Food and Behaviour Research

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Arachidonic acid needed in infant formula when docosahexaenoic acid is present

Brenna T (2016) Nutrition Reviews 74(5) 329-36. doi: 10.1093/nutrit/nuw007 

Web URL: Read this and related articles on PubMed


Recently, the European Food Safety Authority asserted that arachidonic acid (ARA) is an optional nutrient for the term infant even when docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is present.

The brief rationale is based on an explicit, widespread misapplication of the concept of "essential fatty acids" to linoleic acid that implies it is uniquely required as a nutrient per se.

Linoleic acid prevents acute clinical symptoms caused by polyunsaturated fatty acid-deficient diets and is the major precursor for ARA in most human diets. Experimental diets with ARA as the sole n-6 similarly prevent symptoms but at a lower energy percentage than linoleic acid and show ARA is a precursor for linoleic acid.

The absence of consistent evidence of ARA benefit from randomized controlled trials is apparently an issue as well. This review highlights basic and clinical research relevant to ARA requirements as an adjunct to DHA in infancy.

ARA is a major structural central nervous system component, where it rapidly accumulates perinatally and is required for signaling. Tracer studies show that ARA-fed infants derive about half of their total body ARA from dietary preformed ARA. Clinically, of the 3 cohorts of term infants studied with designs isolating the effects of ARA (DHA-only vs DHA+ARA), none considered ARA-specific outcomes such as vascular or immune function; the study with the highest ARA level showed significant neurocognitive benefit.

All breastfed term infants of adequately nourished mothers consume both DHA and ARA. The burden of proof to substantially deviate from the composition of breastmilk is greater than that available from inherently empirical human randomized controlled trial evidence.

Infant formulas with DHA but without ARA risk harm from suppression of ARA-mediated metabolism manifest among the many unstudied functions of ARA.


For further information on this important topic, and the potential risks and dangers to infant health and development that could follow from the misguided EFSA recommendation that AA in infant formula is not essential, even if pre-formed DHA is added,* please see:

* the key point is that providing DHA pre-formed is likely to drive down AA concentrations - because

1) the very same enzymes are needed to convert either short-chain omega-3 and omega-6 fats (ALA and LA respectively) to their longer-chain forms (omega-3 EPA/DHA, and omega-6 AA, as well as the lesser known omega-6 DGLA), which are the biologically important forms.

2) providing the long-chain forms of either series will act to 'down-regulate' - i.e. reduce the activity - of these conversion enzymes

For formula-fed infants (for whom that formula is likely to be their main food source for many months), a lack of AA could cause serious and permanent harm, given the critical importance of AA to cardiovascular, immune and brain and nervous system development. 

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