March 29, 2002 -- A nutritionally enhanced baby food that may make babies brainier is showing up on grocery store shelves all over the U.S. The new line contains a fatty acid found in breast milk that has been shown to be important for mental and visual development.
But some question the value of adding the fat to baby foods, which are not intended for infants younger than six months. There is little clinical evidence that the developmental benefits of the omega-3 fatty acid, known as docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), extend beyond this age.
The "First Advantage" line, developed and marketed by Beech-Nut Nutrition Corp., is the first baby food in the U.S. to contain DHA. The FDA agreed last year to allow infant formula and food manufacturers in the U.S. to add it to their products, along with another fatty acid known as ARA.
The fats have long been added to infant formulas in some 60 other countries. And several studies conducted in this country have shown that babies given DHA- and ARA-enriched formulas scored better in tests measuring cognitive development than those fed non-enriched formulas.
"I don't see a downside to putting DHA into baby food, but it is not yet clear whether there is a benefit," says Dennis Hoffman, PhD, who researches the developmental impact of adding DHA to the diets of babies who are not breastfed. Hoffman and colleagues at Dallas' Retina Foundation of the Southwest have published some of the most widely cited studies on the subject.
"We are currently looking at whether supplementation (with DHA) is of value beyond the first few months of life," he tells WebMD. "We hypothesize that it is, but we don't have the data to say that yet. It is an unanswered question."
Beech-Nut spokesperson Patty Kern says the company decided to go ahead and market a baby food line with DHA on the strength, "of almost 25 years of research into its role in the development of babies." A senior manager in new product development, Kern says the First Advantage brand costs roughly 20 cents a jar more than the company's traditional baby food line, and is intended for babies over the age of six months who are transitioning to solid foods.
"While they are not conclusive, the balance of the studies support a connection between DHA and mental and visual development," she says. "Babies continue to accumulate DHA until the age of 2, and research suggests that it is never too early or too late to introduce it into their diets."
She stresses that the company is not attempting to portray its product as equal to mother's milk. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the World Health Organization both recommend that new mothers breastfeed for a minimum of a year to provide their babies with the right mix of nutrients, proteins, and illness-fighting antibodies.
"Breastfeeding is the gold standard for babies," Kern says. "We can't stress that point strongly enough. The reason we are putting DHA into baby food is because we know that it is a nutrient in breast milk that is good for babies."