In recent years, formula manufacturers have introduced a number of new formula preparations with added ingredients that are meant to provide additional health benefits during feeding time. These enhanced formulas include ingredients like docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), arachinoic acid (ARA), iron, prebiotic beneficial bacteria, and others. As a new parent, you want to provide the best formula you can for you baby, but are these enhanced formulas worth the extra money?
The quick answer is that enhanced formulas are not necessary, but in some cases might provide a valuable health benefit.
DHA and ARA enhanced formulas
DHA and ARA are both omega-3 fatty acids. In adults, the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids are well established. Studies in children have shown that DHA and ARA are both safe and have some positive benefits. One study from the University of Alberta found that preterm babies are given DHA and ARA in their formula grow faster than their non-supplemented peers. Additional studies with normal term infants have found that supplementation with DHA and ARA improved the kids’ heart health, vision, and cognitive development.
Based on the health benefits of supplementing with DHA and ARA, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has allowed formula manufacturers to include DHA and ARA in infant formulas. As a result, most of the infant formulas on the market today include these two fatty acids. There is some concern among alternative health practitioners that DHA and ARA are toxic and can cause digestive upset. Studies have not been able to confirm this and so far reports of digestive and health problems associated with DHA and ARA enhanced formulas are anecdotal.
Iron is a vital component of infant formulas. Proper levels of iron are crucial for a baby’s development, because a lack of iron can cause anemia and interfere with the development of your child’s brain. Some parents wonder if the iron in the formula is causing their baby to be constipated, but this is not likely the culprit, and should never be a reason to change to a low iron formula. Medical experts agree that all formula should be fortified with iron, so there is never a need to purchase an iron-free brand, and many pediatricians question the need to even make it.
Prebiotic and probiotic formulas are designed to encourage colonies of beneficial bacteria in your baby’s digestive tract. A healthy human gut is colonized with billions of beneficial bacteria that are crucial to normal digestion. Among breastfed babies, colonies of these bacteria are passed from mother to baby through breast milk. Hoping to mimic these benefits, some formula companies have begun adding ingredients to formula that encourage beneficial bacteria:
- Prebiotic formula contains carbohydrates that feed beneficial bacteria and encourage growth of large colonies
- Probiotic formula contains actual live bacteria (usually a mix of several different species)
Some early research from the University of Illinois has shown that giving babies pre- or probiotic ingredients results in stronger immune systems and increased populations of beneficial bacteria.
- Virtually all formulas on the market are fortified with iron, DHA and ARA.
- Iron has been shown to promote blood and brain health in infants.
- Prebiotic and probiotic formulas have been shown to enhance digestive health.
- Breast milk is considered the best source of complete nutrition.