Baby formula: What are DHA and ARA?

Consumer Reports News: September 15, 2009 03:22 PM

Almost all brands of formula sold in the U.S. are now fortified with DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA (arachidonic acid), synthesized versions of the essential fatty acids that are naturally found in breast milk; the natural versions of DHA and ARA are also concentrated in the cells of the brain and eyes.

The chemical structure of extracted DHA/ARA isn’t the same as human DHA/ARA. And even baby formulas with DHA and ARA aren’t a perfect match for breast milk because breast milk contains hundreds of components that can’t be replicated. Also, infants can make these fatty acids from other fatty acids in their diet, including those in unfortified infant formula. Although the FDA approved the addition of DHA and ARA to infant formulas, they caution that the scientific evidence is mixed. Some studies in infants suggest that including these fatty acids in infant formulas may have positive effects on visual function and neural development over the short term. Other studies in infants do not confirm these benefits. There are no currently published reports from clinical studies that address whether any long-term beneficial effects exist. (Learn about colic.)

In any event, it’s tough to find an infant formula without added DHA/ARA, even if you wanted to. (You can still buy Nestlé Good Start without DHA/ARA online at, but that’s about the only place we could find it.) In the near future, we expect non-DHA/ARA infant formula to become extinct unless consumer demand keeps it in play. (Learn how to clean your baby's teeth.)

See a video on how to save on infant formula, and get more information from Consumer Reports Best Baby Products guide.

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