Baby formula manufacturers, including Abbott Laboratories, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Wyeth, are promoting new baby formulas supplemented with fatty acids as a way to make babies smarter and have better eyesight. However, the additives may not live up to the claims, as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which oversees the composition of formula, said results of studies to show the health benefits of fatty acid additives to formula were mixed.
Baby formula supplemented with fatty acids could cost parents an additional $200 a year for formula. The manufacturers explain the added cost by pointing out the fact that only one company makes the forms of DHA and ARA used in infant formula. The American Academy of Pediatrics has not endorsed the new formulas because of their potential "unknown adverse effects".
According to parents and pediatricians, marketing of formula with fatty acids DHA and ARA is more aggressive than usual. Magazine ads and product labels promote the benefits of the fatty acids, and many hospitals are receiving free samples to give to parents after their babies are born. Formula manufacturers are also targeting pediatricians, whom they regard as essential in reaching parents.
The FDA has added the new additives in formulas to its list of "generally regarded as safe" ingredients. While such additives have been used in formulas sold abroad since 1996, they haven’t been used in the past in the United States.
Dozens of clinical trials have been completed by Ross Products, the Abbott subsidiary that produces the Isomil and Similac brands, and Mead Johnson Nutritionals, the Bristol-Myers subsidiary that makes Enfamil, which are the largest companies in the formula business. Results showed short-term benefits among babies who were fed formula supplemented with the fatty acids.
Further, a consumer education group reviewed about 24 studies on the topic and found that about one-third of the studies showed no difference in babies who took the DHA-supplemented formulas compared with those who did not. Two-thirds of the studies showed a benefit.
However, according to some critics, there is a significant shortage of long-term, independent studies.
The two fatty acids being added to the baby formulas have long been associated with health benefits. For instance, DHA, or docosahexaenoic acid, is found in fish oil and is thought to help reduce the risk of heart attacks. ARA, arachidonic acid, is found in meat, eggs and milk and is believed to improve brain development.
Reportedly, all the formula manufacturers that have added products with the fatty acids have had increases in overall sales. The companies reach parents through hospitals and hope that they will stick with their brand after trying it for their babies’ first days of life.
In 2001, nearly 70 percent of mothers breast-fed their children at the start. However, by the time a baby reaches six months of age, the percentage of breast-feeding mothers is cut in half as many parents begin using formula around this time.
NewYork Times June 1, 2003