Docosahexaenoic acid: It's not just for babies anymore. Emerging research shows there may be a benefit to adults consuming this long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acid. It's a derivative of the already popular omega-3 and — along with arachidonic acid, or ARA — becoming a star in it own right.
Major studies are under way to determine if DHA has any influence over age-related conditions like Alzheimer's disease; others recently evaluated its ability to prevent prostate, breast and colon cancers. It's also believed to help prevent certain types of heart attacks and strokes. Parents of children with cognitive disabilities such as autism report that DHA supplementation can help improve their child's condition.
The list of credits is long and promises to get longer as research continues and additional insights surface. But the evidence of DHA's benefits have already caught the eye of the Food and Drug Administration. In September 2004, the agency approved “qualified health claim” status for omega-3 fatty acids, including DHA, stating that “supportive but not conclusive research shows that consumption of ARA and DHA fatty acids may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.”
Last year saw a sizable increase in the number of food products containing DHA. For example, DHA has recently been added to dairy products, pasta, peanut butter and cereal, among other types of food. Additionally, there are DHA-enhanced eggs.
Of course, the most prominent area of development for DHA has been in the infant formula category, where it's become an essential ingredient promoted on the label. It's also a contentious topic retailers should be aware of. A recent study publicized by the Cornucopia Institute, a food policy research group, cites evidence showing that DHA formula can make infants sick.
“It's true that DHA and ARA are important nutrients for developing infants — that's why they're found in human breast milk,” said Jimi Francis, a DHA specialist at the University of Nevada-Reno involved in the study. “But we have also seen that some infants are experiencing side effects like diarrhea from consuming the manufactured DHA and ARA oils in formula.”
The industry denies the allegations and says all products are based on sound science.
“Formulas containing DHA and ARA have been shown to provide visual and mental development similar to the breast-fed infant,” noted Robert Rankin, a spokesman for the International Formula Council, Atlanta. “DHA has also been shown to benefit young and premature infants, who might have trouble making enough DHA on their own.”
Adult consumers are a different story, and scientists are trying to determine just how much fatty acids they need, and in what proportion. The National Institutes of Health recently published recommended daily intakes of fatty acids; 650 milligrams were listed for DHA.