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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 Service's Southern 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.

Read more 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 magazine.

ARS is the U.S. Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.

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