Why are there “synthetic” fats in my organic milk?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA“Synthetic” – sounds bad, doesn’t it.  Not legitimate.  Fake.  The recent action by USDA to eliminate two synthetic fatty acids from organic milk and baby formula plays right in to consumers’ likely reaction to the idea of something fake being added to a food that’s supposed to have a Health Halo.

What’s the real story?  The fatty acids in question – DHA and AHA* – are well-known nutrients.  DHA is one of two biologically active omega-3 fatty acids, found in fish oil and hundreds of popular omega-3 supplements.  DHA is known to affect brain, eye and nerve cell development in fetuses and infants.

It’s also critically important for humans of all ages.  And it’s a very specific shape: a 22 carbon chain, with bends at very specific locations along that chain.  Whether you get it “synthetic” or natural, it’s always going to be the exact same shape, and have the exact same biological function.  Baby formula manufacturers add it, because it’s important for infant brain and nervous system development.  Breast milk will contain it, if the mother consumes lots of DHA from fish or supplements.  If not, then breast milk will be low.  Japanese women have one of the highest omega-3 concentrations in breast milk in the world, because they eat a lot of fish.

So what effect will a ban on DHA and AHA in formula or organic milk have?  Parents who use formula, and who understand the importance of brain/eye/nerve development, will switch to non-organic formula which can still be fortified with these “synthetic” fatty acids.  The nutritional quality of organic formulas will be reduced, since they won’t contain these critical nutrients.

So why would the USDA move to force formula manufacturers to remove a critical nutrient?  Here’s a thought: they don’t want formula to look like a viable alternative to breast feeding.  They want women to breast feed their infants.  If you’re a mom, concerned about giving your infant pure wholesome foods, you would consider organic formula a good choice.  But if that formula is lacking a critical nutrient, what other choice do you have?  Unfortunately, breast feeding guarantees nothing about omega-3 intake, unless the mother is eating lots of fish or taking omega-3 supplements.  And if your lifestyle makes breast feeding inconvenient, then what?

Recommendations call for infants to be exclusively breasts fed for the first 6 months of life.  Unfortunately, only about 1/3 of mothers do this.  The other 2/3 of mothers are using formula because they’re working or for other personal reasons.  Mothers of adopted children must use formula.  Will the breastfeeding moms change their minds and stick with breastfeeding (and not return to work) because the USDA has banned “synthetic” fatty acids from their preferred formula choice?

*Docosahexaenoic Acid (omega-3) and Arachidonic Acid (long-chain omega-6 fatty acid)

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