Palm Oil - Adverse Health and Environmental Impacts
Palm oil is a common ingredient in nearly all US manufactured baby formula despite its adverse environmental and health impacts, and there being many superior, widely available alternatives.
What is it and why is it used in US formula?
Palm oil is sourced from the fruit of the palm oil tree, which is native to West Africa but is now grown in many tropical regions of the world, mainly in Indonesia and Malaysia, which account for around 85% of global production.
It is more commonly found in US baby formula due to the following factors.
- Cost: Palm oil is relatively inexpensive compared to other types of oils, as it is a higher yielding crop, more widely available and easier to extract.
- Texture: Palm oil has a creamy texture and mouthfeel that is similar to the fat content of breast milk, which can help to make formula more palatable for babies.
- Nutrient absorption: The fatty acids in palm oil are highly digestible, which can help to ensure that infants are able to absorb the nutrients they need for growth and development.
- Extended shelf life: Palm oil is highly stable, which means that it does not spoil easily and can help to extend the shelf life of baby formula.
While palm oil has some advantages for use in baby formula, it is important to consider the potential health and environmental implications of its use.
The production of palm oil has been associated with a range of environmental issues, including deforestation, habitat destruction, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, water pollution, and greenhouse gas emissions.
Deforestation: The conversion of forested land to oil palm plantations has been a major driver of deforestation in Indonesia and Malaysia. This has led to significant habitat destruction and loss of biodiversity, as well as contributing to climate change through the release of stored carbon.
Habitat destruction: The conversion of forests and other natural habitats to oil palm plantations has also resulted in the loss of habitat for many plant and animal species, including endangered species like orangutans, tigers, and elephants.
Soil degradation: The intensive use of chemicals and fertilizers in oil palm plantations can lead to soil degradation, erosion, and loss of fertility over time, making it difficult to grow crops in the long term.
Water pollution: The use of pesticides and fertilizers in oil palm plantations can lead to water pollution, with runoff from plantations contaminating rivers and other waterways.
Greenhouse gas emissions: The production of palm oil is associated with significant greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from the conversion of forests and other natural habitats to plantations. In addition, the use of heavy machinery and fertilizers in palm oil production can also contribute to emissions.
Negative Health Effects
There are concerns about the potential negative health effects of palm oil in baby formula, including:
- Reduced calcium absorption: There is evidence that suggests that the high levels of saturated fatty acids in palm oil may interfere with the absorption of calcium in the intestines, which could potentially lead to lower bone density in infants.
- Reduced beta-carotene absorption: Some studies have suggested that the use of palm oil in baby formula may reduce the absorption of beta-carotene, a type of vitamin A that is important for vision and immune function.
- Contamination with 3-MCPD: There is a risk of contamination with 3-MCPD during the production of some types of palm oil, which has been associated with adverse health effects in animal studies.
There are several alternatives to palm oil that are more commonly used in EU baby formula. The table below describes the advantages of the 3 main alternatives to palm oil.
Rapeseed Oil, also known as canola oil
Lower in saturated fat: Sunflower oil is lower in saturated fat than palm oil, which may make it a healthier option for infants.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs): Coconut oil is a rich source of MCTs, which are a type of saturated fatty acid that is easily digestible and may have some potential health benefits. MCTs are thought to be a good source of energy for infants, and they may also help to improve cognitive function and boost immune system function.
Lower in saturated fat: Like sunflower oil, rapeseed oil is lower in saturated fat than palm oil. This may make it a healthier option for infants, as high levels of saturated fat have been associated with an increased risk of heart disease and other health problems.
High in essential fatty acids: Sunflower oil is a good source of essential fatty acids, such as linoleic acid and alpha-linolenic acid, which are important for infant growth and development. These fatty acids play a key role in brain and eye development, as well as immune function.
Low risk of contamination: Like sunflower oil, coconut oil has a low risk of contamination with 3-MCPD
High in essential fatty acids: Rapeseed oil is a good source of essential fatty acids, including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. These fatty acids play a key role in infant growth and development, particularly in the development of the brain and nervous system.
Low risk of contamination: Unlike some types of palm oil, sunflower oil has a low risk of contamination with 3-MCPD
Easy to digest: Coconut oil is easily digested and is generally well-tolerated by infants. This may make it a good option for babies with digestive issues or who are having difficulty tolerating other types of fats in their formula.
Low risk of contamination: Rapeseed oil has a low risk of contamination with 3-MCPD, which may make it a safer option than some types of palm oil.
Easy to digest: Sunflower oil is easily digestible and is generally well-tolerated by infants, which may make it a good option for babies with digestive issues.
Mild flavor: Coconut oil has a mild flavor that may be more palatable to some infants than other types of oils. This can be particularly important if your baby is a picky eater or has difficulty accepting new foods.
Mild flavor: Rapeseed oil has a mild flavor that may be more palatable to some infants than other types of oils.
Environmentally friendly: Sunflower oil is produced from the sunflower plant, which is a more sustainable crop than palm oil.
Environmentally friendly: Coconut oil is produced from the coconut tree, which is a more sustainable crop than palm oil.
Environmentally friendly: Rapeseed oil is produced from the rapeseed plant, which is a more sustainable crop than palm oil.
Why Palm Oil is not commonly used in EU Organic Baby Formula
The reasons that palm oil is less prevalent in EU baby formula is due to three factors, regulations, cultural preferences, and availability of alternative oils.
In the European Union (EU), regulations require that any vegetable oils used in infant formula must be of high quality and contain a balanced composition of fatty acids, with a maximum of 10% of saturated fatty acids, which by regulation reduces the use of palm oil in infant formula.
Secondly, in Europe, there is generally more awareness and concern about the environmental impact of palm oil production, and some consumers demand products that do not contain palm oil for this reason.
Thirdly, there are a variety of alternative oils available in Europe, such as rapeseed (canola) and sunflower oil, that are grown locally and have a lower environmental impact compared to palm oil.
In conclusion, there are several alternatives to palm oil that are better options for use in baby formula. Oils like sunflower, rapeseed, and coconut offer nutritional benefits while being lower in saturated fat, more sustainable and environmentally friendly.