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They Say: Fortified Baby Formula Actually Works! In a Way …

By Madeline Holler |

ffatty-acids-in-formula-boost-iqMakers of baby formula pounced on DHA and ARA once evidence started mounting that these acids made breast-fed babies smarter.  Breastmilk is loaded with DHA and ARA, which help build neural connections in developing brains.

Whether fortifying formula with the fatty acids made for smarter babies hasn’t been shown until now. A new study in the journal Child Development offers evidence that — under the right circumstances – it works.

Around 200 9-month-olds, who were divided into groups based on whether and for how long there were fed formula with and without the fatty acides, performed rattle and blanket tests.

In one test, for example, the rattle was placed out of reach on the blanket. In order to get the rattle, the 9-month-olds had to pull the blanket to get the rattle.

For babies who were fed the fortified formula since birth or after having been weaned no later than at six weeks old, they performed better than the infants who didn’t get the fatty acids.

In fact, researchers report that of those who were given the DHA formula since birth, 51 percent successfully performed all three tests, compared to 29 percent who got the regular formula.

Now here’s the really interesting part: of those who were weaned at six weeks, therby receiving less of the fortified formula, 46 percent successfully performed the three tests, compared to 13 percent who did not get the formula.

Oh, my! Are we to understand that the fortified formula was even better than breastmilk? Hell, the regular formula was even better than breastmilk? Maybe, but also maybe not.

Apparently babies who were weaned between 4 an 6 months performed the tasks equally well no matter what kind of formula they had been given since weaning.

The release of this study has some pediatricians and breast-feeding advocates concerned that this is the first step in a marketing ploy to get women to choose formula over breastfeeding. (That step was taken long before I was born, but I get what they’re saying.)

Interviewed for ABC News, Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, a pediatrician with Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J., said that adding DHA may make the formula better than other milks, it doesn’t make it superior to breast milk.

“There are many other factors in human milk that also support neurocognitive development and visual acuity,” said Feldman-Winter.

I’d like to know who paid for and conducted the study. Also, why weren’t exclusively breast-fed babies included in the study? For those who were said to be weaned at six weeks, were they breast-fed exclusively until weaning or did their mother’s supplement. And, if so, did they supplement in those early weeks with regular formula or the fortified stuff. Also, how much did they supplement. I’d ask the same questions of those who were weaned at six months.

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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23 thoughts on “They Say: Fortified Baby Formula Actually Works! In a Way …

  1. GP says:

    You might find out the answers from the actual journal article. You can purchase it from Wiley for $29.95. I think its normal and appropriate that companies would provide product and fund research. Otherwise, who would (except for government-funded studies)? That said, people must know, deep inside, that no manufactured formula could compete with breastmilk. That’s just common sense. It’s nice, though, that for those who can’t breastfeed, there are some alternatives that can confer some similar benefits to their babies.

  2. Andrea says:

    It’s still important to know who funded it. Sometimes there’s an outright bias, sometimes it’s the subtle effect of researchers not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them, sometimes the company funding the research hires people they know tend to agree with them. They can fund them, but the people who are making decisions based on the findings should know that.

  3. GP says:

    Of course it’s important, and it would be published with the original article. I myself just don’t want to spend the $30 to find out. I was ready to spend 10 or 15 on details, but not 30….

  4. Amy says:

    I found this:
    The study was funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Summarized from Child Development, Vol. 80, Issue 5, Three Randomized Controlled Trials of Early Long-Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Supplementation on Means-End Problem Solving in Nine-Month-Olds by Drover, JR, Hoffman, DR, Castañeda, YS, and Morale, SE (Retina Foundation of the Southwest), and Birch, EE (Retina Foundation of the Southwest and University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center). Copyright 2009 The Society for Research in Child Development, Inc. All rights reserved. Camacho’s co-authors are Dr. Kathy Albain, Dr. Patricia Robinson and Stritch medical student Naseem Helo. Albain is a professor and Robinson is an assistant professor at Stritch. Both are in the department of medicine, division of hematology/oncology.


  5. cheri says:

    Ok people, but you are missing the other point. Breastfeeding for 4-6 months? Is that exclusive? Since most breastfed babies in the US are not exclusively breastfed, how good is this study? And what about breastfed babies for more than 4-6 months? How about breastfeeding for the whole infancy, as recommended by the WHO and many other agencies? bah. More justification for people who just dont want to breastfeed, and money for companies who want to sell milk.

  6. Laure68 says:

    I believe this study was only meant to compare formula with DHA vs. without DHA. The reason they did not include exclusively breastfed babies is because this was not the purpose of the study.

    I agree with GP. For those who cannot breastfeed, for whatever reason, it is good that companies are trying to improve formula. Would it be better if they did not try and improve it?

  7. [...] They Say: Fortified Baby Formula Actually Works! In a way … [...]

  8. Louise says:

    I think you’re right, Laure68…it wasn’t intended to be that kind of study.

    I also agree with Laure68 and GP that it’s good that companies are trying to improve formula. But I have to disagree a bit with GP’s statement about people knowing “deep inside” that formula can’t compete with breastmilk. To me, the whole point of conducting studies that compare outcomes between breastfeeding and formula is to give us real information…I suspect there are lots of things we “know deep inside” that aren’t really true when put to a scientific test.

    Does it seem likely from studies that have been done that breastfeeding is best? Yes, it does (even if it’s difficult or impossible to do the “gold standard” type of double-blind test on this or control for all of the variables). But it’s a choice that doesn’t come without sacrifices or downsides (which vary depending on specific circumstances); therefore, I think it *is* important to get a handle on how *much* better. The more we find out about just how much of a benefit breastfeeding provides, the more we equip people to make the choice that’s right for them.

