While breast milk is still the best milk for babies, the newest addition to the infant formula family is trying to bridge that gap.
Mead Johnson Pharmaceuticals is now marketing a new line of formula in the United States called Enfamil Lipil that contains two fatty acids — decosahexaenoic acid, or DHA, and arachidonic acid, or ARA — that are naturally occurring elements of breast milk and are believed to play an important role in the development of the brain and the eye.
"What the formula companies are trying to do is get more and more like breast milk, because they realize that it is the gold standard," says Dr. Steven Zeisel, chairman of the department of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "There is no advantage of this formula over breast milk, but there might be an advantage over other formulas."
Adding Subtle Benefits
Formula makers, which have made the nutrients available in formulas overseas for several years, have been shifting their focus to products that improve more subtle measures of health, such as mental development.
Experts say that the period when an infant is being nursed is an important time for brain development. "Babies' brains develop for months and years after birth," says Zeisel. "Especially for premature infants, but certainly for regular infants, there is still a lot of brain development going on at the time the mother is breast-feeding the baby."
Making sure that nursing infants receive vital nutrients could help their brains develop better. But some experts are not quite convinced that adding DHA and ARA to formula is necessary. They maintain babies can make these fatty acids on their own even if they are fed other formulas.
"I would expect [formula makers] to add DHA and ARA to all their formulas if the evidence shows it is so helpful, rather than creating a new product line while continuing to sell their standard, presumably inferior formula," says Dr. Mark Groeshek, a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente in Centennial, Colo.
One More Option
Regardless of whether the new additions prove beneficial, some say that formula companies should continue to strive to make their products the best copy of breast milk they can. They acknowledge, however, that some components of breast milk may never be copied.
"There are some disease prevention benefits that you just can't get from anywhere else," says Groeshek. "There are antibodies that cross from the mother's immune system into breast milk that help protect the baby from infections. I don't think anybody has figured out how to pull antibodies into formula."
Some women do not breast-feed, for personal as well as medical reasons. Mothers who have certain infectious diseases or are taking certain medications are not able to breast-feed because of what they may transmit to their babies.
For these women, experts agree, better formulas could provide a better chance for their babies to grow up healthy.