Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
28 Jul

Smart Fuel: Palm Oil

Of the tropical oils, coconut gets the most attention, while palm oil gets mostly ignored. The virgin coconut oil has a fairly distinct flavor, but it’s one most people are familiar with, and it lends itself well to both sweet and savory dishes. Palm oil, especially the virgin red variety that gets all the attention for its positive health effects, also has a distinct flavor, but it’s one many people seem to dislike, probably because it’s so unfamiliar (in the US, at least; worldwide, palm oil is the most widely used cooking oil) to our palates. Scott Kustes had a guest post awhile back discussing the tropical oils, but I thought it would be good to give a short, comprehensive primer on the multiple varieties of palm oil.

Palm Oil

Palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the plum-sized palm fruit. In the better brands, the processing that goes into the extraction isn’t overly invasive, and people have been doing it in roughly the same manner (the scale of operations has changed, of course). The main steps, for both small and large operations:

  • Separation of individual fruits (palm fruits grow in bunches).
  • Softening up the flesh.
  • The pressing of the fruit.
  • The purification of the resultant oil.

Now, step four is where everything changes. If you want to make an ultra-refined product for shipping to the masses, you subject the raw oil to a purification process that renders the oil white and nearly flavorless. This highly-refined palm oil, as long as it hasn’t been hydrogenated (partially or otherwise), is a great choice for relatively high heat stir frying, but you will be losing some nutritional value (see Red Palm Oil below). Refined palm oil is about 50% saturated fat, 39% monounsaturated fat, and only around 11% polyunsaturated fat, making it stable for cooking (and storage) and semisolid at room temperature. Feel free to use this as a primary cooking oil.

Palm Kernel Oil

Palm kernel oil comes from the same fruit and the same tree, only this time the oil’s coming from the seeds of the plant – or the kernel. Health officials are quick to warn against excess consumption of palm kernel oil owing to its much higher saturated fat levels, which is usually our cue to do the exact opposite. Palm kernel oil is highly saturated (around 80% SFA, 15% MUFA, and 2.5% PUFA), making it fantastic for high heat cooking. It’s very similar to coconut oil. I haven’t tried it myself, and I can’t get word either way about the flavor, so I’m unclear as to how it differs from normal refined palm oil beyond the fatty acid profile. Anyone know?

Red Palm Oil

This is the virgin, unrefined stuff. Palm oil is naturally reddish, and it comes chock full of vitamins and antioxidants. When palm oil is highly refined, though, it loses its color and taste right along with the inarguably beneficial effects. Vitamin E (may help prevent LDL oxidation), betacarotenes (many more than carrots or tomatoes), and co-enzyme Q10 (a major participant in cellular respiration) are all in red palm oil. Furthermore, the vitamin E in red palm oil is made up of both tocotrienols and tocopherols; the vitamin E in most foods is mainly tocopherol, which may be less effective than the tocotrienols abounding in red palm oil. Red palm oil does have a strong taste – according to one Portuguese explorer, “It smells of violets, tastes like olives and has a colour that blends foods together like saffron, but even all this can’t sufficiently describe its special qualities.” A bit of hyperbole? Perhaps. But the point is that you don’t want to be mixing this stuff with just anything; you might, for example, try this West African dish employing red palm oil.

Most health food stores should carry palm oil, both refined and red, and I know that Whole Foods definitely carries both. If there’s no Whole Foods in your area, check out any local co-ops or the smaller health food shops. On the online front, Tropical Traditions makes a great virgin red palm oil that can be ordered.

I think red palm oil is worth having around. For regular sautéing (eggs, for example), butter would probably work just fine, but certain cuisines use a lot of palm oil, and it’s great having options. Plus, it’s an extremely shelf stable fat. Use liberally and with great gusto!

Lon&Queta Flickr Photo (CC)

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. I HATE YOU GET F***KED

    amylee wrote on September 27th, 2011
  2. There are reliable sources of sustainable palm oil
    Check out our website

    http://www.nbpol.com.pg

    Based in Papua New Guinea, New Britain Palm Oil Ltd produces about 17% of the global supply of fully sustainable palm oil.

    The World Economic Forum in 2011 named NBPOL as a “world sustainability champion”

    http://www.nbpol.com.pg/?p=832

    Palm oil from the right sources can be used with a clear conscience

    Enjoy!

    Dale Smith wrote on November 3rd, 2011
  3. Amylee, There are some excellent medications for the symptoms you are exhibiting, Zoloft comes to mind. It’s easy to be a childish, inappropriate nutcase online but you should get help before someone in real life takes serious offense.

