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

Some baby formulas contain palm oil - which many people debate its health effects. Is palm oil harmful or safe for babies?

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

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 to 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 numerous unanswered questions regarding why some baby formulas contain palm oil and whether 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 as well as the difference between palm oil and olein oil.

But, it will first start with discussing how palm oil is processed.

How palm oil is processed

Palm oil is a kind of vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The most frequently farmed oil palm type, Elaeis guineensis, popularly known as the African palm, is native to the west coast of Africa.

The oil palm yields fruit 2-3 years after planting and continues to bear fruit for up to 25 years. Harvesting palm fruit is the first stage in the palm oil manufacturing process.

When the palm fruits mature and are ripe, farmers harvest the bunches and transport them to factories where the fruits will be detached from the bunch and threshed.

Palm oil processing plants have a digester for digesting the fruits. Palm fruit digestion is the process of extracting the palm oil from the fruit after boiling it. It involves mashing or crushing the boiled palm fruits into a pulp.

After the mashing, a press delivers a mixture of oil, water, and solids from the bunch of fibers to a clarifying tank. The oil is separated from the rest of the liquor in the traditional procedure using gravity-based settling tanks.

The crude oil mixture is diluted with hot water to lower its viscosity. A vibrating screen aids in the removal of some of the solids.

In the clarity tank, the oil mixture is heated to 85-90°C and allowed to separate. A settling time of 1-3 hours is enough for this. Before drying in a vacuum drier, the top oil is skimmed off and refined in a centrifuge.

After that, the crude palm oil is cooled and stored.

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 because palm oil contains palmitic acid. Palmitic acid accounts for around 20-25 percent of the primary fatty acids contained 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 carbs. And it is the fat constituent (or lipids) that provides 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 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 complex phospholipids and proteins that reduce surface tension and prevent the collapse of the lungs.

Babies can digest a wide variety of fats, and fats typically do not cause allergies.

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

Is palm oil in baby formula safe?

Palm oil is considered safe in baby formulas.

A combination of vegetable oils is commonly used as the principal source of fatty acids in infant formula. The most frequent vegetable oils used in infant formula are palm oil, sunflower, safflower, and rapeseed oil. Coconut and soy oil are also used.

Interestingly, the composition of fatty acids in breast milk varies according to the mother's diet, suggesting that newborns are naturally capable of digesting a diverse range of fatty acids, even if the mix varies daily.

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 vitamin 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.

Palm oil is not considered harmful to babies. It is also a crucial ingredient in some of the best organic formulas on the market. However, its use in baby formulas is not without some downsides.

The sole potential disadvantage of palm oil as a fatty acid source in infant formulas is that it may reduce calcium absorption. However, formula producers compensate for this by boosting the quantity of calcium in the formula, ensuring newborns get all the calcium they need to create 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 newborns miss the last few weeks of gestation, which is a critical phase for bone density formation, efficient calcium absorption is especially vital for them.

Although palm oil is considered safe for babies, to ensure that your child gets the most calcium from their formula, you might want to consider formulas that list other fat sources (such as rapeseed or sunflower oil) in their ingredients list. Otherwise, ensure that the palm oil-containing formula you are using contains enough calcium.

Another study indicated that infants fed with formulas that do not contain oil palm had softer stools than infants fed with palm-based formulas.

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 some of these possible downsides of palm oil in baby formulas discussed above and the side effects of saturated fats it contains, there is no substantial evidence that palm oil is unsafe for babies.

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 the health when consumed moderately. However, when consumed in excess, it could lead to the accumulation of saturated fat in the body.

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 diseases, 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 the tropical palm fruit. However, they differ in the 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 different 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 acids 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.

Biscuits/Cookies

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.

Bread

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.

Butter/Margarine

Margarine and butter are shielded from oxidation by palm oil. Oxidation is a chemical process that deteriorates oil quality and contributes to its off-flavor and odor. It offers structure, texture, and consistency. It doesn't contain trans fats and is solid at room temperature.

Cake

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 improving 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 of the well-known, name-brand baby formulae on the market today use palm oil as part of their fat blend, despite the fact that it is arguably one of the most debated dietary oils.

Palm oil is not considered harmful to babies. However, certain clinical investigations have shown that using palm oil as the main source of fat in newborn formulae may cause some babies to poorly absorb calcium and fat, which results in less energy and less bone mineralization (bone density).

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.

To avoid health risks, infant formula should be prepared, stored, and used according to the directions on the product label.