Is the use of palm olein in baby formula controversial?

Reading time: 8 min

Palm oil is hard to avoid, appearing at least once in most families’ grocery trolleys: it’s in bread, soap, shampoo, biscuits and rusks, pizza bases, Nutella, peanut butters, ready meals… and definitely also in baby formula. But it’s receiving very bad press recently. Is it bad for you? Or is use by humans bad for the environment?

Why the controversy?

Palm oil comes from the African oil palm tree (Latin name E. guineensis), but is now grown in many other parts of the world as its use has become widespread in processed foods. According to the UK’s Independent newspaper, oil palm trees are cut down once they grow too high to reach the fruit; this then destroys the habitat of animals, including orangutans, rhinos, elephants and tigers.

Turning rainforests into plantations also causes carbon gas emissions, which contributes to global warming.

The Iceland’s Christmas (UK grocery chain) advert highlighting the loss of habitat for animals because of humans’ rapacious appetite for palm oil was banned at the end of last year (but you can still see it on YouTube). In South Africa, journalist Nechama Brodie felt so strongly about the issue, she crowdsourced and compiled a list of South African products that either don’t use or use sustainable or use unsustainable palm oil. Check it out here: https://medium.com/@nopalmoilza/a-list-of-palm-oil-products-in-south-africa-a5b87461b5f4.

Companies are increasingly responding to consumers’ demands that their products are both safe for humans to use – but that keep the planet safer, too. You can make sure you buy products that use sustainably sourced palm oil.

Some baby formula manufacturers are willing to discuss their sustainability initiatives. For instance, Aspen Alula says “Aspen Nutritionals do use Roundtable Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). The RSPO has developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with.”

“Nestlé applies appropriate sourcing principles in relation to palm oil and is fully committed to achieving No-deforestation [status] by 2020 by using a combination of tools, including satellite monitoring, workers’ helplines, smallholders’ inclusion projects and landscape initiatives,” says Nestlé’s Anne-Marié de Beer.

Novalac’s commitments applications are explained as follows: “Non-profit organisation such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) have developed and implemented Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) production standards. These standards include criteria for the protection of primary forests, respect for the rights of local populations, farmers, etc. The purchase of CSPO palm oil reflects the support of this initiative. In 2016, 24% of the palm oil used for Novalac formulas is RSPO certified.”

Their aim is to reach 100% of all Novalac formulas containing RSPO palm oil in the years to come.

So, what is it, actually?

“Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the palm fruit (and a rich source of long-chain fatty acids). Don’t confuse this with palm kernel oil (the seed of the palm tree), which is a rich source of short-chain fatty acids,” explains Nestlé South Africa’s medical and scientific affairs manager, Anne-Marié de Beer.

“The fat provided by infant formula is normally a blend of various fats to ensure it mirrors the fatty acid profile of breast milk.”

Aspen Alula says, “Palm olein is the liquid fraction derived from the fractionation of palm oil.” Palm oil is semi-solid, but refining it separates it into palm stearin and palm olein. Palm olein remains liquid at room temperature, and is heat-resistant and doesn’t break down easily. Palm olein is what is likely to be used in your baby’s formula, if it uses palm products (most do).

Be aware that “palm olein is not the only fat in infant formula. In fact, the fat provided by infant formula is normally a blend of various fats to ensure it mirrors the fatty acid profile of breast milk,” says De Beer.

Fat is good

Babies need fat. Fats make up about 50% of their nutritional intake, so that’s how formulas have been formulated as well. And all formulas try to mimic the fatty acid composition of breast milk as best they can. For this reason, they use fats from a range of sources: palm olein oil, soy oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil and others.

“Palm fruit is a source of palmitic acid,” according to Aspen Alula. “As breast milk provides us with the best example of what the ideal infant formula should contain, it is important to consider that breast milk contains a number of fatty acids, one of which is palmitic acid, and often at levels of more than 22% of the total fatty acid content,” says De Beer.