    Midget wrote on November 5th, 2011
    • Right you are!

      StephLicht wrote on January 3rd, 2013
  4. That’s a really interesting article, I actually own 2 farms in Thailand growing palm oil. The tree takes 3 years to mature and we will start harvesting later this year (2012). Our plan was always to send the product to a local dealer in its raw form where the oils is extracted and then sold on to the food and Biodiesel industries. Maybe I will look further at the Virgin palm oil market. Currently I use Olive oil mainly which can get expensive over here.

    giles troulan wrote on January 3rd, 2012
  5. The article says that they collect the palm fruit to make the oil.
    Why would they chop down the trees that give them fruit?
    That would be like chopping down an apple tree to get the apples.

    The deforestation scare doesn’t make sense.

    Mark wrote on January 19th, 2012
    • Mark, the issue is that native vegetation (and orangutan habitat) is being cleared in order to make room for palm plantations.

      It is correct that palm trees are not being cut down to collect the oil. It’s what happens in order to create the non-native plantation crop.

      Katherine wrote on February 6th, 2012
  6. For those looking for another supplier of red palm oil, check out Wilderness Family Naturals (wildernessfamilynaturals.com). Their source is from a company which belongs to an organization called Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil. See http://bit.ly/WFN-palm-oil-source for more information.

    An interesting aspect of WFN’s red palm oil is that the heaviest fatty acids have been substantially separated out. So some of the longer chain saturated fats present in unrefined red palm oil are missing here. The resulting composition is 36% SFs, 49% MUFs, and 14% PUFs (linoleic acid). Not a good thing on the face of it, right?

    And now for the rest of the story: The resulting product is a still more concentrated source of carotenoids, tocopherols, tocotrienols and CoQ10, because the fatty acids removed had very little of these nutrients. I can personally attest that the oil has a mild, pleasant, slightly earthy taste. I make sure a take a tablespoon of the stuff on days (most) when I do not work it into a recipe.

    The fatty acid profile is similar to olive oil, so it has a long shelf life. I can get good saturated fats from plenty of foods. For vitamin E family, etc., red palm oil is practically unique.

    Geoff wrote on January 28th, 2012
  7. Deforestation is the first step – anywhere. The primary reason is the international demand for wood. Much of the deforested area is subsequently never converted to oil palm. To protect the Orangutan and the forests, the primary target should be the demand for tropical wood. New land does not need to be cleared for oil palm in the Asia-Pacific region. There is plenty of land where the timber was taken away and the promised oil palm plantations never eventuated.

    If you want to take effective action now – boycott this year’s Olympic Games or other regular regular global economic events that are predicated on a new round of building activity.

    Dr Dale Smith wrote on February 6th, 2012
  8. Don’t spend $25 on a jar that small. That is a rip off. My family is from Ghana and I was raised on Palm Oil. I’ve been eating Palm Oil back in the 80’s when American dieticians said tropical oils had “too much” cholesterol and fat.

    You can go to an African Market and get a gallon for $20…probably less

    If you don’t live in an area that is populated with a lot of West Africans. You can probably google some Ghanaian grocery stores.warehouses in NYC

    If they are charging this much just for palm oil I am sure they are beating people over the head.

    Speaking of heads I have never heard of people using palm oil for their hair but when my daughter was an infant I used coconut oil and almond oil for her hair.

    You have to wash out the coconut oil after you leave it in but you can leave the almond oil in your hair with no problem

    Nii Wilson wrote on February 28th, 2012
  9. So if you have family memebers allergic to coconut Is this Red Palm Oil the next best thing to use for cooking or should I stick with a Palm Kernel Oil.

    Alaskaladyie wrote on March 30th, 2012
  10. Palm oil is pretty terrible for our environment. Palm doesn’t seem worth it with equivalent alternatives like coconut. If you travel much in Asia you will meet people who confirm the harshness of its production.

    Ian wrote on April 22nd, 2012
  11. Tracking cals on a calorie restricted paleo diet. I’ve noticed I rarely get enough Vit. E. Just ordered some red palm oil from West African source. Just a teaspoon a day almost doubles my “typical” Vit E intake (and it has several types of E).

    deb b wrote on June 10th, 2012
  12. This is fantastic news. Palm-oil is something I like to cook with, but I reduced my use of frying plantain and cooking baked-beans in the remaining oil (for breakfast)do to a suspicion that it may not be the best way to fuel an empty stomach. Of course this is not a practice I stopped, just reduced. Now I will begin to increase my consumption of full English breakfast (minus bacon) with fried plantain, all cooked with palm oil. We get our palm-oil from South Asian delis in an area that has a significant Afro-Caribbean community.

