Breastmilk Can Not Be Imitated – The DHA/ARA Fallout and Oligosaccharides

EDITING TO ADD: Upon further research and after going to the company’s site that comes into question as the leading maker of synthetic DHA, Martek Biosciences Corporation, this supplement is found in MANY products, even organic products (which appears to be ILLEGAL). It is in Formula, Baby Food, Horizon Organic Milk, various yogurts, Silk, Minute Maid Juice, vitamin supplements, etc, etc, etc. I’m very disturbed that this is being given to pregnant women in the forms of yogurt specifically made for them, prenatals, etc. What are the possible negative effects this could have on an unborn child? Here is a LINK that shows all of the products that contain Martek’s DHA/ARA.

Despite how hard the Formula Companies would try and have you believe that formula is equivalent to breastmilk it is most definitely not. Their often touted slogan “closest to breastmilk” is a ridiculous statement. Not only because formula is nothing close to breastmilk but because that statement can only be made because there is little alternative out there not because it is actually close to breastmilk, it is only closest. I tried to think of a similar and clever “closest to” statement but I couldn’t come up with anything. Maybe you can think of something clever.

Now before I go further with this I need to state that there is a time and place for formula. It is a necessary product that has saved many infants lives and no mother that finds the need to use formula should be made to feel guilty about that. My intent with this post and the research that I put forward is not to belittle those mothers that currently or have in the past fed their children formula. My problem with formula is not its existence but the companies that produce it and the way they market it and cleverly undermine many would-be breastfeeding mothers from taking their natural course in nature’s intended food for baby. I also don’t appreciate how that in the end it is the bottom line and not for the well being of the child that things do or don’t get added to formula. I don’t doubt that there are women and children out there that *need* to formula feed. They exist and formula should be there for them. However, in-arguably, formula is not close to breastmilk and hard as they may try it probably never will be. We can sugar coat it all we want (and the formula companies spend a majority of their money doing this) but breastmilk can not be imitated.

A blogging friend of mine sent this article to me this morning. It is an article summarizing a report on DHA and ARA as additives in Formula and the risks and side effects that those additives pose to formula fed babies (or are suspected to pose). The full report is HERE. I am going to paste the article that was sent to me below and then after the article I will discuss oligosaccharides. The article came from INFACT CANADA.

Common ingredient in infant formula was found to be linked to diarrhea, severe dehydration and seizures in babies, according to complaints submitted to the FDA.

A shocking report has been released on the adverse health effects of fatty acids found in infant formulas. The Cornucopia Institute, a US-based corporate watchdog group, presented their findings on the fatty acids DHA and ARA, which are now commonly added to formula.

The report is based on a Freedom of Information Act request that the Cornucopia Institute filed with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the result of which was the uncovering of 98 reports filed by parents and physicians detailing incidences when babies had reacted adversely to formula containing DHA/ARA. The reported incidences range from cases of vomiting and diarrhea that stopped when babies switched to non-DHA/ARA formula to babies being treated in intensive care units for severe dehydration and seizures.

The FDA has never been convinced of the safety of DHA/ARA additives, according to the report. In its initial analysis of the additives, the FDA stated it had reached no determination on their safety status. The administration also noted that some studies had reported unexpected deaths among infants who had been fed with DHA/ARA formula. Despite its reservations, inexplicably the FDA did not withhold approval for the additives.

INFACT Canada has long questioned the use of DHA and ARA (also marketed as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) in infant formula. All major formula companies have added the fatty acids to their products in recent years, claiming that they aid in brain and eye development. However most test results have found the additives have negligible effects on infant development. But because DHA and ARA are found naturally in breastmilk, formula companies market DHA/ARA formula as ‘closer to breastmilk.’

Martek Biosciences Corporation, the company that supplies almost all formula companies with DHA/ARA, has admitted that the purpose of the additives is not to encourage healthy development, but to be used as a marketing tool. In its promotional material to encourage investment, Martek stated:

‘Infant formula is currently a commodity market, with all products being almost identical and marketers competing intensely to differentiate their product. Even if [DHA/ARA] 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.”

While DHA and ARA are found naturally in breast milk, the idea that Martek’s manufactured acids make formula closer to breast milk is ridiculous. Martek produces DHA and ARA from fermented algae and fungus, and uses hexane (a neurotoxin) in the manufacturing process. Simply adding these synthetic substances to formula cannot make artificial baby milk behave like breast milk, which is a complex, living substance that provides babies with the best possible nutrition and immunological protection.

Regular infant formula puts babies’ health at risk, but now infants are being harmed for the sake of a marketing tool. This is an egregious case of formula companies putting profit margins above infant health. In light of this report, it is imperative that all parents be made aware of the potential risks of feeding their babies formula with DHA/ARA. The products should be pulled from the market until their safety can be properly assessed by independent investigations.

Babies should not have to get sick just because companies want to raise their sales figures.

The following is how DHA and ARA are synthetically made. Obtained from HERE:

Martek Biosciences Corporation has patented a process to create both DHA and ARA in the laboratory setting. The problem is that the laboratory products are not the same as the naturally occurring products in human milk. In fact, the DHA that is added to formula is actually DHASCO (docosahexaenoic acid single cell oil), and the ARA is actually ARASCO (arachidonic acid single cell oil). They are structurally different from the DHA and ARA that a breastfeeding infant receives.

DHASCO is created from algae grown in tightly controlled fermentation conditions in a solution of glucose and yeast. Then the oil is extracted using hexame, a toxic petroleum by-product that has been associated with disorders of the central nervous system. The hexane is then removed. What remains is only about 40-50% DHA in a dilution of sunflower oil.

ARASCO is extracted from soil fungus using a similar process. According the Martek documents hexane is used in the processing of ARASCO as well.

