Food and Behaviour Research

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Arachidonic Acid in Human Milk

Salem N, Dael P (2020) Nutrients 12(3) 626. doi: 10.3390/nu12030626. 

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Breastfeeding is universally recommended as the optimal choice of infant feeding and consequently human milk has been extensively investigated to unravel its unique nutrient profile.

The human milk lipid composition is unique and supplies specifically long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (LC-PUFAs), in particular, arachidonic acid (ARA, 20:4
n-6) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22:6n-3).

Arachidonic acid (ARA) is the most predominant long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid in human milk, albeit at low concentrations as compared to other fatty acids. It occurs predominantly in the triglyceride form and to a lesser extent as milk fat globule membrane phospholipids.

Human milk ARA levels are modulated by dietary intake as demonstrated by animal and human studies and consequently vary dependent on dietary habits among mothers and regions across the globe.

ARA serves as a precursor to eicosanoids and endocannabinoids that also occur in human milk. A review of scientific and clinical studies reveals that ARA plays an important role in physiological development and its related functions during early life nutrition. Therefore, ARA is an important nutrient during infancy and childhood and, as such, appropriate attention is required regarding its nutritional status and presence in the infant diet.

Data are emerging indicating considerable genetic variation in encoding for desaturases and other essential fatty acid metabolic enzymes that may influence the ARA level as well as other LC-PUFAs.

Human milk from well-nourished mothers has adequate levels of both ARA and DHA to support nutritional and developmental needs of infants. In case breastfeeding is not possible and infant formula is being fed, experts recommend that both ARA and DHA are added at levels present in human milk.