    Yes!

    PDJesson wrote on June 21st, 2012
  13. I live in West Africa (Sierra Leone). Here we do not press the fruit to extract the oil. we beat the fruit in what resembles a large wooden mortar and pestle. we then boil the fruit it in a pot on a fire for a long time. In the end, its not a raw oil but it does retain its red coloration. Would this still be considered a healthy oil?

    Ivy wrote on June 30th, 2012
  14. I have a recommendation for y’all…
    If you want to try a most delicious red palm oil with a delicate flavor that could replace butter in some instances try Tropical Traditions. I was really skeptical that I would like this oil but I put it on steamed veggies and YUM ! It’s not cheap, but you get what you pay for here: http://www.tropicaltraditions.com/red_palm_oil.htm

    Gem wrote on July 25th, 2012
  15. Tropical Traditions might be a great pure red palm oil site and sells one of the best quality coconut oils too without harming the forrest or it’s inhabitants ! Don’t quote me on it but check out their website. I just started using coconut oil (Trader Joe’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil).

    I’ve hesitated because I’m not a coconut person and my husband has food allergies and one of them happens to be a coconut. He’s actually shown npo reaction to coconut oil as oppose to the actual raw coconut itself which gives him tremendous stomach pain. This coconut oil has a neutral taste so that’s a plus,although I know refined oils aren’t that good for you as their pure, raw counterparts.

    I’m curious to try red palm oil but am iffy about it because people say it has a strong taste and so I’m not sure how much use I can get out of that expensive oil if it’s steong raste renders it useless foe most regular dishes unless you cook something exotic all of the time.

    Erika wrote on July 27th, 2012
  16. You can order virgin red palm oil on Amazon.

    Jessica wrote on August 10th, 2012
  17. Hi everyone,
    I want to know if palm fruit oil has a sweet flavor?
    I want to try the oil because it sounds good.
    But I don’t want my dishes to turn out sweet!!
    Thank you!!

    Chap wrote on September 7th, 2012
  18. I buy “Sunshine Factor” which is USDA certified organic red palm fruit oil. Also, not involved with the decimation of rainforests or orangutans. See quote below:

    “The palm oil used is grown on long established farms in Brazil, and is not harvested in tropical forests in Malaysia, Indonesia or Africa (where the process of palm oil collection is causing environmental damage). The farms used are members of Northern Plains Sustainable Agricultural Society and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). They are also certified by TransFair as a Fair Trade program, where workers are paid a fair wage.”

    Michelle wrote on October 15th, 2012
  19. I’m of West African descent, and I grew up with red palm oil, so I’m used to the taste. God, it’s delicious. One of my favourite paleo-friendly ways to eat it is boiling up a plantain, mashing it, and mix it with 1-2 tbsp of red palm oil and salt to taste. Such an awesome comfort food. I think I might go and make it right now. lol

    Harley wrote on December 12th, 2012
  20. can I buy red palm oil from you please let me know thanks

    sue wrote on January 3rd, 2013
    • Email me at mercyiff@yahoo.com if you need red palm oil. I have original African red palm oil at different sizes and prices. You can also visit our site at mercyiff.com. The site is under construction, you cannot order from there yet but you will see palm oil and other African nutritious food there. But if you email me, I will let you know how you can order palm oil from my store.
      Thanks
      May

      MAY wrote on March 21st, 2013
  21. I just bought two kinds of palm oil from a local African grocery store. One was called golden palm oil which was very red but appeared to have most of the solids removed and the other was unrefined red palm oil. I have been avoiding trying palm oil because of all the talk about how it tastes strong, isn’t very tasty, etc. Maybe my bar was set low, but I was pleasantly surprised by both of these palm oils. I just made the simplest dish and it was SO tasty. Chicken thighs cut into pieces, lots of cauliflower cut into small florets, a tablespoon of tomato paste, all fried in a couple tablespoons of red palm oil. Salt to taste. Delicious!

    I also had some leftover baked freshwater bass that I chopped up into pieces and fried in palm oil and threw on top of a salad. Pretty darn tasty.

    I’m glad to have this amazing oil to add to my arsenal, especially given it’s high carotenoid and vitamin E content. Don’t be afraid to try it if you’re on the fence, it’s good stuff.

    flaunttnualf wrote on January 11th, 2013
  22. Be careful everyone saying that popcorn is a healthy snack. I believe ALL corn contains GMOs? Someone correct me if I’m wrong!

    Raquel wrote on January 29th, 2013

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