Interview by SafBaby Founders Sandra Blum and Samantha Fox Olson

It breaks my heart that infant formula companies have been trying to persuade women for years that an infant formula is superior to breast milk. It is even more sad to know that their ploy has affected some women’s decision not to breast feed!  (I was a formula fed baby, and my mother was lead to believe that breast feeding was inferior to bottle feeding almost 37 years ago.)

But, to now know that a highly processed oil, that has NEVER been part of our human diet, has (harmfully for many) made its way into infant formulas, (and marketed as superior product) all at the expense of our children’s health is infuriating!  The National Organic Program (NOP), the government agency that regulates organic products, allowed formula makers to include this synthetic form of DHA and ARA, manufactured by Martek Biosciences, after corporate lobbyists brokered a backroom deal with NOP officials under the Bush Administration.

We contacted the Cornucopia Institute for an interview after seeing their video that gives detailed testimony of infants that were greatly harmed from their infant formula.  This interview is so educational on many levels and we would love to hear from you if your baby has ever experienced intestinal/digestive problems from consuming DHA fortified foods and formulas.

Omega Fatty Acids, DHA/ARA and Infant Development

The following is our exclusive interview with Charlotte from the Cornucopia Institute regarding our questions on DHA and ARA:

Why is DHA and ARA added to formulas?

The DHA and ARA in formula comes from a highly processed, manufactured oil extracted with a neurotoxic chemical from a novel strain of algae and fungus that have never before been part of the human diet.  Since breast milk contains DHA and ARA, formula companies now add this synthetic source of these ingredients.

Formula companies rely heavily on advertising to convince mothers to buy their products, and are always looking for new marketing tools.  By continually adding new ingredients, they can continually make new claims for why their formula is supposedly better than other brands.  Mead Johnson was the first formula company to add Martek Biosciences DHA and ARA oil to its Enfamil formula, and they claimed that their brand was therefore superior to other brands.  But they even advertised their formula as being essentially as good as breast milk because it contained DHA and ARA–which is of course impossible.

DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is a type of fat that is found in brain and eye tissue.  ARA, an omega-6 fatty acid, is added to prevent serious and harmful imbalances of fatty acids in the formula.  The source of DHA in breast milk is omega-3-rich foods that the mother eats and that her body converts to DHA.

There is virtually no independent scientific evidence to back up claims that the hexane-extracted, algal DHA confers benefits to infant development, but this has not stopped formula companies from making such claims.

Is it the same kind of DHA that’s added to Supplements?

Some supplements contain Martek Biosciences Corporation’s DHA oil, others contain fish oil.  Products with Martek’s DHA usually contain a “Life’sDHA” logo on the package.

Is there a natural DHA that is beneficial to infant/babies health?

Certainly.  The best source of DHA is breast milk.  We have received reports from health care professionals and lactation consultants who worked with new mothers who were misled by formula advertisements into believing that their babies would be better off if they were weaned and given formula with DHA.

Research shows that babies, even premature babies, can convert other omega-3 fatty acids to DHA.  For parents or caregivers who need to buy formula for their infants, the organic formula maker Nature’s One makes a toddler formula called Baby’s Only, which is free from Martek’s DHA oils, and includes natural sources of the precursors to DHA.

Please comment on Baby Formula manufacturer’s claims that “DHA is proven in independent clinical studies to enhance mental development.”

One team of scientists, which has received over a million dollars in grants from Mead Johnson (the company that makes Enfamil), has repeatedly published articles claiming that children do better on tests of cognitive development if they are given formula with DHA and ARA.  These studies have been criticized widely for having small sample sizes and high attrition rates.  Meanwhile, several meta-analysis studies (which compile all the data that has been collected on this topic) and review studies (which look at all the studies that have been published) have concluded there are no benefits to infant development from adding DHA and ARA to formula.

These studies, showing no benefits, are rarely mentioned outside the scientific community, whereas the corporate-funded trials receive widespread attention from formula companies in their advertisements and other promotional materials.

Organic Infant and Baby Formula May Also Contain Synthetic DHA

Can Organic Formulas include synthetic DHA?

