Palm Oil 101

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Palm Oil

This is the first post in a series uncovering Palm Oil – what it is, where it comes from, how and where it’s used, the health benefits and the often confusing controversy around the topic. Natural Habitat’s managing director is the company spokesperson for Palm Done Right, an international campaign to raise awareness around the positive ripple effects that happen when palm oil is grown for good.

The oil palm plant is incredibly versatile and can be found in over 50 percent of products currently on shelves — everything from food to cosmetics and cleaning products. So while palm oil is an inherently sustainable, healthy oil, the way in which most palm oil is being produced has led to deforestation, habitat destruction, soil depletion and has a negative impact on communities, cultures, farmers and consumer health (referred to a “conflict palm”). 

Given that it’s so prevalent in the supply chain, it’s important to understand the impact of palm oil in order to make informed choices, for the environment, for social justice, and for your health. Learn more about the positive benefits of sustainably sourced palm oil by visiting www.palmdoneright.com.              

What is Palm Oil?

Palm is a tropical oil that comes from the fruit of the African oil palm, Elaesis Guineensis, one of the two main fruit-bearing tropical palm species (the other being Cocos Nucifera, which produces coconuts). Oil palms begin producing fruit once they’re 3-4 years old, yet will continue to grow and produce year-round for up to forty years. As the oil palm grows, it sends out a new set of leaves from the tip of the trunk, which then forms flowers that turn into fruit clusters (in industry terms, these are called fresh fruit bunches, or FFB).

What is Palm OilWhat is Palm Oil used for?

Palm Oil is a plant-based saturated fat, and can be used in a multitude of ways, in cooking, baking, manufactured food and personal care products. It adds stability, emulsification and a smooth mouthfeel/texture to products, and is a solution for brands and products looking for a clean ingredient profile, without trans fats. 40% of the fat content of Palm Oil is monounsaturated fat, the same fat in olive oil.

Palm fruit oil comes from the fleshy, “fruit” part of the seed, and palm kernel oil comes from the hard center of the seed, or the “kernel.”

Palm fruit oil and red palm oil, or oil resulting when the fruit is pressed, contain antioxidants and beta-carotenes, and has a mid-range smoke point and nutty taste that make it a terrific cooking oil for baking, sautéing and medium heat frying.

The oil from the kernel contains a higher saturated fat content, which, along with its high lauric acid content, makes palm kernel oil perfect for soaps, household cleaning products, personal care products and cosmetics. Palm-based MCT oil is also derived from palm kernel oil.

  • Baking: In baking, palm oil is used like shortening or butter to produce the fluffy texture in cookies, crackers, muffins, cakes, pie crusts and bread.
  • Frying: Frying with palm fruit olein, which is liquid at ambient temperature, produces chips, snacks, seafood, poultry and any fried ingredient with a richer, fuller mouth feel compared to seed oils like canola and sunflower.
  • Confections: Both palm fruit and kernel oil have numerous applications for the fat needs of candy/confections.
  • Personal Care: Both Palm Kernel Oil and Palm Fruit oil can be used in many personal care applications, including soaps, lotions, balms and cosmetics.

Palm Used For?There are even more reasons for choosing palm over other oils:

  • It can take high heat without oxidizing.
  • It blends well with other vegetable oils.
  • It provides an alternative to butter for vegans and vegetarians.
  • Red palm oil is a highly nutritious oil when processed properly, with high concentrations of carotenoids and of the tocotrienol compounds of the Vitamin E complex.
  • It can improve the functionality of natural soaps and other cleaning products.
  • It’s a sustainable alternative to petroleum ingredients in cosmetics.
  • It’s a great emollient in lotions and balms.

When done right, it’s also the highest yielding vegetable oil on the planet, producing 5-10 times more oil per acre compared to other commodity oils like soybean or Canola.

What is the difference between palm olein and palm stearin?

Palm fruit oil, the oil that comes from the fleshy part of the seed, is composed of two different types of oil – Olein and Stearin. These two parts of the oil are created during fractionation of the oil, which is a separation that occurs when the oil is heated and cooled. When this process occurs, the “liquid” fat fractions form Olein, which is a soft, oily consistency, and is liquid at room temperature. The “harder” fat fractions make up stearin, which is solid at room temperature. Both olein and stearin have different uses in food and personal care products.

Olein is commonly used in cooking due to its high smoke point and stability against oxidation. Stearin is often used to provide texture and emulsification to products.

What is the difference between red palm and refined palm?

Red palm oil is expeller pressed at temperatures between 120 degrees Fahrenheit and 180 degrees Fahrenheit. However, it is not considered “refined,” and because of this, many of the naturally occurring nutritional compounds have been preserved.

Refined palm oil has gone through another level of filtering to further remove impurities in the oil, which allows it to be used in more ways.

To learn more about some of the brands using Palm Done Right, visit http://www.palmdoneright.com/en/the-people-doing-palm-right/partners/

Stay tuned for our next post where we will address the critical issues around the importance of sustainable and organic practices.


Neil Blomquist has over 40 years of hands-on success building brands and companies in the natural products industry. Neil has practical experience in retailing, distribution, brand marketing, product sourcing, product development and organizational management. Formerly President and CEO of Spectrum Organic Products, Neil is the current Managing Director for Natural Habitats USA. Neil_Headshot[1]An expert in in the development and marketing of sustainable business solutions for natural products, Neil provides oversight of all business activities in the U.S. for the Natural Habitats Group. An expert in fats and oils as well as sustainable business practices, Neil is the spokesperson for Palm Done Right, an international campaign on a mission to change the conversation around palm oil and working to prove that palm can be grown for good.

NOTE: The statements presented in this blog should not be considered medical advice or a way to diagnose or treat any disease or illness. Dietary supplements do not treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always seek the advice of a medical professional before adding a dietary supplement to (or removing one from) your daily regimen. WholeFoods Magazine does not endorse any specific brand or product. The opinions expressed in bylined articles are not necessarily those of the publisher.

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