Infant formulas containing two fatty acids necessary for brain and visual development will be available for the first time in the US early this year, infant formula manufacturers announced last week. The compounds, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA), are fatty acids that appear to boost brain development and improve vision. They are present in breast milk and in infant formulas in some European countries but are not currently found in formulas sold in the United States or Canada. Since rapid infant brain development occurs in the early months of life, a number of researchers believe that a direct dietary source of DHA and AA at that time can be beneficial for brain and retinal development.
The new formulas, marketed by Mead Johnson Nutritionals, a division of Bristol-Myers Squibb, and the Ross Products division of Abbott Laboratories are expected to cost about 15% to 20% more than formulas without the fatty acids, the two companies said. But while the addition of the compounds has been shown to boost blood levels of the essential fatty acids, it is not clear whether higher blood levels translate into any developmental benefit. Studies have had mixed results.
The overall strategy is to make infant formula more like human milk and by adding these long-chain fatty acids. Two large studies conducted by Abbott Laboratories concluded that there was no difference in the neurological and visual development of infants fed formula with and without the compounds in full-term, healthy infants. Pre-term infants, on the other hand, showed an improved rate of visual development when they were fed formula containing DHA and AA.
Other studies have shown a benefit for full-term babies. In one report, infants who had been fed formula supplemented with DHA and AA scored better on a test assessing complex problem-solving skills, compared with infants fed formula that was not supplemented, at 10 months of age. Other studies have shown more rapid rates of visual development in infants fed DHA- and AA-enriched formula.
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