Palm oil is made from the fruit of the oil palm tree. The oil is found in the fleshy portion of the fruit and differs from palm kernel oil, which is obtained from the seed of the fruit. Palm oil is one of the most widely used oils in the world, recently having overtaken the use of soybean oil.
Why should I be aware of this?
Palm oil has been in use for thousands of years. The oil palm tree, from which it is produced, is found in Africa (especially western parts), South East Asia and Latin America. Malaysia is the leading producer today, though the oil palm was introduced in this country only at the beginning of the twentieth century. Malaysia supplies more than half of the world’s palm oil, with 40% of its cultivated land under oil palm plantations.
Substituting trans fat, which is partially hydrogenated oil, with highly saturated fat like palm oil, could be a reason for concern. Saturated fats have been shown to raise blood cholesterol levels, and hence, their consumption should be limited. Oils with lower saturated fats are a healthier substitute, or non-hydrogenated oils like peanut, corn and soy can also be used.
Another concern with palm oil is environmental. The growing demand and subsequent clearing of land for cultivation of oil palm, is leading to loss of rainforest in Malaysia and Indonesia. This is also threatening extinction of species like Orangutan and Sumatran tiger In Indonesia.
How does this affect me?
Nutritional Profile and Benefits
- Palm oil is a combination of both, saturated and unsaturated fatty acids (especially monounsaturated), with a high content of oleic acid. This unique combination makes it suitable for use in trans free products. Resistance to oxidation gives it a high shelf life, and an ability to withstand high temperatures and be used over and over again.
- Palm oil has been compared to olive oil as far as the nutritional health benefits are concerned. Some studies have shown palm oil to increase the High Density Lipoproteins, an effect similar to that seen with olive oil.
- Palm oil is rich in antioxidants which give protection against free radical damage. Also, unrefined palm oil, especially red palm oil, is the richest source of carotenoids, which are a precursor for vitamin A. However, most of these are destroyed in the refining process.
- Palm oil is easily absorbed and utilized like other edible oils. It has all the benefits of any other oil, such as being a concentrated source of energy, imparting palatability and as a medium for the absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
All about palm oil
The oil palm fruit is reddish orange in color and the size of a date. The fruit grows in clusters or bunches, with about 200 fruits in each bunch. Fruit bunches are cut from the trees and taken to a mill, to be separated into individual fruit. Here, they are boiled to sterilize, and stop enzymatic spoilage.
A machine called “digester” converts the fruit into a mash. This causes the oil-bearing cells to rupture so that the oil can flow. The mash is now crushed to obtain crude palm oil. This crude oil is then cleaned and purified, by boiling as a mixture of oil and water. This removes water soluble impurities like gums and resins from the oil which is then refined. A second pressing of the separated fiber may be done to extract any residual oil, which will be used in soaps and cosmetics.
The purified and dried palm oil is then stored in tanks, at a temperature of about 50 degrees centigrade, as high temperatures lead to oxidation of the oil.
Uses of palm oil
Palm oil is not very susceptible to oxidation, and hence, does not get rancid (off flavor) very easily. This resistance to oxidation gives it an extended shelf, a fact which is made use of in the food industry. Food uses of palm oil include, making of non hydrogenated or trans free margarine and shortenings, baking of cookies and cakes, and in frying due to its stability to heat.
Non food uses of palm oil include application in the cosmetic and chemical industries. Some of the products made using palm oil include soaps, cosmetics, candles and detergents.