Palm oil

Palm oil
Palm oil from Ghana with its natural dark color visible, 2 litres
Palm oil block showing the lighter color that results from boiling.

Palm oil, coconut oil and palm kernel oil are edible plant oils derived from the fruits of palm trees. Palm oil is extracted from the pulp[1] of the fruit of the oil palm Elaeis guineensis; palm kernel oil is derived from the kernel (seed) of the oil palm[2] and coconut oil is derived from the kernel of the coconut (Cocos nucifera). Palm oil is naturally reddish in color because it contains a high amount of beta-carotene.

Palm oil, palm kernel oil and coconut oil are three of the few highly saturated vegetable fats. Palm oil is semi-solid at room temperatures. Palm oil contains several saturated and unsaturated fats in the forms of glyceryl laurate (0.1%, saturated), myristate (1%, saturated), palmitate (44%, saturated), stearate (5%, saturated), oleate (39%, monounsaturated), linoleate (10%, polyunsaturated), and alpha-linolenate (0.3%, polyunsaturated).[3] Palm kernel oil and coconut oil are more highly saturated than palm oil. Like all vegetable oils, palm oil does not contain cholesterol (found in unrefined animal fats),[4][5] although saturated fat intake increases both LDL[6] and HDL[7] cholesterol.

Palm oil is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Its increasing use in the commercial food industry in other parts of the world is buoyed by its lower cost[8] and the high oxidative stability (saturation) of the refined product when used for frying.[9][10]

The use of palm oil in food products is often the focus of environmental activist groups, due to it being documented as a cause of substantial and often irreversible damage to the natural environment.



Oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis)

Palm oil (from the African oil palm, Elaeis guineensis) has long been recognized in West African countries, and is widely used as a cooking oil. European merchants trading with West Africa occasionally purchased palm oil for use in Europe, but since the oil was of a lower quality than olive oil, palm oil remained rare outside West Africa.[citation needed] In the Asante Confederacy, state-owned slaves built large plantations of oil palm trees, while in the neighbouring Kingdom of Dahomey, King Ghezo passed a law in 1856 forbidding his subjects from cutting down oil palms.

Palm oil became a highly sought-after commodity by British traders, for use as an industrial lubricant for machinery during Britain's Industrial Revolution[citation needed]. Palm oil formed the basis of soap products, such as Lever Brothers' (now Unilever) "Sunlight Soap", and the American Palmolive brand.[11] By c. 1870, palm oil constituted the primary export of some West African countries such as Ghana and Nigeria, although this was overtaken by cocoa in the 1880s.[citation needed]


In the 1960s, research and development (R&D) in oil palm breeding began to expand after Malaysia's Department of Agriculture established an exchange program with West African economies and four private plantations formed the Oil Palm Genetics Laboratory.[12] The government also established Kolej Serdang, which became the Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM) in the 1970s to train agricultural and agro-industrial engineers and agro-business graduates to conduct research in the field.

In 1979, following strong lobbying from oil palm planters and support from the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) and UPM, the government set up the Palm Oil Research Institute of Malaysia (Porim).[13] B.C. Sekhar was instrumental in helping Porim recruit and train scientists to undertake R&D in oil palm tree breeding, palm oil nutrition and potential oleochemical use. Sekhar, as founder and chairman, pushed Porim to be a public-and-private-coordinated institution. As a result, Porim (renamed Malaysian Palm Oil Board in 2000) became Malaysia's top research entity commercializing 20% of its innovations, compared to 5% among local universities.[citation needed]


Many processed foods contain palm oil as an ingredient.[14]

Palm oil is composed of fatty acids, esterified with glycerol just like any ordinary fat. It is high in saturated fatty acids. Palm oil gives its name to the 16-carbon saturated fatty acid palmitic acid. Monounsaturated oleic acid is also a constituent of palm oil. Unrefined palm oil is a large natural source of tocotrienol, part of the vitamin E family.[15]

The approximate concentration of fatty acids (FAs) in palm oil is as follows:[16]

Fatty acid content of palm oil
Type of fatty acid pct
Palmitic saturated C16
Stearic saturated C18
Myristic saturated C14
Oleic monounsaturated C18
Linoleic polyunsaturated C18
red: Saturated; orange: Mono unsaturated; blue: Poly unsaturated

Red palm oil

Red palm oil gets its name from its characteristic dark red color, which comes from carotenes such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lycopene—the same nutrients that give tomatoes, carrots and other fruits and vegetables their rich colors.

