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The milk of human kindness

“There was no big drama, just a long and arduous road.”

Back in 1973 a young grad student was shown the molecular structure of a then largely-ignored omega-3 fatty acid called DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid). “I knew immediately that what I was looking at was beautiful, elaborate and different from any molecule I'd ever seen,” says Dr Norman Salem of DSM.  

Today, DHA, in tandem with ARA (archidonic acid), an omega-6 fatty acid, is a staple of infant milk formulations and can be found in everything from sports drinks to supplements – largely thanks to its ability to support optimal human brain and eye development and function, as well as reduced risk from certain diseases. And Norman has been there every step of the way…

Although sourced primarily from oily fish like anchovies, DHA is also found in incredibly high concentrations in the infant brain and in breast milk,” he explains. “I didn’t know much about nutrition back then but it occurred to me: ‘What happens to all those children who aren’t breast-fed? How do we ensure they get their DHA?”

For the next 30 years, Norman championed the cause of DHA as a nutritional supplement through his work at the National Health Institute in the United States. The big breakthrough came through a series of supplementation and deficiency studies in 80s and 90s. “We began to realize that memory and learning could be significantly affected by DHA,” he recalls. “There was no big drama, just a long and arduous road.”

In 2001, the Federal Drug Administration allowed the use of  DHA and ARA in infant milk and other applications. Now, regulatory agencies worldwide have extensively reviewed the safety of DHA and ARA and concluded that it is safe for use in infant formula.

Job done? Not quite. With DHA firmly established on supermarket shelves, Norman could have been forgiven for taking a comfortable retirement – until in 2007 he was persuaded to join the commercial sector, developing a second generation of DHA. “I decided I wanted to finish the job I started all those years ago and now DHA omega-3 acids are now found in hundreds of food and beverage products.”

Today, Norman and his team at DSM are perfecting new ways to produce DHA, from both algae and oily fish.

In fact, a new process for the production of algae-based DHA available in 2016 will be more efficient and just as sustainable. Thanks to Norman and other DSM scientists like him, DSM can now provide a complete range of trusted nutritional lipid solutions from diverse sources, including sustainably-sourced fish oils and renewable algae. Aside from algal DHA, DSM sources most of its fish-derived omega-3 fatty acids from a fishery in Peru - one of the purest, richest marine environments in the world.

I got into this branch of science to improve public health. And now we’re discovering entirely new ways to benefit society,” says Norman.

Some 43 years later, scientific curiosity still hasn’t got the better of him…

DHA is a great example of how science is meeting a societal need. But what is DHA?

Docosahexaenoic acid is a 22-carbon fatty acid with six double bonds of the omega-3 family.

DHA is always found in breast milk, in combination with ARA, an omega-6 fatty acid. In fact, the brain accretes a large amount of DHA and ARA from birth through the first two years of life - the most rapid period of human brain growth and development.

To meet this need for DHA and ARA for infants who receive infant milk, DSM provides life’sDHA™ and life’sARA™. The subject of over a hundred different research studies over the past two decades, life’sDHA, in combination with life’sARA, is found in more than 90 percent of all infant milk in the United States; and in infant nutrition products in more than 60 markets around the world.

It has supported the nutritional needs of more than 100 million babies. In fact, life’sDHA can be found in over 500 products around the world.

The Office of Special Nutritionals at the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for ensuring that all new compounds introduced to the infant diet are safe. To meet these exacting standards, manufacturers needs to perform both animal and human studies over an extended period of time to confirm not only safety, but efficacy (does it work?).

Even before Dr Salem joined DSM, the work was being carried forward by DSM – thanks to its vast amounts of scientific knowledge accrued when developing microbial oils containing DHA and ARA, respectively. This in turn supported infant formula trials by DSM customers where it was shown in multiple clinical studies that DHA and ARA promote more optimal infant growth and development.

After its standard rigorous review for a new ingredient, the FDA allowed infant formula manufacturers to add DHA and ARA to infant formula. In 2007 Norman decided to join DSM (then Martek) to continue his good work. Now, in 2015, regulatory agencies worldwide have extensively reviewed the safety of DHA and concluded that it is safe for use in infant formula.

DSM produces its algae-based DHA in an oil–based format called DHASCO.

While DHASCO is nothing new, the organisms used to produce it can differ. Initially an algae called C. cohnii was used for infant milk and other products. Then later, a new algae called Schizochytrium was found to offer unique processing benefits, particularly for the food and supplements industries.

In 2007, Norman and his team began searching for even more efficient strains of Schizochytrium.  After an exhaustive strain improvement process, the team found a new Schizochytrium species. And following a full battery of safety and toxicology studies, this new DHA oil - produced via a new and unique manufacturing process - is expected to replace the original C. cohnii DHA oil in infant formulas in late 2016.

It will benefit millions more mothers and their children.