Palm oil in formulas: Is palm oil bad for babies?

Babies are tiny, delicate beings. You are not alone if you wonder whether typical adult foods like palm oil are okay for them.

Man feeding a baby with a palm oil-based infant formula

Key takeaways:

  • Palm oil is a common staple food with controversies surrounding its health benefits and side effects.
  • Palm oil is generally not bad for babies, especially when added in a moderate amount to their formulas.
  • While palm oil is not considered bad for babies, its use in baby formulas may cause a few side effects such as reduced calcium absorption and harder baby stools.

Palm oil is often considered bad for babies because some studies suggest it is bad for a baby's digestive system and can cause symptoms like constipation and trapped gas. This may be because babies don't absorb the fats in palm oil effectively.

When it comes to baby feeding and nutrition, breast milk is unrivaled. This is because it meets an infant's nutritional needs at all stages of development for up to six months after delivery. Furthermore, it is beneficial for both maternal and infant health.

In fact, breastfeeding may have long-term impacts that enhance child development and maturation and promote immunity, according to a 2021 study.

But even though breast milk is the gold standard, most newborns are fed at least partially with formula. And most baby formulas contain palm oil, which is one of the most controversial vegetable oils—sources indicate that it has both good and bad effects.

There are a lot of questions about why some baby formulas have palm oil in them and whether or not palm oil is bad for babies.

In this article, we will discuss what makes palm oil harmful, why some baby formula companies use palm oil in their products, and if it is safe for babies. It will also list other food products that may contain palm oil.

Is palm oil in baby formula safe?

Palm oil is considered safe in baby formulas.

Most of the time, infant formula gets most of its fatty acids from a mix of vegetable oils. The most common vegetable oils used in infant formula are palm oil, sunflower, safflower, and rapeseed oil. Coconut and soy oil are also used.

The fatty acid composition of breast milk changes depending on what the mother eats. This suggests that babies can naturally digest a wide range of fatty acids, even if the mix changes every day.

Oleic acid, palmitic acid, linoleic acid, and stearic acid are the most common fatty acids found in breast milk.

Palm oil (also known as palm olein oil) contains palmitic acid, which accounts for about one-quarter of the fatty acid composition of breast milk.

This is why palm oil appears in so many products. Palm oil is a great source of vitamins A and E, as well as a dietary supply of palmitic, oleic, and linoleic acids. Also, there is some evidence that it might help support healthy cholesterol levels when consumed moderately.

Linoleum acid, also found in palm oil, is an essential fatty acid that the body can't produce—it has to be ingested via food or supplements.

Possible side effects of palm oil on babies

While palm oil is a crucial ingredient in some of the best organic baby formulas on the market, it can cause some side effects in babies.

The major thing that might be bad about using palm oil as a source of fatty acids in baby formula is that it might make it harder for the body to absorb calcium. However, formula producers make up for this by boosting the quantity of calcium in the formula. This is to ensure that babies get all the calcium they need to develop strong bones.

According to a 2020 review study, clinical evidence indicates that palm oil or palm olein in baby formulas leads to reduced fat, palmitate, DHA, and calcium absorption compared to formulas that don't contain them.

Because premature babies miss the last few weeks of pregnancy, which is a key time for building strong bones, it is especially important for them to absorb calcium well.

Palm oil is safe for babies, but if you want to make sure your child gets the most calcium from their formula, you might want to look for one with other fat sources, like rapeseed or sunflower oil. Otherwise, ensure that the palm oil-containing formula you are using contains enough calcium.

In another study, babies who consumed formulas that didn't have palm oil had softer stools than babies who consumed formulas containing palm oil.6 While this may not mean that such formulas affect their health, babies may experience pain when they pass hard stools. This may cause them to start avoiding bowel movements, which can cause a problem.

Aside from the possible negative effects of palm oil in baby formulas and the effects of the saturated fats it contains, there isn't much evidence that palm oil is bad for babies.

Why some baby formula companies use palm oil in products

Baby formula companies add palm oil to their products because it contains palmitic acid as found in breast milk (Photo source: Rene Asmussen on Pexels

One of the reasons some companies use palm oil in baby formula is that palm oil contains palmitic acid. Palmitic acid makes up approximately 20–25 percent of the primary fatty acids found in breast milk.

Because palm oil is high in palmitic acid, it is widely used in baby formula to mimic breast milk's natural fatty acid profile.

The goal of infant formula is to accurately mimic each component of breast milk—the gold standard! Breast milk contains lipids, protein, and carbohydrates. And it is the fat constituents (or lipids) that provide children with more than half of the energy required for healthy development.

But lipids do more than merely provide energy to our children. They also contain essential fatty acids (EFAs), which help with tissue growth, cardiovascular health, and brain development and function.

