Flash in the Pan

Formula for trouble

| November 05, 2009

If you believed a certain baby food would make your child smarter, would you buy it? Infant formula manufacturers are betting that you would. Since 2002, several baby food companies have fortified their products with synthetic versions of DHA and ARA, long-chain fatty acids, aka oils, that occur naturally in breast milk and have been associated with brain development.

The oils are produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation from lab-grown algae and fungus, and extracted with hexane, according to the company's patent application. Hexane is a neurotoxin.

A growing number of parents and medical professionals believe these additives are causing severe reactions in some babies, and it's been repeatedly shown that taking affected babies off of DHA/ARA formula makes the problems go away almost immediately. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has received hundreds of letters about the issue from upset parents.

Ohio mother Karen Jensen says that due to health complications she was unable to breastfeed her daughter, and so fed her daughter Neocate, a formula containing DHA/ARA.

"At two weeks my daughter would often stop breathing in her sleep, and was having various other serious health conditions," Jensen told me in an e-mail.

After many trips to the hospital and thousands of dollars in health care bills, Jensen says, "we tried the Neocate without the DHA/ARA in it. Within 24 hours we had a brand new, entirely different baby. She had no abdominal distress, no gas, she smiled and played and for the first time ever we heard her laugh."

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Jensen's story is echoed many times over in letters urging the FDA to ban DHA/ARA from baby foods, or to require warning labels advising parents that some babies may experience adverse reactions like bloating, gastrointestinal distress, vomiting and diarrhea. While only a fraction of babies seem to react in this way, it's a common enough occurrence to have earned DHA/ARA baby formula the nickname "the diarrhea formula" in the neonatal unit of an Ohio hospital, according to a nurse, Sam Heather Doak, who works there.

In 2001, the FDA had concerns about the safety of DHA/ARA formula additives, and notified Martek of the agency's plans to convene a group of scientists to study the issue. Martek wrote back: "Convening a group of scientific experts to answer such hypothetical concerns would not be productive." A month later, the FDA caved.

While quick to protest examination of DHA/ARA safety, Martek had already pounced on the hypothetical benefits of its oils. In a 1996 briefing to investors, Martek explained that "Even if [the DHA/ARA blend] has no benefit, we think it would be widely incorporated into formulas, as a marketing tool and to allow companies to promote their formula as 'closest to human milk.'"

Mead Johnson Nutritionals took the opportunity to heart, drawing the ire of breastfeeding advocates when it began promoting its Enfamil Lipil, containing DHA/ARA, as "The Breast Milk Formula."

Mead Johnson was also involved with a report in the Sept./Oct. issue of the journal Child Development, in which a Dallas-based team of scientists provided evidence that DHA/ARA in baby food improves mental function in infants. Several members of the team received research funding from Mead Johnson, as well as the coveted currency known as "consulting fees."

The Child Development report claims that infants fed DHA/ARA baby formula (supplied free of charge by Mead Johnson) showed greater ability to solve certain problems, like pulling a blanket with a ball on it toward them. The researchers say this problem-solving ability correlates with enhanced IQ and vocabulary development later in life.

"New evidence favors baby formula," announced the Los Angeles Times, in an ambiguously worded headline that begs the question: Over what is baby formula favored?

Breastfeeding advocates bristled at the suggestion that formula could be better for babies than breast milk. "Parents will be encouraged to forego breastfeeding in favor of a hyped-up infant formula," complained Barbara Moore, president and CEO of Shape Up America, a pro-breastfeeding nonprofit. "Breast milk has other benefits not related to mental development. The [Center for Disease Control] promotes breastfeeding to confer maximal protection against swine flu and other infections."

Charlotte Vallaeys, a researcher for the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute has written a weighty report on the risks and benefits of baby formula containing DHA/ARA. She told me that the Mead Johnson-funded team behind the Child Development story is "the only group that has found real differences in cognitive development" resulting from the addition of DHA/ARA to formula.

Not that other researchers haven't looked. To make sense of the growing body of research on the subject, a team of scientists led by Karen Simmer, a professor of newborn medicine in Australia, compiled a review, published in the Cochrane Library in January 2008, of the available literature. The team found that "feeding full-term infants with milk formula enriched with [DHA/ARA] had no proven benefit regarding vision, cognition or physical growth." A March 2009 review by the European Food Safety Authority also found the available data "insufficient to establish a cause and effect relationship" between DHA/ARA and brain development.

While serious questions have been raised regarding DHA/ARA's safety, the issue remains in limbo, with concerned parents, medical professionals and advocacy groups pushing one way, and deep-pocketed corporations pushing the other. The FDA did instruct Martek and other formula companies to conduct post-market surveillance of the health impacts of DHA/ARA-containing products, but after seven years no reports of any surveillance have been submitted.

Until conclusive proof emerges on the safety and/or benefit of DHA/ARA in baby formula, it's buyer beware for parents of newborns. Last I checked, breast milk remains widely available, and free of charge.

Ask Ari: Cold chickens

Q: Having just passed my first year on the chicken bandwagon, I'm watching the temperatures cool off and wondering what measures I should take to winterize my chickens.

—Clucked?

A: There are two aspects of winter chicken care: egg production and chicken health. Egg production is the first casualty of autumn, as you may have noticed already, as falling temps and shortened days conspire to slow down laying. Rigging a light in the coop and turning it on in the morning or evening will help keep you in eggs. Leave extra food in the coop for them to eat during their extended days.

When temperatures plummet in the dead of winter, one common mistake people make is to insulate the coop to a point where air circulation is limited. This causes humidity to build up, which can cause frostbite. It can also cause a buildup of ammonia gas from their droppings, which can damage the chickens' lungs.

The chickens do pretty well huddling together to keep warm, but if you want to put a heat-producing bulb in the coop, they'll probably huddle near it.

Make sure they have plenty of grain to eat, especially in the afternoon, so they can roost with their crops full of grain. You also want to make sure they have plenty of non-frozen water.

Send your food and garden queries to flash@flashinthepan.net

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