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J Am Diet Assoc. 1993 Jan;93(1):58-64.

Are n-3 fatty acids essential nutrients for fetal and infant development?

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  • 1Office of Scientific Public Affairs, Institute of Food Technologists, Chicago, IL 60601.


Recent research indicates that n-3 fatty acids (FAs) are essential nutrients in early human development. In human infants, nonhuman primates, and animal models, the n-3 FA, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA, 22:6n-3) is highly concentrated in brain and retinal tissues and accumulates during late fetal and early neonatal life. Diets deficient in n-3 FAs are associated with reduced levels of DHA in erythrocytes and brain and retinal tissues and with abnormalities in retinal function that may be irreversible. The precursor of DHA, alpha-linolenic acid (LNA, 18:3n-3), may be an inadequate substitute for DHA because LNA may not be converted to DHA in sufficient amounts to meet an infant's needs. Premature infants lose DHA from their tissues unless they are fed human milk or formula supplemented with DHA. Fish and shellfish are the main food sources of DHA. Women who consume fish have more DHA in their breast milk than do those who do not eat seafood. Infant formulas contain only LNA as a source of n-3 FAs. Pregnant and nursing women should be encouraged to consume seafood on a regular basis during pregnancy and lactation to furnish DHA for their infants.

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