  9. Melissa says:

    Would it be so terrible if it was true? I mean really people, a whole generation has grown up on formula and we’re fine. Wouldn’t it be great for those who can’t breastfeed, or those who can’t pump at work to have a better formula to feed their children? It doesn’t mean people who wanted to couldn’t still breastfeed.

  10. libs says:

    Melissa, but then how could I feel so much better about myself since I bf for two years?You totally caught me. I think part of me doesn’t want it it be true, and now that I think about why, I feel like a jackass. Although, I do disagree with the “we grew up fine” argument as an excuse to make choices for our own children when we know there are better options available.

  11. Lainya says:

    By no means should the take-home advice from this article be that formula is a better option than breast milk. I’m a breastfeeding mama and I supplement my diet with extra DHA. I wonder how my baby would do in these tests. This study is only looking at one component – the benefits of DHA – and not even mentioning the plethora of health benefits and economic benefits of breastfeeding. This study, like so many, reads to me like another way to line greedy pockets without mentioning the health risks that formula pose to infants. Do the research promoting breast milk and you’ll find some compelling information. You can start here:

  12. GP says:

    PEOPLE!!!!! The study was not designed to tell us about breastfeeding or breast milk. It was designed to compare formula that has DHA against formula that does not have DHA. I don’t think the study is evil or bad or greedy. It is science. *IF*, later, someone uses the information to shape advertising about formula, that might be shady. *IF* public health officials use it to downplay the benefits of breastfeeding, then that would be irresponsible. But, for now, it is just a study of the one substance. Louise, this study DOES NOT “compare outcomes between breastfeeding and formula”. In fact, it would be pretty difficult to do a randomized, control study comparing these two factors. In addition, the “intelligence test” of 9 month olds is silly. What if the kid isn’t interested in their silly rattle? It’s so one-dimensional. I understand they have to come up with some kind of metric, but maybe they could do a more biological and less subjective test.

  13. GP says:

    One edit…I meant to say that if they use it in advertising that suggests the formula is superior (or even equal) to BF, that would be shady. I seriously doubt that any company would do that. That seems to the be domain of some women…

  14. Louise says:

    GP, yes, I agree…this wasn’t that kind of study, and I think I said as much in my first post…yes, there it is: “…it wasn’t intended to be that kind of study.”

  15. GP says:

    oh yes, you did! sorry!

  16. Louise says:

    ‘Sokay. :-)

    And, yeah, I’m a bit skeptical of these intelligence tests sometimes, too…my toddler participated in one when he was a baby, and it’s a little hard to understand the connection between these tasks and “intelligence”. But I figure (hope?) the child psychologists know something I don’t know (well…OK…a *lot* of somethings I don’t know…).

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  19. [...] This Formula Makes Kids Smart [...]

  20. Kate says:

    Check out the Cornucopia Institute’s work on DHA/ALA supplementation of infant formula ( They’ve done a great job investigating how formula companies began adding relatively untested chemicals, whose long term effects are still unknown, to infant formula (including organic infant formula, even though DHA and ALA are extracted from fermented algae and fungi with hexane, which is not permitted under USDA rules). DHA and ALA may or may not be beneficial nutrients, but they already exist in breast milk (which has other benefits). In fact, synthetic DHA and ALA have slightly different chemical structures than natural DHA/ALA, so who knows what the effect of that will be!
    One final note, formulas containing DHA/ALA have been found by some parents and hospitals to cause diarrhea and gas.

  21. Mike Pescatore says:

    First of all, It is DHASCO and ARASCO. These are triacylglycerols that have been designed to mimick naturally found sources. These synthetic TAGs are much different. Randomly esterified and structurally as well as positionally different. These differences affect digestion and absorption of these oils. Increased oxidative instability. The point that everyone is missing is this. The manufacturers do not understand how the natural sources affect lipid metabolism as well as cellular respiration and energy production. They don’t know how natural sources alter cholesterol synthesis or degradation. I could go on and on. They have no idea what natural sources will do to a developing infant. Do you honestly think they know what their DHASCO/ARASCO does? The referenced study speaks volumes. They all have been funded to provide the seriously flawed study and results. When you compare the biased to non biased studies you will understand that the false benefits they claim are seriously disputed. I have spoken with individuals at the NIH,NTP,FDA and AAP. I have been informed that I have identified”gaps in research/knowledge” regarding the safety of these “novel oils”. Gaps that may have severe consequences to infant development. The manufacturers have done a fantastic job at getting the Federal agencies to look the other way. It appears that lach of knowledge of long term side effects,hundreds of adverse events reported and lack of unbiased proof of benefit are not enough to re-evaluate the Generally Regarded As Safe status from the FDA. Manufacturers know only one thing. That’s how to profit. God help our children because our Federal agencies will not.

  22. nini says:

    These studies take years to complete and follow rigorous scientific protocols. If there were any dubious claims made from such a study in an article, a journal would not publish it. There are many reviewers from various fields of expertise who would critique and get confirmation on any questionable material in the study. However, the media often takes these studies and makes assumptions or overgeneralize the findings of an article. For instance, a study such as this is not saying: all enriched forumla-fed babies are smarter than BF babies. It is nice though, as a mother who had to switch to formula-feeding, to finally hear that there may be something positive said about formula and it isn’t all evil – my guilt can be assuaged just a little bit now.

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