Palm Oil in Baby Formula

If you’ve ever looked at the ingredients list on the back of your little one’s formula, you’ve probably noticed that it contains palm oil. A quick rummage through your kitchen cupboards will confirm that palm oil is a key ingredient in many food items, as well as plenty of other household products.

But despite its ubiquity, the presence of palm oil in your baby’s formula may have given you pause. After all, palm oil is widely discussed in newspapers and magazines, and you’ve likely seen posts about it on social media, as well. So you may have wondered, is palm oil safe for a growing baby? Is it healthy? What about the environmental impact? And why is palm oil used in so many formulas, anyway?

Fat in Breast Milk and Formula 

As the purpose of infant formula is to approximate the nutritional content of breast milk as closely as possible, it relies on ingredients that can provide a similar composition of carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals. Fat is one of the most important components of breast milk, and thus infant formula also relies on sources of fatty acids to provide babies with the calories they need. In fact, roughly 50% of the calories in both breast milk and formula come from fat, which is essential not just as an energy source but also to help with the absorption of vitamins and minerals.

Infant formulas typically incorporate a blend of vegetable oils as their primary source of fatty acids. Palm, sunflower, safflower, and rapeseed oil are the most common vegetable oils used in baby formula, although coconut and soy oil are also used. Interestingly, the composition of fatty acids in breast milk changes depending on the mother’s diet, which means that babies are naturally able to digest a wide range of fatty acids, even if the blend changes slightly from day to day. The most prevalent fatty acids in breast milk include oleic acid, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, and stearic acid. 

Why Do So Many Formulas Contain Palm Oil?

Palm oil (alternatively known as palm olein oil) is a good source of palmitic acid, which accounts for roughly a quarter of the fatty acid content of breast milk.3 This is why palm oil is used in so many formulas. In addition to being a dietary source of palmitic, oleic, and linoleic acids, palm oil is also an excellent source of vitamin A and vitamin E, and there is some evidence that it can help promote healthy cholesterol levels.

Palm oil is a main ingredient in the vast majority of infant formulas, including those manufactured in the United States, Europe, and around the world. In fact, palm oil is used by the best organic baby formula brands: HiPP, Holle, and Lebenswert

Palmitic Acid from Breast Milk vs. Palmitic Acid from Palm Oil

Although palm oil and breast milk are both sources of palmitic acid, palm oil triglycerides (fats composed of three fatty acid molecules) and breast milk triglycerides have somewhat different configurations. The major consequence of this difference is how these triglycerides are broken down by an infant’s digestive system. Essentially, palmitic acid from palm oil is not absorbed as well as palmitic acid from breast milk. The palmitic acid from palm oil can end up “floating” in a baby’s intestines, where it binds with calcium molecules, forming calcium soaps. These soaps are not harmful or dangerous, but simply indicate that a certain amount of palmitic acid and calcium is not being absorbed. The undigested calcium and palmitic acid is eliminated from the body as part of a normal bowel movement.

The vast majority of babies are able to digest a wide variety of fatty acids, including palmitic acid from palm oil, without any difficulty. However, for some babies with very sensitive digestive systems, including those born early, the formation of calcium soaps can potentially cause harder stools or constipation. For this reason, gentle, easy-to-digest formulas such as HiPP Comfort feature fat blends with beta-palmitate, a triglyceride in which the palmitic acid is more absorbable and won’t inhibit calcium absorption or cause the formation of calcium soaps.  Furthermore, the protein in HiPP Comfort is 100% hydrolyzed whey, which will soften your baby’s stool and is often recommended for relieving constipation.

So, Is Palm Oil Safe and Healthy for Babies?

Palm oil is perfectly safe for babies, and is used as a key ingredient in the healthiest organic formulas on the market. 

As mentioned above, the only potential drawback of palm oil as a fat source is that it may decrease calcium absorption. However, formula manufacturers compensate for this by increasing the amount of calcium in formula, so that babies are able to get all of the calcium they need to build strong bones. Furthermore, multiple studies have shown that prebiotics and probiotics are both beneficial for calcium uptake. Prebiotic fibers are a key ingredient in all HiPP formulas, and probiotics are included in all HiPP formulas except for HiPP UK.

For babies who were born early, optimal calcium absorption is particularly important as they missed out on the last few weeks of gestation, which is a key period of bone density growth. So although palm oil is safe for all babies, in order to ensure that your little one is getting the most calcium out of their formula, you might consider choosing a formula that lists other fat sources (ie. rapeseed or sunflower oil) before palm oil on the ingredients list, or choose a formula such as HiPP Comfort that contains easy-to-absorb beta-palmitate. 

However, keep in mind that countless early arrivals have flourished on formulas that rely on palm oil as the primary fat source, so if your baby is currently enjoying and thriving on such a formula, there’s no need to switch. Research indicates that the palm oil in your little one’s formula will not adversely affect bone mineralization in the long run and should certainly not deter you from confidently feeding your baby the formula of your choice.

Do All Baby Formulas Contain Palm Oil?

Although palm oil is a very common ingredient that is used in the majority of baby formulas, it is possible to find formulas that do not include it. For example, Holle has recently removed palm oil from all of its goat milk formulas. In place of palm oil, Holle Goat Stage 1, Stage 2, and Stage 3 use organic sunflower oil and organic rapeseed oil as fat sources, in addition to full cream organic goat’s milk powder.

Palm Oil Sustainability

Many of the concerns related to palm oil are not about its health effects, but rather its environmental impact. Unfortunately, much of the world’s palm oil is produced using agricultural methods that are detrimental to ecosystems and biodiversity. However, well-respected companies such as HiPP and Holle use sustainable-sourced, socially-responsible organic palm oil that has been grown without reliance on slash-and-burn agriculture or the destruction of old growth forests. You can feel confident that the palm oil in your baby’s formula, like the rest of the organic ingredients, has been farmed in a way that is pesticide free and as environmentally-friendly as possible.

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