Cute baby lying on their stomach

All moms want to do their best for their babies, and feeding them is no exception. While South Africa is a pro-breastfeeding country, some moms struggle to produce enough breast milk, or struggle to get their babies to latch. A safe alternative for these moms is to use a good quality infant formula. Part of the process of choosing the right formula to feed your baby involves knowing exactly what’s in the infant formula you choose. Here, we delve deeper into why one ingredient (palm olein) is included in – or purposefully excluded from – infant formulas.

What is palm olein & what is it used for?

Palm olein is a vegetable oil derived from the fruits of oil palm trees. Palm oil, which is a semi-solid material, is processed to separate it into two components: palm stearin and palm olein. So essentially, palm olein is a liquid form of palm oil.

Palm olein is one of the most cost-effective vegetable oils available, which is why it has become one of the mostly widely-consumed oils in the world. It also remains liquid at room temperature, is heat resistant and increases the shelf life of many food items – it also makes fried foods like potato chips, roasted nuts or biscuits extra crisp or crumbly and gives foods like chocolates and ice cream a deliciously smooth, creamy texture. For these reasons, palm oil is found in many everyday food items like margarine, frozen meals, potato chips, baked goods, chocolate and even infant formula.

But palm oil isn’t added exclusively to food products – because it is both odourless and colourless, it is regularly used as a moisturiser and foaming or cleaning agent in products like body lotion, shampoo, toothpaste, lipstick, deodorant and household detergents.

Why does baby formula contain palm olein?

Because human breast milk remains the gold standard when it comes to feeding a baby, infant formula is created to best replicate the nutritional composition of human breast milk. Fat is one of the most important components of human breast milk – providing around 50% of the kilojoules a baby needs to grow and develop properly – so manufacturers add a blend of fats to infant formula to take the place of the natural fatty acids that are present in human breast milk.

Why do babies need fat?

Babies need fat primarily as a source of energy, and so that their bodies can absorb the necessary vitamins and minerals from the baby’s diet – in fact, fat is often considered the most important ingredient in infant formula, which is why the fat composition in different infant formulas is such a hot talking point.

Many manufacturers use palm olein in their infant formula because it’s a nutritional source of palmitic acid, a saturated fat which is naturally found in breast milk that’s used to fuel cells in the body, and contributes towards brain development and healthy lungs.

However, the palmitic acid in palm olein isn’t an exact replica for the palmitic acid in breast milk – the fats are configured differently – so it isn’t broken down in the same way by an infant’s digestive system, the end result being that babies don’t absorb as much palmitic acid from palm olein-based formulas as they would from human breast milk.

As previously mentioned, palm oil is also one of the most cost-effective vegetable oils available, which decreases the cost of manufacture, and thus, the cost of the formula for the consumer.

palm oil infographic: palm olein used in baby formula

Why does it matter?

The use of palm olein in infant formula has recently become a controversial topic. While it’s not dangerous for a baby to ingest palm olein, some recent reports claim it can have a negative impact on a baby’s diet and wellbeing. But what’s the alternative? There are alternate fat blends that can be used if you want to avoid palm olein, but not many infant formula manufacturers have made the shift. Alternatives include other vegetable oils like coconut, sunflower, rapeseed or soy oils.

Some people try to avoid products containing palm oil for moral reasons, as harvesting it can have a negative impact on the environment – it’s a major contributor to deforestation. It’s important to note here that palm oil can be produced sustainably, and some companies are committed to sourcing it responsibly to lessen the negative impact growing and harvesting the product has on the environment.

The benefits of a palm olein-free formula on a baby’s diet

Some studies have shown that infant formula that does not contain palm olein can have three positive effects on a baby’s health; there’s more efficient absorption of DHA (Docosahexaenoic acid – an essential omega-3 fatty acid), softer stools and increased calcium absorption and bone mineralisation.

  • Improved absorption of DHA

DHA is an omega-3 fatty acid that’s essential for brain development in infants and the fat blend in an infant formula can make a considerable difference to how much DHA is absorbed by the child. Why do human babies even need DHA? Our bodies can only produce a small amount of DHA so the bulk of what we need must be ingested through our diet.

The way this is tested is by establishing how much DHA is excreted in the infant’s stool, relative to how much DHA was ingested. Some clinical studies have shown that infants who are fed formulas containing palm olein as a major fat source absorbed significantly less DHA – around 6.5 times less – than infants being fed a palm olein-free formula.

palm oil infographic: palm olein used in baby formula

  • Softer stools

Stool consistency can be a good indication of how well a baby is tolerating an infant formula and clinical studies have shown that babies who are on a palm olein-free formula tend to experience softer – and more frequent – stools than those on formulas that do contain palm olein. Their stools also tend to closely resemble those of breastfed infants. Because their little digestive systems are still developing, some infants may experience negative reactions to formula that contains palm oil, leading to an upset tummy, difficulty passing (usually hard) stool and the risk of constipation. And every parent knows that a baby with regular, non-painful bowel movements is a happier baby!

  • Increased calcium absorption

The presence of palm olein in infant formula has been shown to lower both calcium and fat absorption in infants, which may impact skeletal development, causing reduced bone mineralisation (bone density). Studies have shown that infants who regularly drink formula that doesn’t contain palm olein have notable increases in calcium absorption – up to 40% more absorption when compared to babies on palm olein-containing formulas – resulting in higher bone mineral content and density. It is important to note, though, that most infant formula manufacturers do compensate for this decrease in calcium absorption by adding more calcium to the formula.

So, while palm olein remains a common – although controversial – ingredient in infant formula, some studies show that switching to a palm olein-free formula might have both immediate, and lasting, health benefits for babies.

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