BACKGROUND: Lower proportions of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and total n-3 metabolites have been reported in breast milk of European, Australian and North American women compared with milk of mothers from non-Western countries. This difference is not always explained by intakes of marine products.

OBJECTIVE: We investigated the possibility that the relative composition of DHA and total n-3 metabolites in breast milk of non-Western mothers with low fat intakes is higher than the levels commonly reported in their Western counterparts. Subjects: Mature milk of refugee Karen women from two different camps in Thailand (n=26 and n=53), and transition milk from urban Korean mothers (n=12) in Seoul was collected. In common with their respective community, the mothers have low fat intake, which is predominately of plant origin.

RESULTS: The percentage levels of DHA and n-3 metabolites in the milk of the Karen mothers were 0.52 +/- 0.14 and 0.85 +/- 0.24 (camp 1) and 0.54 +/- 0.22 and 0.92 +/- 0.42 (camp 2). In the Korean milk, DHA was 0.96 +/- 0.21 and total n-3 metabolites 1.51 +/- 0.3.

CONCLUSION: We postulate that the levels of DHA and total n-3 metabolites may be compromised in breast milk of mothers on the Western high fat diet. This calls into question the use of DHA composition of such milk as a reference for the formulation of milk designed, for infant feed or, to test the function of DHA in neuro-visual development.