Nutrition is important for 24-year-old Jovahn Nagra of Joliet. Not only because she is studying to be a nutritionist, but because her 2 1/2-month-old depends on it—literally. "I try to eat a balanced diet because I’m breastfeeding and I know how important it is for my baby," says Nagra. Fish isn’t part of Nagra’s diet, though, and some say she and many other mothers are lacking in DHA because of it.
DHA is a component naturally found in breastmilk, fatty fish such as tuna, salmon and mackerel and other animal products such as liver and eggs. Studies have shown that DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), an omega-3 fatty acid, plays an important role in cognitive visual and cardiovascular development and function. This prompted 80 percent of formula companies to add it to their product.
The DHA that is added to infant formula is produced by Martek Biosciences Corporation in Maryland, who developed a process to extract DHA from fermented mircroalgae.
Supplements and nutrition bars for breastfeeding moms, enriched with Martek’s DHA, are slowly entering the market. And Martek is currently working on bringing it into even more food sources.
"Pregnant and nursing moms have been cautioned by the U.S. FDA and EPA to limit their consumption of certain fish because of possible contamination and mercury levels," says Beth Parker of Martek. "Fatty fish is the main dietary source for DHA. There is a real fear that because of this, pregnant and nursing moms are not getting enough DHA."
But are breastfeeding women really deficient in DHA? Or is this just a marketing ploy?
"Just because research comes out in a fancy journal doesn’t mean it is true. Results can be skewed in so many different ways," says Katy Lebbing, an international board certified lactation consultant and manager for the Center for Breastfeeding Information Education and Member Services Department of La Leche League International. Lebbing says the studies done have been too small and too short term. "It hasn’t even been long enough to determine if adding it to formula is safe."
"Mothers are wasting their money if they believe Martek’s hype about their supposed ‘milk deficiency.’ Breastmilk always contains DHA," says Marsha Walker, the executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy Research Education and Legal, "even if the mother doesn’t eat fish."
Walker says that the DHA sold by Martek is not the same as human DHA because it's carried differently on the triglyceride molecule, making it a poor substitute.
"There is no proof that a baby is going to use the DHA in the same way it does human DHA," says Dr. Ruth Lawrence. "The tests done so far prove nothing more than you can raise DHA levels in a mother’s milk. They don’t show how the increases will affect the babies long term." Lawrence is the author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, an executive committee member for American Academy of Pediatrics’ breastfeeding section and a professor of pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology at Rochester University.
Lawrence sees this campaign as nothing more than an attempt to create a new market for Martek’s product. "There are so many ways to get DHA that in order for a woman’s breastmilk to be deficient in DHA, her diet would have to be extreme and almost completely cutting out omega-3 fatty acids."
Janel Hughes-Jones, a breastfeeding peer counselor for the Will County Health Department says that in addition to eating right, how you breastfeed can effect the amount of DHA. "You can increase the quantity of DHA your baby receives just by nursing longer on each side. It is in the last 10 to 15 minutes that produces hindmilk, which has the highest concentrates of fats, and therefore, the highest concentration of DHA."
For more information, visit www.naba breastfeeding.org and www.lalecheleague.org.
Jean Dunning is a mom of four living in Plainfield who writes on health and parenting issues. She can be reached at email@example.com.