DHA and ARA in Infant Formula


One of the common concerns we hear from our clients concerns the ingredients that comprise various formula types. The ingredients we receive the most questions about are DHA and RHA that is often added to infant formula. Below we discuss DHA and RHA, their benefits and the controversy surrounding their use in infant formula.

What are DHA and ARA?

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA) are polyunsaturated fats that are naturally found in human breast milk. These fatty acids are responsible for assisting and enhancing several aspects of your body’s overall growth and development. It is also necessary to point out that DHA/ARA needs can be substantially different from infant to infant. Since DHA/ARA are not naturally occurring in infant formula, synthetic versions are known as docosahexaenoic acid-rich single cell oil (DHASCO) and arachidonic acid-rich single cell oil (ARASCO) are manufactured and added to the formula to serve the same function.


There are some studies that have been performed to understand the role DHA and ARA in breast milk play in the growth and development of newborns, infants, and toddlers. These research studies have shown a variety of benefits including but not limited to brain development, neurological growth, and eye development. Therefore, having these compounds in you child’s diet is recommended and, as you can imagine, formula manufacturers have used these studies promote the benefits of using synthetic DHA and ARA to boost infant brain development.


The biggest problem with the equating of DHA to DHASCO and ARA to ARASCO is that the two are not the same and there is little evidence to support the claims that DHA/ARA found in formula provides the same benefits as that found in breast milk. Additionally, the USDA found that the synthetic DHASCO and ARASCO should not be allowed in organic foods. Their reasoning is that the compounds are “extracted from fermented algae and fungus through a process that utilizes the known neurotoxic chemical, hexane.” It is also critical to note that human fatty acids and synthetic ones from plant sources have different structural configurations with the main difference being that human fatty acids can interact with each other in unique ways. The other main reason for the controversy is that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not require pre-market testing of infant formula. Instead, they accept the manufacturer’s statements of safety and effectiveness without any independent review.