Red palm oil contains at least 10 other carotenes, along with tocopherols and tocotrienols (members of the vitamin E family), CoQ10, phytosterols, and glycolipids.[17] In a 2007 animal study, South African scientists found consumption of red palm oil significantly decreased p38-MAPK phosphorylation in rat hearts subjected to a high-cholesterol diet.[18]

Since the mid-1990s, red palm oil has been cold-pressed and bottled for use as cooking oil, and blended into mayonnaise and salad oil.[19] Red palm oil antioxidants like tocotrienols and carotenes are added to foods and cosmetics due to their purported health benefits.[20][21][22]

In a 2004 joint-study between Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research and Malaysian Palm Oil Board, the scientists found cookies, being higher in fat content than bread, are a better vehicle for red palm oil phytonutrients.[23]

In a 2009 study, scientists in Spain tested the acrolein emission rates from the deep frying of potatoes in red palm, olive and polyunsaturated oils. They found higher acrolein emission rates from the polyunsaturated oils. The scientists characterized red palm oil as "mono-unsaturated".[24]

Frying French fries in red palm oil gives them an attractive color.[25]

Refined, bleached, deodorized palm oil

Palm oil products are made using milling and refining processes: first using fractionation, with crystallization and separation processes to obtain solid (stearin), and liquid (olein) fractions. Then melting and degumming removes impurities. Then the oil is filtered and bleached. Next, physical refining removes smells and coloration, to produce refined bleached deodorized palm oil, or RBDPO, and free sheer fatty acids, which are used as an important raw material in the manufacture of soaps, washing powder and other hygiene and personal care products. RBDPO is the basic oil product sold on the world's commodity markets, although many companies fractionate it further into palm olein, for cooking oil or other products.[26]

Splitting of oils and fats by hydrolysis, or under basic conditions saponification, yields fatty acids, with glycerin (glycerol) as a byproduct. The split-off fatty acids are a mixture ranging from C4 to C18, depending on the type of oil/fat.[27][28]


Derivatives of palmitic acid were used in combination with naphtha during World War II to produce napalm (aluminum naphthenate and aluminum palmitate).[29]

Many processed foods contain palm oil as an ingredient.[14]


Palm oil, like other vegetable oils, can be used to create biodiesel, as either a simply processed palm oil mixed with petrodiesel, or processed through transesterification to create a palm oil methyl ester blend, which meets the international EN 14214 specification. Glycerin is a byproduct of transesterification. The actual process used to produce biodiesel around the world varies between countries and the requirements of different markets. Next-generation biofuel production processes are also being tested in relatively small trial quantities.

The IEA predicts that biofuels usage in Asian countries will remain modest. But as a major producer of palm oil, the Malaysian government is encouraging the production of biofuel feedstock and the building of palm oil biodiesel plants. Domestically, Malaysia is preparing to change from diesel to bio-fuels by 2008, including drafting legislation that will make the switch mandatory.

From 2007, all diesel sold in Malaysia must contain 5% palm oil. Malaysia is emerging as one of the leading biofuel producers, with 91 palm oil plants approved and a handful now in operation.[30]

On 16 December 2007, Malaysia opened its first biodiesel plant in the state of Pahang, with an annual capacity of 100,000 tonnes, and which also produces by-products in the form of 4,000 tonnes of palm fatty acid distillate and 12,000 tonnes of pharmaceutical grade glycerine.[31] Neste Oil of Finland plans to produce 800,000 tonnes of biodiesel per year from Malaysian palm oil in a new Singapore refinery from 2010, which will make it the largest biofuel plant in the world,[32] and 170,000 tpa from its first second-generation plant in Finland from 2007-8, which can refine fuel from a variety of sources. Neste and the Finnish government are using this paraffinic fuel in some public buses in the Helsinki area as a small scale pilot.[33][34]

First generation biodiesel production from palm oil is in demand globally. Palm oil is also a primary substitute for rapeseed oil in Europe, which too is experiencing new demand for biodiesel purposes. Palm oil producers are investing heavily in the refineries needed for biodiesel. In Malaysia companies have been merging, buying others out and forming alliances to obtain the economies of scale needed to handle the high costs caused by increased feedstock prices. New refineries are being built across Asia and Europe.[35]

