ARS Oil-Refining Technology Gives Baby
Formula a Boost By Amy Spillman
December 2, 2002
Omega-3 fatty acids such as DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and ARA
(arachidonic acid) are important nutrients that the body needs. Their
consumption may help reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, and they are
found in high concentrations in nerve cell membranes and the retina. They are
also found in human breast milk.
Now, these nutrients are being added to some baby formulas sold
in the United States, thanks in part to work done by Peter Wan, a chemical
engineer at the Agricultural Research
Regional Research Center in New Orleans.
The best-known source of omega-3 fatty acids is oil from
coldwater fish, according to Wan. Unfortunately, fish oil is highly unsaturated
and oxidizes quickly, meaning it goes bad very fast and smells fishy. Because
it's such an unstable ingredient, it is not used in baby formulas produced for
the U.S. market.
Fish oil is not the only source of omega-3 fatty acids, though.
Several years ago, researchers at Martek
Biosciences Corporation in Columbia, Md., identified algal and fungal
species that are rich in DHA and ARA and found a way to harvest them in the
lab. They contacted Wan when they began having problems refining the algal oil.
Wan is an expert in the technology used to separate and purify
edible oils. At the time, he was working on ways to improve the quality of
cottonseed oil, which is difficult to refine because it contains natural
pigments and variable amounts of free fatty acids. The processing method he
developed works well with dark-colored oils, and, through a confidential
agreement, he was able to give advice to the Martek scientists, who were trying
similar methods to refine their algal oil.
about the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and the part Wan played in bringing
them to baby formula in the
December 2002 issue
of Agricultural Research
ARS is the U.S. Department of
Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.