Palm oil: can it ever be worth it? A dietician’s opinion

Based on the bad press palm oil gets, it’s easy to assume that it has no place in food products, let alone in your baby’s formula milk. But is it really that simple?

At HiPP Organic, we’re proud of our very special, genuinely sustainable, organic palm oil and consider it a vital ingredient in our formula milk because it helps us replicate the fatty acid profile in breastmilk. We’re the only formula milk brand in the world who only use sustainably sourced palm oil, largely  Rainforest Alliance Certified.

What is the nutritional justification for using palm oil in formula milks?

Formula milk companies aim to approximate the nutritional content of breast milk as closely as possible, and they achieve this by using a blend of 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, providing a range of different fatty acids needed for development and energy.

Infant formulas contain a mixture of plant-based oils e.g. palm, sunflower, rapeseed, as they each contain a different profile of fatty acids. Palm oil is specifically used as it is the only plant oil that is rich in palmitic acid (32-57%), the predominant saturated fatty acid in breast milk (approx. 24% of the total fatty acids).1 Sunflower and rapeseed oils are used for their higher content of mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids. By using a blend of these oils, it is possible to achieve a fatty acid pattern that is as close to that of breast milk as possible.  

Are there any nutritional issues with using palm oil in formula milks?

Although palm oil and breast milk are both rich sources of palmitic acid, the form in which this palmitic acid is found in palm oil and breast milk is different. The major consequence of this difference is how the palmitic acid is broken down by an infant’s digestive system. The vast majority of babies are able to digest a wide variety of fatty acids, including palmitic acid from palm oil, without any difficulty. Compared with palmitic acid from breast milk, palmitic acid from palm oil may not be absorbed as well and there may be some binding with calcium in the gut, forming calcium soaps. These soaps are not harmful and are eliminated from the body as part of a normal bowel movement, but they may cause firmer stools in some babies. With this in mind, HiPP Organic carefully blend the other ingredients in their formula to balance this.

In 2014, EFSA concluded that, due to a lack of convincing evidence of benefit, there was no need for the palm oil used in formula milks to be modified to match that in breast milk1 And in 2019 , ESPGHAN confirmed that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that palm oil should be avoided as a source of fat in infant formulas for health reasons. So the continued use of palm oil in formulas appears to be completely justified.

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, HiPP is the only formula brand in the world to use sustainably-sourced, socially-responsible organic palm oil that is largely certified by the Rainforest Alliance. This means it has been grown without reliance on slash-and-burn agriculture or the destruction of rainforests. Certified palm oil protects the environment and the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods.

So not all palm oil is the same. You can feel confident that the palm oil used in HiPP formula milks is cultivated on certified organic plantations, largely Rainforest Alliance Certified.

References:

1. EFSA (2014). Scientific Opinion on the essential composition of infant and follow-on formulae. The EFSA Journal 2014; 12(7):3760