Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) are so-called long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs) found in breastmilk. They play important roles in the growth and development of babies, especially in brain development and function. To resemble the composition of breastmilk, infant formula has been supplemented with these two fatty acids for many years as the benefits of supplementing DHA together with ARA in infant formula and follow-on formula have been scientifically proven.
Yet, a recent regulation by the European Commission has caused controversy by suggesting that infant formula and follow-on formulas should have higher levels of DHA than those typically found in breastmilk, while authorising formula to be marketed with or without ARA. This is in conflict with breastmilk composition, which always provides both DHA and ARA, and is the benchmark for infant formula design.
The ruling opinion of the world’s leading experts (for instance the UN and WHO) states that providing both DHA and ARA early in life is important. Supplementing infant formula with ARA at levels which are at least equal to the level of DHA, lead to brain, eye and motor skill evaluations that are closer to those reported for breastfed babies. When the DHA level in infant formula is higher than the level of ARA, the benefits of adding these fatty acids seem to decrease.
When it comes to feeding a baby, breastfeeding should always be the first choice, However, in cases where it is not (yet) possible to breastfeed, parents are advised to check closely if the formula they are feeding contains both, DHA and ARA and that the level of ARA is close to the DHA level.
For more details read the article “For the best start in life. The importance of the right fatty acids in infant nutrition products”
More information on the nutritional needs of preterm and newborn babies can be found on our website www.efcni.org/health-topics/in-hospital/breastfeeding-and-nutrition-of-preterm-babies/