She adds that palmitic acid plays a very important role in the health and development of newborn infants:

  • Mobilisation of energy deposited in adipose tissue
  • Membrane fluidity and permeability
  • Lipid metabolism
  • Sensitivity to oxidative reactions
  • Palmitic acid has been identified as a particularly important agent for the synthesis of lung surfactant and may play a key role in the optimal development of respiratory function.

So, we’ve learnt that babies can digest many different sorts of fats, and we know fats are not allergenic. Breast milk contains palmitic acid, and palm oil contains palmitic acid, so formula that uses palm oil is closer to breast milk than formula that doesn’t use palmitic acid.

That’s a persuasive reason to use palmitic acid in formula, although the digestive process is a little different. Babies absorb breast milk palmitic acid more efficiently than palm-oil-derived palmitic acid, meaning that some fatty acids in the form of soapy, oily residue can be excreted in formula-fed babies’ poo, along with some nutrients such as calcium. Don’t worry, baby formulas are supplemented with more calcium than occurs naturally in breast milk to compensate for the fact that not all of it is absorbed, so it is still absorbed in sufficient amounts.

The only formula to be completely palm oil-free in South Africa is Similac by Abbott. The company cites research into nutrients being lost due to the slightly different sort of palmitic acid that babies receive from palm oil than from breast milk. If your baby was premature or you are worried about calcium absorption, speak to your doctor about whether or not you should swop your formula for one that uses less palm oil.

Coconut oil is one such oil. You may say – hey, coconut oil also comes from a palm tree! But, according to Aspen Alula, “Coconut oil comes from a different species of palm tree than palm oil. As per CODEX product descriptions, palm oil is derived from the fleshy mesocarp of the fruit of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Coconut oil is derived from the kernel of the coconut (Cocos nucifera L.).”

It contains mostly medium-chain fatty acids and is very easily digested, so you might look for a formula that specifically uses coconut oil in its blend. Says paediatric dietitian Kath Megaw: “All formulas adhere to strict guidelines and as far as fat goes, my preference is a combination of a variety of fats to cover all the fat subgroups out there. Medium-chain fats are very easy to digest and babies’ brains can utilise medium-chain fats such as coconut oil for instant energy.”

Which formula uses which oil?

South African formula brands’ newborn formulations, by list of fats

For your convenience, herewith a list of South African newborn formula brands (in alphabetical order) with their fat sources summarised. If your formula tin only lists “linoleic acid”, that’s usually sourced from rapeseed (canola) or soy oil.

  • Abbott Similac Total Comfort 1 and Advanced contain contain “high oleic sunflower oil, soy oil, coconut oil” in what the company describes on its tins as an “easy-to-digest vegetable fat blend”. This is the only palm oil-free product we could find.
  • Aspen Alula Infacare has the following: “vegetable oils (palm fruit, soybean, coconut or palm kernel or palm kernel olein)”.
  • Aspen Alula S-26 Infant (0-6) keeps its options wide open. Under its fat sources, it lists: “vegetable oils (palm fruit, coconut or palm kernel or palm kernel olefin, soybean, canola or high oleic sunflower oil seed)”.
  • Nestle’s Nan lists as its ingredients: “vegetable oil (palm fruit, rapeseed, coconut, sunflower seed, mortierella alpina: arachidonic acid (ARA).”
  • Novalac’s ingredient list is as follows: “vegetable oils (palm fruit, soy, coconut, tocopherol)”.

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post and is based on personal experience and personal brand preference of the content author. BabyYumYum reserves the right to its opinions and fully supports the notion of promotion that breast is best in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) infant feeding guidelines. Breast milk is the best food for infants. Good maternal nutrition is essential to prepare and maintain breastfeeding. If breastfeeding is not applied, an infant formula may be used according to the advice of health professionals. Preparation and storage of any infant formula should be performed as directed on the tin in order not to pose any health hazards.

Also read:

What’s in my infant’s formula?
What’s behind a formula tin label?