As the food vs. fuel debate mounts, research is turning to biodiesel production from waste. In Malaysia, an estimated 50,000 tonnes of used frying oils, both vegetable oils and animal fats, are disposed of yearly without treatment as wastes. In a 2006 study researchers found used frying oil (mainly palm olein), after pre-treatment with silica gel, is a suitable feedstock for conversion to methyl esters by catalytic reaction using sodium hydroxide. The methyl esters produced have fuel properties comparable to those of petroleum diesel, and can be used in unmodified diesel engines.[36]

A 2009 study by scientists at Malaysian Science University concluded that palm oil, compared to other vegetable oils, is a healthy source of edible oil and at the same time, available in quantities that can satisfy global demand for biodiesel. Oil palm planting and palm oil consumption circumvents the food vs. fuel debate because it has the capacity to fulfill both demands simultaneously.[37] By 2050, a British scientist estimates global demand for edible oils will probably be around 240 million tonnes, nearly twice 2008 consumption. Most of the additional oil may be palm oil, which has the lowest production cost of the major oils, but soybean oil production will probably also increase. An additional 12,000,000 hectares (46,000 sq mi) of oil palms may be required, if average yields continue to rise as in the past. This need not be at the expense of forest; oil palm planted on anthropogenic grassland could supply all the oil required for edible purposes in 2050.[38]


According to Hamburg-based Oil World trade journal, in 2008, global production of oils and fats stood at 160 million tonnes. Palm oil and palm kernel oil were jointly the largest contributor, accounting for 48 million tonnes or 30% of the total output. Soybean oil came in second with 37 million tonnes (23%). About 38% of the oils and fats produced in the world were shipped across oceans. Of the 60.3 million tonnes of oils and fats exported around the world, palm oil and palm kernel oil make up close to 60%; Malaysia, with 45% of the market share, dominates the palm oil trade.[39]

Regional production

Palm oil output in 2006


As of 2009, Indonesia was the largest producer of palm oil, surpassing Malaysia in 2006, producing more than 20.9 million tonnes. Indonesia aspires to become the world's top producer of palm oil.[40] But at the end of 2010, 60 percent of the output was exported still in the form of Crude Palm Oil.[41] FAO data show production increased by over 400% between 1994–2004, to over 8.66 million metric tonnes.

In addition to servicing traditional markets, Indonesia is looking to put more effort into producing biodiesel. Major local and global companies are building mills and refineries, including PT. Astra Agro Lestari terbuka (150,000 tpa biodiesel refinery), PT. Bakrie Group (a biodiesel factory and new plantations), Surya Dumai Group (biodiesel refinery). Cargill (sometimes operating through CTP Holdings of Singapore, is building new refineries and mills in Malaysia and Indonesia, expanding its Rotterdam refinery to handle 300,000 tpa of palm oil, acquiring plantations in Sumatra, Kalimantan, the Indonesian peninsula and Papua New Guinea). Robert Kuok's Wilmar International Limited has plantations and 25 refineries across Indonesia, to supply feedstock to new biodiesel refineries in Singapore, Riau, Indonesia and Rotterdam.[35]


In 2008, Malaysia produced 17.7 million tonnes of palm oil on 4,500,000 hectares (17,000 sq mi) of land,[39] and was the second largest producer of palm oil, employing more than 570,000 people.[42] Malaysia is the world's second largest exporter of palm oil. About 60% of palm oil exports from Malaysia are shipped to China, the European Union, Pakistan, United States and India. They are mostly made into cooking oil, margarine, specialty fats and oleochemicals.

In December 2006, the Malaysian government initiated merger of Sime Darby Berhad, Golden Hope Plantations Berhad and Kumpulan Guthrie Berhad to create the world’s largest listed oil palm plantation player.[43] In a landmark deal valued at RM31 billion, the merger involved the businesses of eight listed companies controlled by Permodalan Nasional Berhad (PNB) and the Employees Provident Fund (EPF). A special purpose vehicle, Synergy Drive Sdn Bhd, offered to acquire all the businesses including assets and liabilities of the eight listed companies. With 543,000 hectares of plantation in a landbank, the merger resulted in an oil palm plantation entity that could produce 2.5 million tonnes of palm oil or 5% of global production in 2006. A year later, the merger completed and the entity was renamed Sime Darby Berhad.[44]


In the 1960s, about 18,000 hectares (69 sq mi) were planted with palm. Colombia has now become the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35% of its product is exported as biofuel. In 2006, the Colombian plantation owners' association, Fedepalma, reported that oil palm cultivation was expanding to 1,000,000 hectares (3,900 sq mi). This expansion is being funded, in part, by the United States Agency for International Development to resettle disarmed paramilitary members on arable land, and by the Colombian government, which proposes to expand land use for exportable cash crops to 7,000,000 hectares (27,000 sq mi) by 2020, including oil palms. Fedepalma states that its members are following sustainable guidelines,[45]

