Inside Our Food

Palm Oil | How It’s Made

Today, palm oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil in the world. To many of us, this may be surprising considering most consumers do not directly purchase it. Let's take a look at how palm oil is made, where it comes from and how it ends up in the products we consume.

Where Does Palm Oil Come From - The Oil Palm Tree

Palm oil is a vegetable oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Native to the west coast of Africa, the most widely grown oil palm variety is the Elaeis guineensis Jacq., also known as the African palm.1 Today, it is cultivated in several tropical countries around the world to meet global demand, leading to questions about the environmental and ethical costs involved with production.

Read about the costs of palm oil production

But where does palm oil come from, and where did the production of it all begin? In the early 1800s, attempts were made to industrialise oil palm farming in western Africa. However, this effort was stunted by economic instability in the region which would lead to a number of issues around upscaling.1

Historians estimate that European explorers were responsible for taking the oil palm to Indonesia to try their luck growing it elsewhere. While external conditions were favourable in Indonesia, production remained low. This was because the oil palm has a monecious reproductive cycle, meaning that male and female flowers grow in different but overlapping cycles.2 Pollination was done manually by workers or by wind. Production increased significantly when the African pollinating weevil Elaeidobius kamerunicus was introduced in the region in 1981.3 Currently, more advanced vegetative propagation techniques that allow faster growth are used.

Oil palm plantation at rainforest edge in Southeast Asia.

Oil palm plantation at rainforest edge in Southeast Asia.

Palm Oil Production Process

The oil palm starts bearing fruit two or three years after planting and bears fruit continuously throughout its life of around 25 years.1 The first step in the palm oil production process is harvesting the palm fruit. Harvested bunches are transported to factories where they are first sterilised and then threshed.4 Once separated from the bunch, the fruits go through a digester, to then be mechanically pressed in order to extract oil from the pulp.4

The pulp of the mature fruit typically contains 56-70% of edible oil.5 The kernels (soft inner part of the seed) are separated at this stage and pressed independently to extract palm kernel oil. Crude oil is further refined through physical and chemical processes depending on what the end product should be. Degumming, bleaching, and deodorising are typical refining activities.5 After refining, the final step of the palm oil production process may be to fraction(separate) the oil into liquid and solid phases.

A worker boils palm dates for palm oil production in Mumias, Kenya. (Photo by FAO/Ami Vitale)

A worker boils palm dates for palm oil production in Mumias, Kenya. (Photo by FAO/Ami Vitale)

Uses in The Food Industry

Palm oil is widely used in the food industry because of its low production cost. Per hectare of land, the oil palm can yield roughly 4 tonnes of oil per year.6 In comparison, the next highest yield for a vegetable oil is that of rapeseed, with around 0.75 tonnes per year, per hectare.6 Besides this, certain characteristics and the composition of palm oil also make it an attractive ingredient for the food industry. It has a high solid fat content, which reduces the need for hydrogenation.7 Palm oil’s high oxidative stability also makes it less susceptible to becoming rancid, giving it a long shelf life.

Some common palm oil uses in the food processing industry are in the form of margarine, used in products such as chocolate, bread, cookies, and cakes.8 It is also commonly used for frying by fast food chains, as well as industrially manufactured products such as crisps and instant noodles. Most processed products, including products like infant formula, contain some amounts of added fat. This added fat is usually palm oil.

 Nutella is a brand of hazelnut cocoa spread, and its main ingredients are sugar and palm oil (greater than 50%).

Nutella is a brand of hazelnut cocoa spread, and its main ingredients are sugar and palm oil (greater than 50%).

However, this does not mean that before palm oil became a mainstream option, processed foods did not contain added fats. In the 1960s, the association between consuming excessive amounts of butter and increased risk of heart disease was established.9 Margarine, which was then made using beef fat, was found to be even worse for one’s health. The subsequent years saw the food industry scramble to replace butter and margarine with a healthier alternative. Palm oil was considered a fitting substitute because it was free from trans-fatty acids and, therefore, healthier for the heart.9,10

Other than food, palm oil is also used in several other products we use in our daily lives, such as soaps, cosmetics, and biofuel.

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