Can they? No.  Do they?  Unfortunately, yes.  The organic standards clearly prohibit Martek Biosciences DHA and ARA oils. But the National Organic Program (NOP), the government agency that regulates organic products, allowed formula makers to include them after corporate lobbyists brokered a backroom deal with NOP officials under the Bush Administration.

The current administration’s NOP officials have since admitted that this was an incorrect interpretation of the organic law and regulations, and even the Food and Drug Administration has chimed in to back this up.

But the DHA/Omega-3 industry and formula companies are powerful and influential in Washington DC, which is why we have not seen the appropriate enforcement action from the National Organic Program.  So while they are legally not allowed, the government appears to be protecting these companies’ profits and allows them to continue adding them.

What are the safe alternatives?

For infants who cannot be breastfed, there is a toddler formula in natural food stores called Baby’s Only, which does not contain these hexane-extracted ingredients.  It is also available online.

For parents who are too busy to prepare their own baby food, they should avoid any package that states it contains DHA, and look at the ingredients list to make sure there is no “DHA oil,” or “algal oil.”  Natural sources of omega-3’s include salmon, fish oil, omega-3 rich eggs, flax seed and nuts.

What should parents look for when purchasing infant formula?

Most importantly, the organic seal.  Second, avoiding formula that contains ingredients processed with hexane, so avoiding “C. cohni oil” (DHA) and “M. alpina oil” (ARA).


  • NUTS

Martek Biosciences DHA and ARA Oil Hides In Some Infant Formula and Baby Foods

Is DHA and ARA added to other foods/supplements than just infant formula?

Yes, conventional brands Gerber and Beech-Nut have products with Martek Biosciences DHA oil, and even organic brands add it to baby cereal products.  DHA is also added to lots of conventional food products, and some organic ones as well, such as Horizon organic milk with DHA, and Stremicks organic milk with DHA.  We have a complete list of organic products to avoid on our website Cornucopia.orgLook for the Life’s DHA logo on food packaging, and then avoid that product if you do not want to consume these novel oils.

If almost all infant formulas on the market are made with this synthetic DHA/ARA from algae and fungus, why are only a small fraction of babies affected?  Do you have percentages?

Some babies experience terrible reactions to these ingredients, including vomiting, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms.  Some babies have been hospitalized, and many have undergone unnecessary and invasive medical tests.  If all babies were affected, these ingredients would be pulled off the shelves.  But since only a subset of the infant population is unable to tolerate them–in the same way that only a subset of the infant population is allergic to dairy protein or is lactose intolerant–formula companies and Martek Biosciences Corporation have instead apparently chosen to deny that there is any problem with these highly profitable ingredients.

The reports that have been filed with the Food and Drug Administration are just the tip of the iceberg.  Most parents do not know that they can file a report, or they never get around to it.  We have heard from parents who contacted the formula companies directly, and reported that the consumer representatives told them that there is no possibility that the DHA/ARA oils are to blame, and felt their reports were entirely dismissed by the companies.

But most alarmingly, most parents probably never figure out that DHA and ARA oils were the cause of their infant’s problems.  Since all infant formula now contains these, it is highly unlikely that parents will accidentally grab a can without DHA and ARA off the shelf and discover their baby’s symptoms disappear, which is how most parents made the connection when non-DHA formula was still widely available.

Enfamil’s label reads that their “Improved Enfamil Premium is proven in independent clinical studies to enhance mental development.”  Yet even on supplement bottles there always must be a disclaimer that reads “this statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.”  Does the infant formula label also have to have this disclaimer?

No, formula makers can make these claims in advertisements and on their labels without needing disclaimers.  We have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission alleging false and misleading advertising, specifically concerning these types of claims.  But the agency’s attorneys stated that they cannot take action unless there is scientific data to prove that these false claims actually mislead parents, and cause them to choose formula instead of breastfeeding.  The FDA is now conducting such a study.

Soy Infant Formulas Contain The Most Hexane

Where does Hexane come from?  What studies have been done on Hexane to prove it is safe for children’s foods/supplements?

Hexane is a byproduct of gasoline refining–it is a petrochemical that is highly explosive (like gasoline) and toxic to the neurological system.  Martek Biosciences Corporation immerses algae and fungus in hexane in order to make its DHA and ARA ingredients, which is then added to infant formula.  Conventional soy-based formula is undoubtedly the worst in terms of hexane, since the soybeans used in non-organic formula also undergo this hexane treatment during processing.

