OMEGA-3 FATTY ACID DHA IN INFANT NUTRITIONOur brain operates using many complex processes. It’s no surprise that it takes around twenty years to mature. A child’s brain needs omega-3 fatty acid DHA to develop in the best possible way, but our modern-day eating habits often neglect this resource. This is one of the reasons why the EU has decided to legislate the amount of DHA added to infant formula.

In order for a young child’s brain to de­velop well, it has to have a daily sup­ply of cer­tain nu­tri­ents. The same ap­plies to the eyes, often con­sid­ered to be an ex­ten­sion of the brain. Two sub­stances are equally im­por­tant: do­cosa­hexaenoic acid, known as DHA for short, and arachi­donic acid, oth­er­wise known as AA (1, 2).

AA oc­curs in high con­cen­tra­tions in the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem as well as in all body tis­sues. DHA on the other hand is found in large quan­ti­ties in the retina and in the grey mat­ter of the cere­bral cor­tex (2). Even in the womb, both fatty acids play a sig­nif­i­cant role in the cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment of the in­fant.

In prin­ci­ple, the body can cre­ate omega-3 fatty acid DHA and omega-6 fatty acid AA using its own unique syn­the­sis. How­ever, the amounts are lim­ited. So we need to con­sume both in our daily diet.

Chang­ing eat­ing habits mean too lit­tle DHA

Our eat­ing habits have changed dra­mat­i­cally over the past hun­dred years. We used to eat more fibre, along with seafood such as crus­taceans and shell­fish and fatty fish such as her­ring and salmon. This sup­plied our bod­ies with ample DHA (3). We now con­sume too much sat­u­rated fat, sugar and omega-6 in the form of AA, which is mainly pre­sent in prod­ucts of an­i­mal ori­gin.

From the 25th week of preg­nancy in­fants need a lot of DHA

From the final trimester of preg­nancy up to around the age of three, chil­dren store an ex­ces­sive pro­por­tion of AA and DHA in their sys­tems. It is dur­ing this pe­riod that the brain grows fastest. It starts to form count­less synapses and the myelin layer, a white layer made of fat and pro­tein (2, 4). The main func­tion of this spe­cial layer of fat is to in­crease the im­pulse con­duc­tion speed along the nerve cells. A sig­nif­i­cant deficit in nu­tri­ents dur­ing and after preg­nancy can lead to cog­ni­tive and psy­chomo­tor im­pair­ment (2, 5). Chil­dren can suf­fer from sight and nerve prob­lems at a later stage or dis­play a height­ened ten­dency to­wards neu­rocog­ni­tive dis­or­ders such as ADHD (6, 7).

"In the final trimester of preg­nancy, the DHA in the brain of a foe­tus shows the great­est in­crease in value."

It is there­fore ex­tremely im­por­tant for ex­pec­tant or breast­feed­ing moth­ers to con­sume suf­fi­cient DHA. ­Depending on coun­try-spe­cific rec­om­men­da­tions, moth­ers should con­sume fish or fish oil sup­ple­ments once or twice a week or drink milk with sup­ple­mented DHA. This pro­vides the in­fants with the right amount of DHA. How­ever, ex­perts are still di­vided about how much DHA an in­fant re­ally needs: al­though breast milk is very sim­i­lar across the globe in terms of lac­tose, ­protein and fat con­tent, the fat qual­ity can be signifi­cantly dif­fer­ent. The amount of DHA in breast milk ­varies greatly de­pend­ing on the re­gion and eat­ing habits of the women con­cerned (see graph).

DHA level in breast milk

Pre­ma­ture ba­bies vir­tu­ally al­ways have lev­els of DHA that are too low

The DHA in the brain of a foe­tus shows the great­est in­crease in value in the final trimester of preg­nancy. Pre­ma­ture ba­bies miss out on this im­por­tant growth pe­riod. So early born ba­bies show de­layed cog­ni­tive de­vel­op­ment on ac­count of these rel­a­tively low lev­els of DHA. How­ever, it is pos­si­ble to catch up pro­vided that the baby re­ceives ad­di­tional DHA after birth to in­crease the amounts it would have re­ceived had it re­mained in the womb for longer. For­mula sup­ple­mented with DHA pro­vides one in­ter­est­ing so­lu­tion for pre­ma­ture ba­bies and young in­fants. In com­par­i­son to foods with­out the sup­ple­ments, they are shown to im­prove the develop­ment of the human eye and to sup­port neu­ro­log­i­cal de­vel­op­ment and func­tion (8).

Children often reject foods containing DHA

As breast feeding comes to an end and infants begin eating solid foods, problems with sufficient DHA provision may begin to emerge. Our little ones often reject foods rich in DHA, such as fish. In such cases, it makes sense to provide products, such as the HOCHDORF Group’s young children’s formula. Cognitive and motor developmet can be significantly increased by providing children a formula containing DHA (9, 10).

HOCHDORF has promoted DHA in the EU for a long time – and the EU is now set to follow suit

HOCHDORF has always set great store by the quality of its infant formula. Almost all our milk products for infants, young children and mothers contain DHA, although its addition in the EU was optional until recently.

On 22 February 2016, the European Authorities passed a new law requiring infant and follow-on formula to contain DHA and AA. The proportion was defined at 0.4% of the overall fat content. We previously added 0.2%. This means we will again double the amount of DHA in our milk products for infants and young children.

The new EU law provides us with the opportunity to use our latest know-how in the adapted formulations. The signal given by the European Authorities in recognising the importance of DHA in its latest legislation is a clear confirmation that we were on the right path with our formulations. We believe in the necessity of DHA to secure the healthy development of infants and pre-school children and we will continue to align our formulations with the latest research results in the future. 

Further Information

1) Umhau J.C., et al. Imaging incorporation of circulating docosahexaenoic acid into the human brain using positron emission tomography. J Lipid Res. 2009; 50:1259–1268
2) Wainwright PE. Dietary essential fatty acids and brain function. ProcNutr Soc. 2002; 61(1):61–69
3) Simopoulos A.P. Essential fatty acids in health and chronic disease. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1999; 70:560–569
4) Roth G., Strüber N. Pränatale Entwicklung und neurobiologische Grundlagen der psychischen Entwicklung. In: Cierpka (Hrsg.); Frühe Kindheit 0–3. Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg 2012; 4–20
5) Uauy R., Dangour AD. Nutrition in brain development and aging: role of essential fatty acids. Nutr. Rev. 2006; 64(5):24–33
6) Mohajeri M.H., et al. The role of DHA in cognitive performance of children. AgroFOOD industry hi-tech. 2012; 23(2):22–25
7) Richardson A.J. Long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in childhood developmental and psychiatric disorders. Lipids. 2004; 39(12):1215–1222
8) Makrides M. DHA supplementation during the perinatal period and neurodevelopment: Do some babies benefit more than others. PLEFA. Published online June 2012
9) Birch EE., et al. A randomized controlled trial of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid supplementation of formula in term infants after weaning at 6 wk of age. Am J Clin Nutr. 2002; 75(3):570–580
10) Birch E.B., et al. The DIAMOND Study: Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91(4):848–859
11) Brenna J.T., et al. Docosahexaenoic and arachidonic acid concentrations in human breast milk worldwide. Am J Clin Nutr. 2007; 85(6):1457–1464

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