Formula milk 'should contain key brain growth ingredient'

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Indy Lifestyle Online

Most babies in the United Kingdom who are bottle fed are being given formula milk lacking in essential fatty acids that could be necessary for brain development.

Most babies in the United Kingdom who are bottle fed are being given formula milk lacking in essential fatty acids that could be necessary for brain development.

A study published today found that babies fed with ordinary formula milk were slower to develop mentally than those fed on milk supplemented with two essential fatty acids. At the age of 18 months, the babies fed on the ordinary milk were seven points behind on the mental development index, a measure of intellectual growth.

The research, published in the journal Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, is the latest in a series of studies stretching back more than a decade showing that formula milk fortified with docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (AA) can boost the intelligence of babies. The evidence is strongest in premature babies but studies, including the currrent one, suggest that they are also important in babies born at full term. DHA and AA are naturally present in breast milk.

The British Nutrition Foundation recommended in 1992 that all formula milk be fortified with DHA and AA because of growing evidence of its role in mental development. Dr Judy Buttriss, science director of the foundation, who is is due to speak at a press conference to announce the latest findings today, said: "The concern is that these fatty acids are found in breast milk and we can assume that it is probably a good idea for infants to have them. For pre-term infants it is pretty well established. The jury is still out to some extent on whether it is necessary in full-term infants but this study is well designed and controlled and it does look as though [the fatty acids] are effective."

The market for formula milk in the UK is dominated by two manufacturers, Cow & Gate and SMA, which together account for 70 per cent of sales, but neither adds DHA or AA to its products. Smaller manufacturers, including Boots, Farleys and Milupa, do add the supplements.

The Infant and Dietetic Foods Association, which represents the manufacturers, said it was a "very complex medical area" and each manufacturer had taken its own view. A spokeswoman said: "We haven't got a stance on the issue."

Professor Michael Crawford, of the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition at the University of North London, who has researched the issue for 20 years, said the latest study, conducted at the Retina Foundation in Dallas, Texas, added to the weight of evidence pointing to an effect of fortified formula milk in full-term infants. "While it is essential to emphasise that breast milk is the best option for many immunological and hormonal reasons as well as for AA and DHA, I hope that all infants who cannot receive breast milk will soon have infant formula which contains AA and DHA similar to mother's milk," he said.

Although most mothers in the UK start off breast feeding, which is known to be best for babies, there is sharp fall off and by three months of age only 30 per cent of infants are breast fed, a much lower figure than in countries such as Scandinavia and New Zealand where more than 70 per cent are breast fed at three months.