Some Afro-Colombians claim that some of these new plantations have been expropriated from them after they had been driven away through poverty and civil war, while armed guards intimidate the remaining people to further depopulate the land, while coca production and trafficking follows in their wake.[46]

Other producers


Palm is native to the wetlands of western Africa, and south Benin already hosts many palm plantations. Its 'Agricultural Revival Programme' has identified many thousands of hectares of land as suitable for new oil palm export plantations. In spite of the economic benefits, Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Nature Tropicale, claim biofuels will compete with domestic food production in some existing prime agricultural sites. Other areas comprise peat land, whose drainage would have a deleterious environmental impact. They are also concerned genetically modified plants will be introduced for the first time into the region, jeopardizing the current premium paid for their non-GM crops.[47]


Kenya's domestic production of edible oils covers about a third of its annual demand, estimated at around 380,000 metric tonnes. The rest is imported at a cost of around US$140 million a year, making edible oil the country's second most important import after petroleum. Since 1993 a new hybrid variety of cold-tolerant, high-yielding oil palm has been promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in western Kenya. As well as alleviating the country's deficit of edible oils while providing an important cash crop, it is claimed to have environmental benefits in the region, because it does not compete against food crops or native vegetation and it provides stabilisation for the soil.[48]


Ghana has a lot of palm nuts vegetation, which can become an important contributor to the agriculture of the Black Star region. Although Ghana has multiple palm species, ranging from local palm nuts to other species locally called agric, it is only marketed locally and to neighboring countries.[citation needed]



Palm oil producers have been accused of various human-rights violations, from low pay and poor working conditions[49] to theft of land[50] and murder.[51] However, some social initiatives use palm oil profits to finance poverty alleviation strategies. Examples include the financing of Magbenteh hospital in Makeni, Sierra Leone through profits made from palm oil grown by small local farmers,[52] the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance's Food Security Program, which draws on a women-run cooperative to grow palm oil, the profits of which are reinvested in food security,[53] or the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's hybrid oil palm project in Western Kenya, which improves incomes and diets of local populations.[54]


Palm oil production has been documented as a cause of substantial and often irreversible damage to the natural environment.[55] Its impacts include: deforestation, habitat loss of critically endangered species such as the Orangutan[56][57][58] and Sumatran Tiger,[59][60] and a significant increase in greenhouse gas emissions.[61]

The pollution is exacerbated because many rainforests in Indonesia and Malaysia[62] lie atop peat bogs that store great quantities of carbon that are released when the forests are cut down and the bogs drained to make way for plantations.

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace claim that the deforestation caused by making way for oil palm plantations is far more damaging for the climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuel.[63][64]

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)is an organisation that was formed in 2004 with the objective promoting the growth and use of sustainable oil palm products through credible global standards and engagement of stakeholders. It has over 450 member organisations that are from the different stakeholders in the palm oil supply chain from the Palm Oil Growers to the Palm Oil Processors and Traders, Banks and Investors, Consumer Goods Manufactures, Retailers, Environmental Organisations (NGOs) and Social Organisations (NGOs). RSPO practices a consensus based decision making philosophy.[65] The seat of the association is in Zurich, Switzerland, while the secretariat is currently based in Kuala Lumpur with a satellite office in Jakarta.[66] This video done by WWF a environmental NGO gives a balance view of the industry and RSPO.[67] Many of the major companies in the vegetable oil economy participate in the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which is trying to address this problem, though their efforts so far have done almost nothing to change or slow the escalating situation and have been likened to green-washing.[68] Even so, in 2008 Unilever, a member of the RSPO group, committed to use only palm oil which is certified as sustainable, by ensuring that the large companies and smallholders that supply it convert to sustainable production by 2015.[69] On 1 June 2011, RSPO launched its trademark for use by its members. With this trademark producers of products such as chocolate, margarine and cosmetics can show their commitment towards sustainable palm oil through the use of the trademark.[70] On 1 July 2011, PT Carrefour Indonesia reiterated its commitment to exclusively source for sustainable palm oil products by 2015.[71]

Meanwhile, much of the recent investment in new palm plantations for biofuel has been part-funded through carbon credit projects through the Clean Development Mechanism; however the reputational risk associated with unsustainable palm plantations in Indonesia has now made many funds wary of investing there.[72]