Babies have up to 100 billion neurons in their brains at birth, which is twice that of most adults! These neurons are made of lipids (excellent full-cream milk fats).

Also, it has been determined that palmitic acid plays a role in the formation of lung surfactants. Lung surfactants are made up of many different types of phospholipids and proteins that lower surface tension and keep the lungs from collapsing.

Fats don't usually cause allergies in babies, and babies can consume a wide range of fats.

A baby formula made with palm oil is more similar to breast milk than one that is not palm-based since palm oil contains the same fatty acids as breast milk. This is mostly why most baby formula production companies include palm oil as an ingredient in baby formulas.

Why palm oil is considered harmful

Palm oil when consumed in excess can increase LDL levels which can cause hypertension and cardiovascular diseases

Palm oil is good for your health when consumed moderately. But if you eat too much of it, it could cause your body to store more saturated fat.

Saturated fats are "bad" fats found in animal-based foods like pork and tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil; they are unhealthy.

Saturated fats have been linked to increased LDL (bad) cholesterol, heart disease, high blood pressure, and stroke. This is one of the major reasons why palm oil is considered harmful.

Also, according to research, when vegetable oils (such as palm oil) are heated during the refining process, dangerous quantities of glycidyl fatty acid esters (GE) and 3-monochloropropanediol (3-MCPD) are released.

According to research, GE is both genotoxic and carcinogenic. A substance is said to be genotoxic if it can harm DNA and cause mutations, and carcinogenic if it can cause cancer. 3-MCPD can also harm the kidneys.

The difference between palm oil and palm olein

Both palm oil and palm olein are derived from tropical palm fruit. However, they differ in their chemical state, use, and how they are obtained.

Palm olein is the liquid fraction derived from the fractionation of palm oil. Processing palm olein requires crystallization at a regulated temperature and crystal removal by filtration.

Compared to palm oil, palm olein contains more oleic (39–45%) and linoleic (10–13%) acids because it has a melting point of 18–20 °C. It is also completely liquid at room temperature (25 °C).

Based on the iodine value, multiple classes of palm olein exist, each with unique applications. The standard olein has an iodine value of 56–59 and a maximum cloud point of 10°C.

Palm oil, on the other hand, is semi-solid at room temperature. Its liquid portion can be physically separated from the solid part by fractionation to form palm olein, while the other solid portion forms palm stearin.

Palm oil has a well-balanced fatty acid content, with its saturated fatty acid component almost equaling its unsaturated fatty acid component.

Its principal component acids are palmitic acid (44 percent -45 percent) and oleic acid (39 percent -40 percent), with lesser linoleic acid (10 percent -11 percent) and just a minimal amount of linolenic acid.

Because of the low quantity of linoleic acid and the lack of linolenic acid, the oil is relatively resistant to oxidative degradation.

While palm oil is mostly used in bakeries and industrial settings, palm olein is commonly used worldwide for frying.

Other food products that may contain palm oil

Some other food products like cakes, breads and cookies are also made with palm oil. (Photo source: Element5 Digital on Unsplash)

Baby formula isn't the only food that contains palm oil. Below are other foods that may contain palm oil as an ingredient.


Palm oil is used in making biscuits and cookies, resulting in snacks that have a crumbly, melt-in-your-mouth feel. This can result in cookies with softer textures that are more compact.

Palm oil cookies and biscuits are free of trans fatty acids (TFA), making them healthier than alternatives containing other vegetable oils.


Palm oil is widely used in baking since it is both inexpensive and solid at room temperature. Palm oil increases loaf volume while keeping bread tender.

Breakfast buffets

Palm oil, a healthier alternative to hydrogenated oils, prevents breakfast bars from melting during transportation.


Margarine and butter are shielded from oxidation by palm oil. Oxidation is a chemical process that lowers the quality of oil and makes it taste and smell bad. It offers structure, texture, and consistency. It doesn't contain trans fats and is solid at room temperature.


Cakes benefit from palm oil's excellent oxidative stability, which extends their shelf life. It can also improve cake texture by making it softer and airier, as well as improve moistness and volume.

Spread chocolate/chocolate

Palm oil provides chocolates, and chocolate spreads a smooth and shiny appearance. It also helps to keep it from melting as easily in warmer conditions.

Wrap up

Many well-known baby formulas on the market today use palm oil as part of their fat blend, even though it is one of the oils that has been the subject of the most debate.

Palm oil is not considered harmful to babies. But some clinical studies have shown that using palm oil as the main source of fat in the formula for newborns may make some babies less able to absorb calcium and fat, which means they will have less energy and their bones won't get as dense.

Breast milk is the most nutritious diet for newborns. However, baby formulas can be used as a substitute for breast milk. Most times, health practitioners recommend the use of infant formula when breastfeeding is not possible.

Baby formula should be made, stored, and used according to the directions on the product label to avoid health risks.