Sick baby? It may be your formula

A few babies appear to be seriously intolerant to two popular additives found in 90 percent of formulas on the market. Shouldn't there be a warning label?


Catherine Price
March 12, 2008 12:20AM (UTC)

A few years ago, while working on an article about omega-3 fatty acids, I spent an inordinate amount of time reading research about two decidedly unsexy-sounding substances: docosahexaenoic and eicosapentaenoic acid, otherwise known as the omega-3 fats DHA and EPA. To this day it takes me several tries to pronounce either one correctly. But lest you be fooled by these names, I should point out that as far as lipids go, these two actually are the sexiest fats out there. With supposed benefits that range from cardiovascular health to preventing depression and rheumatoid arthritis, they're being pumped into foods from milk and margarine to fruit chews.

New mothers will probably recognize another main market for these omega 3s -- or, more specifically, for DHA: infant formula. After researchers discovered a high concentration of omega-3 fats in human breast milk, food companies raced to try to fortify their formulas with DHA (as well as an omega-6 fat also found in mother's milk, arachidonic acid, otherwise known as ARA). While many fortified foods use omega-3 fats harvested from smushed-up fish like anchovies and mackerel, the omegas in most formulas come from algae and fungi. (Fish get their own high concentrations of omega 3s from the algae that they eat.)

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The reason I bring all this up is that a few weeks ago a press release arrived in my in box from the Cornucopia Institute, claiming that this fortification might be making some babies seriously sick. While many infants and toddlers appear able to safely digest the added fats (whether they're actually a substitute for the fats in mothers' milk is a different question), there have been repeated reports of adverse reactions, including severe gas, diarrhea, vomiting, bowel obstruction and constipation. When these babies are taken off formulas that contain DHA and ARA, their symptoms often disappear within 24 hours.

Two points: First, not many people are aware yet of this potential intolerance -- so if you or someone you know has a baby with these symptoms who has been drinking a formula with DHA and ARA, it might be a good idea to see if switching formulas can help.

The problem is, it may be difficult to find an alternative formula; some 90 percent of formulas on the market are now fortified with these fats. And formula makers will be loath to give them up -- the number of people reporting that they thought formula and breast milk were "equally good ways of feeding an infant" doubled from 12 percent to 24 percent from 2003 to 2004, around the same time that formula makers started pushing ads that touted DHA/ARA formulas as being "the closest to breast milk." In other words, DHA/ARA supplementation has been a huge boon to the formula business. Which brings me to my second point: Since formula makers aren't going to want to abandon an incredibly successful product (and because most babies can tolerate the fortification, even if its actual benefits are unclear), it would seem to make sense for there to be a mandatory warning printed on formula alerting parents of the risk of intolerance and listing common symptoms, just in case their children are among those who have adverse reactions.

If you want to get involved in pushing for an FDA warning label on fortified formulas, Cornucopia has some suggestions. The bottom line is that, despite our best efforts, we still have a long way to go before we can authentically replicate breast milk.


Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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