Although palm oil is applied to wounds for its supposed antimicrobial effects, research does not confirm its effectiveness.[73]


Blood lipid and cholesterol effects

The Center for Science in the Public Interest states that palm oil, which is high in saturated and low in polyunsaturated fat, promotes heart disease.[74] The CSPI report cited research that goes back to 1970[75] and metastudies.[76][77] CSPI also said that The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute,[78] World Health Organization (WHO), and other health authorities have urged reduced consumption of palm oil. WHO states that there is convincing evidence that palmitic acid consumption contributes to an increased risk of developing cardiovascular diseases.[79] 2005 research in Costa Rica suggests consumption of non-hydrogenated unsaturated oils over palm oil.[80]

In 1993, Malaysia's Institute for Medical Research's head of Cardiovascular Disease Unit Cardiovascular, Diabetes and Nutrition Centre Dr Tony Ng Kock Wai[81] showed that the cholesterol impact of saturated fats is affected by its amount at the sn-2 position. Despite the high palmitic acid content (41%) of palm oil, only 13-14% is present at the sn-2 position.[82]

In an email response to WHO's 2002 draft report, Dr. David Kritchevsky of the Wistar Institute, Philadelphia denied that there were, at that time, any data showing palm oil consumption causing atherosclerosis.[83]

However, a 2006 study supported by the National Institutes of Health and the USDA Agricultural Research Service concluded that palm oil is not a safe substitute for partially hydrogenated fats (trans fats) in the food industry, because palm oil results in adverse changes in the blood concentrations of LDL cholesterol and apolipoprotein B just as trans fat does.[84][85]

Comparison with animal saturated fat

Not all saturated fats are equally cholesterolemic.[86] Studies have indicated that consumption of palm olein (which is more unsaturated) reduces blood cholesterol when compared to sources of saturated fats like coconut oil, dairy and animal fats.[87]

In 1996, Dr Becker of University of Massachusetts stressed that saturated fats in the sn–1 and -3 position of triacylglycerols exhibit different metabolic patterns due to their low absorptivity. Dietary fats containing saturated fats primarily in sn–1 and -3 positions (e.g., cocoa butter, coconut oil, and palm oil) have very different biological consequences than those fats in which the saturated fats are primarily in the sn–2 position (e.g., milk fat and lard). Differences in stereospecific fatty acid location should be an important consideration in the design and interpretation of lipid nutrition studies and in the production of specialty food products.[88]

See also


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  • Palm oil — Palm Palm, n. [AS. palm, L. palma; so named fr. the leaf resembling a hand. See 1st {Palm}, and cf. {Pam}.] [1913 Webster] 1. (Bot.) Any endogenous tree of the order {Palm[ae]} or {Palmace[ae]}; a palm tree. [1913 Webster] Note: Palms are… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • palm oil — palm′ oil n. 1) a yellow butterlike oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm and used as an edible fat and for making soap, candles, etc 2) oil obtained from various species of palm • Etymology: 1620–30 …   From formal English to slang

  • palm oil — n. a yellow or reddish, semisolid oil obtained from the fruit of several kinds of palms, esp. the oil palm: used in making soap, candles, etc …   English World dictionary

  • palm oil — n [U] the oil obtained from the nut of an African ↑palm tree …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • palm oil — palm ,oil noun uncount a thick type of oil produced from the fruit of PALM TREES that is used especially for cooking and making soap …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • palm-oil — palmˈ grease or palmˈ oil noun A bribe • • • Main Entry: ↑palm …   Useful english dictionary

  • palm oil — noun oil from nuts of oil palms especially the African oil palm • Hypernyms: ↑vegetable oil, ↑oil • Substance Holonyms: ↑palm nut, ↑palm kernel * * * I. noun Etymology …   Useful english dictionary

  • palm oil — N UNCOUNT Palm oil is a yellow oil which comes from the fruit of certain palm trees and is used in making soap and sometimes as a fat in cooking …   English dictionary

  • palm-oil — n. a bribe; a tip. □ How much palm oil does it take to get this deed recorded in reasonable time? □ The messenger seemed to move his legs faster after an application of palm oil …   Dictionary of American slang and colloquial expressions

  • palm oil — 1. a yellow butterlike oil derived from the fruit of the oil palm and used as an edible fat and for making soap, candles, etc. 2. oil obtained from various species of palm. [1620 30] * * * …   Universalium

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