Mothers have every right to be enraged with this knowledge. But will they be? I doubt it because the information will most likely never find its way to the mothers that need to hear it. The formula companies will certainly not be offering out the information. Formula is big money. It is big advertising. And unless a big hand comes down telling them to remove the supplement from the formula or enough pressure is put upon them to research it further, I doubt anything will come of it.

New discoveries about breastmilk are made all the time. A recent discovery in breastmilk that is capturing a lot of attention is oligosaccharides. It is an indigestible sugar like molecule and is the third largest solid component of breastmilk (after lactose and lipids) and makes up about 1% of the volume of breast milk. More than 200 oligosaccharides have been identified and some of them are only found in breastmilk. Not all women have the same number of oligosaccharides in their breast milk and from one study only a few oligosaccharides were common to all the women. I think that is a feature that is very important to note. Many other observations of breastmilk have found that the breastmilk of one mother is different from another and that breastmilk also changes throughout the course of the breastfeeding relationship as the child ages. They have also found that breastmilk in the same mother changes from baby to baby. Breastmilk is a living food that is individually tailored to the child receiving it. I think this is also important to note because not all breastmilk is created equal and a mother who has a more complete and nutritional diet will produce milk that reflects that. Anyway, back to oligosaccharides. Its role in breastmilk is still not fully understood but research thus far proposes that the following benefits are derived from the presence of oligosaccharides in breast milk:

  • As a prebiotic (different from a probiotic): improves digestion, including enhanced mineral absorption and the effectiveness and overall strength of the immune system. Some studies: HERE and HERE
  • A preventative of urinary tract infections. Study HERE
  • An anti-diarrhea agent
  • Protect the baby from pathogens that the mother has never even been exposed to
  • Each mother’s breastmilk has its own unique group of oligosaccharides that provide support to their own intestinal flora.

Another quote about oligosacchardies:

oligosaccharides are not digested and absorbed to any extent in the small intestine, but they attract harmful bacteria that latch onto them instead of becoming attached to the wall of the intestine where they would cause infection.

In the large bowel, oligosaccharides act as growth factors for beneficial bacteria which use them as a source of energy. From the fourth day of life, almost half the bacteria in the large intestine of breast-fed babies are the beneficial Bifidobacteria, compared with only 15 percent in infants fed formula milks which do not contain the range of oligosaccharides found in breast milk.

The oligosaccharides in breast milk are almost certainly why breast-fed infants have a lower incidence of diarrhoea, respiratory diseases and middle ear infections. Another of the oligosaccharides, called sialic acid, is essential for brain development.

I’m sure there are many other benefits to oligosaccharides that I haven’t touched upon and much more research is being done. In fact, in the article that I just posted about raw milk one of the scientists was discussing how these oligosaccharides which we know to be beneficial in breastmilk are also found in raw milk but not in pasteurized milk, begging the question on whether or not we are inadvertently ridding ourselves of what would be helpful bacteria by pasteurizing cows milk.

My point in posting about oligosacchardies is twofold. One, it is fascinating (well for some of us, I guess). Two, you can bet that the formula companies are scrambling to reproduce these oligosaccharides and put them into formula. Great in theory, yes. But just like the DHA and ARA fallout can you successfully replicate these oligosaccharides and get them to behave the same way in formula as you can in breastmilk? What side effects will occur in the artificial form? And how do you choose which oligosaccharides to imitate since women carry such a variety of them and in varying quantities? Here is a study showing the use of adding oligosaccharides to formula just to show you that they really are working on this. In formula land, the first company that can successfully incorporate oligosaccharides in breastmilk will have the upper hand in marketing it to the public. And that equals ka-ching!

For those who are interested, here is a report released in 2001 that compares the outcomes of breastfeeding vs formula feeding.



  1. Ann · April 5, 2011

    I was lactose intolerance until I found organic raw milk from

    Many thanks to organic pastures: now I can drink raw milk hurray! why? Because unlike pasteuralized milk, the live enzymes present in the raw cow’s milk are able to digest the lactose in the milk!

  2. Doc Edwards · May 27, 2010

    Thanks for the information on artificial DHA/ARA. The Journal of Pediatrics just published a study on lower incidences of allergy, asthma, and upper respiratory infections in infants fed DHA/ARA supplemented formula vs. unsupplemented formula. I had assumed (correctly) that this was already in breastmilk but I was completely unaware of the fact that most of the DHA/ARA added is synthetic. That makes a big difference, and I’ll trackback to your reference in my blog.
    FYI your Google Ad is:
    Baby Formula Savings
    Save money on baby formula with our Parent’s Choice Savings Calculator.
    I’d use the competitive ad filter option and add their url to your “do not accept ads from” list.

  3. Betty Boop · July 15, 2008

    I dream of a world where the only babies who get artificial baby milk are those with galactosemia. The rest whose mamas really can’t breast feed get pasturized donor breast milk!!!!! Why not?

  4. Primal · June 1, 2008

    I am SO tired of these formula companies trying to do the impossible and of people FALLING for it. Now I see they’re adding these things to baby foods too.

    Glad I feed my kids real food off the table.

  5. Pingback: Seeds : The Milk Bank
  6. GFCFmom · May 22, 2008

    You have done it again…what a fascinating post…thanks for your well researched piece.

  7. journeytocrunchville · May 21, 2008

    Nope, not getting paid at all. Though that would be really nice. Right now it is a hobby. Any ideas on how to get me paid? LOL. Other than adding google adwords or something I’m not sure what I’d do and from what I hear that isn’t very fruitful. But don’t worry Amy, I take donations. LOL

  8. Amy Reid · May 21, 2008

    hey, I’ve always been curious, do you get paid to do your research and post it? If not, you should look in to that. Some people do get paid for posting certain things on their blogs.
    Just a thought!

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