96% of fatty acids in infant formula,” report the researchers. “The safety and tolerance of these higher DHA concentrations was expected, because they are within the range of DHA concentrations found in human milk worldwide.” “Whether differences in long-term outcomes will be observed between control and supplemented formula groups and whether they follow a similar dose-response function as the primary 12-mo outcome remains to be determined,” they concluded. The study is published online ahead of print in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition