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Too much of a good thing: Evolutionary perspectives on infant formula fortification in the United States and its effects on infant health

Authors

  • Elizabeth A. Quinn

    Corresponding author
    1. Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, St. Louis, Missouri
    • Correspondence to: E. A. Quinn, Department of Anthropology, Washington University in St. Louis, One Brookings Drive, Campus Box 1114, St. Louis, MO 63130, USA. E-mail: equinn@wustl.edu

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ABSTRACT

Recently, there has been considerable debate regarding the appropriate amount of iron fortification for commercial infant formula. Globally, there is considerable variation in formula iron content, from 4 to 12 mg iron/L. However, how much fortification is necessary is unclear. Human milk is low in iron (0.2–0.5 mg/L), with the majority of infant iron stores accumulated during gestation. Over the first few months of life, these stores are depleted in breastfeeding infants. This decline has been previously largely perceived as pathological; it may be instead an adaptive mechanism to minimize iron availability to pathogens coinciding with complementary feeding. Many of the pathogens involved in infantile illnesses require iron for growth and replication. By reducing infant iron stores at the onset of complementary feeding, infant physiology may limit its availability to these pathogens, decreasing frequency and severity of infection. This adaptive strategy for iron regulation during development is undermined by the excess dietary iron commonly found in infant formula, both the iron that can be incorporated into the body and the excess iron that will be excreted in feces. Some of this excess iron may promote the growth of pathogenic, iron requiring bacteria disrupting synergistic microflora commonly found in breastfed infants. Evolutionarily, mothers who produced milk with less iron and infants who had decreased iron stores at the time of weaning may have been more likely to survive the transition to solid foods by having limited iron available for pathogens. Contemporary fortification practices may undermine these adaptive mechanisms and increase infant illness risk. Am. J. Hum. Biol. 26:10–17, 2014. © 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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