No studies that we are aware of have been conducted to determine the safety of long-term exposure to hexane from eating hexane-extracted ingredients, especially for infants and young children.

Does The FDA Care About The Safety Of Infant Formula?

You say “Martek DHA and ARA have never been approved by the FDA.  What testing would have to be done and passed for them to be approved by the FDA?  Can we really trust the FDA to make regulations based on the health of our children?

The problem is with the FDA’s system for “approving” new infant formula ingredients.  The FDA does not approve new ingredients, it merely allows them.  This is an important distinction–the FDA does not make its own determination that a new ingredient is safe, but rather trusts claims of safety by the corporation that markets the ingredient.

Let’s be clear about this: the FDA does not conduct its own safety testing on any new ingredients for formula.  They simply require that the corporation marketing the new ingredient provide a petition, in which they have scientists–chosen by the corporation–sign a statement that the new ingredient is safe.  The FDA gives little guidance to corporations about their safety testing, and has no protocol for how safety testing be conducted.  This process was heavily criticized as woefully inadequate by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

Why is there such a lack of post-market surveillance in baby and kid foods?

The Infant Formula Act of 1980 requires formula companies to follow through when they receive complaints about their products.  But documents that we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that they repeatedly, without exception, disregard complaints about Martek Biosciences’ DHA that were forwarded to them by the Food and Drug Administration.  Formula companies are not motivated to follow through with these complaints, since they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, from doing careful post-market surveillance.

For baby food and children’s food, companies are not legally required to conduct post-market surveillance of novel ingredients.  And for the same reasons that formula companies disregard post-market surveillance, baby food companies certainly will not be motivated to take the initiative either.

These oils are perfect marketing tools, and the last thing these formula and food manufacturers want is for parents to know how they are produced, and the terrible side effects experienced by some babies and children.

Synthetic DHA and ARA:  C. cohni oil and M. alpina oil

You mention at the end of your video to watch out for certain oils in baby formula.  Which ones and why?

On formula cans, Martek Biosciences’ hexane-extracted DHA oil from algae is listed as “C. cohni oil” and their hexane-extracted ARA oil from fungus is listed as “M. alpina oil.”  Baby’s Only is the only brand out there without these oils.

Take Action Against False DHA

Please sign your name to Cornucopia’s petition to keep unapproved synthetic and non-organically produced “nutrient” ingredients out of organic foods.

Long Term Health Effects of Synthetic DHA And Our Children

We recently received this comment from a reader and wanted to address it right in the article for everyone’s clarification.  The questions was:

“Is there a lasting negative effect on the infant’s health due to DHA and ARA in formula? Is there any long term health risk beyond immediate allergic reaction that the baby will experience?

My son’s formula has these oil-based elements, but he has never had any allergic reaction, so I’m wondering if and how this may impact long term. Thanks for posting this important info.”

And we reached out to Cornucopia Institute for their expert answer, and their response was:

DHA and ARA have been added to infant formula only in the past decade, so long-term effects are not yet as apparent as the immediate reactions that some babies experience.

Results from long-term trials are finally being published, and they do raise some concerns.  Results from a 10-year trial by leading DHA scientists concluded, “Girls born preterm and randomized to long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid-supplemented formula

[formula with DHA and ARA] showed increased weight, adiposity and blood pressure at 9-11 years, which might have adverse consequences for later health.”

Meanwhile, it is important to note that safety studies conducted on laboratory animals found increased liver and spleen weight in the group that received the algal DHA oil.  These findings were dismissed by the corporate-backed researchers, who had been commissioned by Martek Biosciences Corporation to argue for the safety of these substances.

These are novel ingredients, which have never before been part of the human diet, and their long-term effects, both related to blood pressure and potential effects on organ weight, are not thoroughly studied.

About Charlotte Vallaeys 

Charlotte Vallaeys is Director of Farm and Food Policy at The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit farm and food policy research organization.  She holds a Master of Theological Studies degree from Harvard University and a Master of Science degree from Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy.

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