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

Smart Fuel: Palm Oil

3532534528 5b40378a14Of 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:

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  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=1NAYWHb-xaU

    Ian wrote on April 22nd, 2012
  7. 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
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. 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
  11. 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
  12. You can order virgin red palm oil on Amazon.

    Jessica wrote on August 10th, 2012
  13. 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
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. 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
  19. Mark, I was able to find my rpo on Amazon- a good dark red one from West Africa. Sure, it was a bit pricey. But I saved money buying the large size (so glad I DO like it, as it was an expensive gamble)… After some Dr. Oz show, it became quite popular- my local health food store and Tropical Traditions had sold out. Amazon worked though!
    As for taste, I’m finding it’s pretty tolerable (tasty, even) in dishes with plenty of spice and garlic. It can turn food orange, but the addition of curry, paprika, or tomato paste can make the color seem more natural…

    Jennifer Cote wrote on March 6th, 2013
  20. I was born and grew up on the island of Borneo. I remembered well back in the 70s where i ran around and pluck wild veges from the rainforest to eat, across my home. Then the loggers started looting, mercedes cars swarm in with these timber tycoons…soon rainforests no more…
    I recall how wonderful it was, watching the afternoon rain drenching the leaves of the tall, tall green trees, and at dusk, so many sounds of various insects….and the fragrance of jasmine….
    Please, never will i consider my own wellbeing separate to nature…
    So first do no harm…

    jacquie wrote on April 29th, 2013
  21. Palm kernel oil is brownish in color, and is great for frying fish. It has the smell of roasted coconut–yummy!

    Jackie wrote on May 18th, 2013
  22. I wonder how many people you have inspired to use palm oil.
    First: Palm oil is produced from palm plantations grown in the areas of Indonesia where the rainforest has been growing for hundreds of thousands of years. This land is rich with minerals and resources, extraordinary plant and animal life.
    To produce palm oil, the land is ravaged, burned and devastated. In this environment thousands of acres of palm trees are planted. Tribal people are displaced and the world’s consumers get fat and happy from the fat produced on these fields caused by destruction. Are you happy yet?
    Second: Since we have stopped using anything containing palm oil (soaps, toothpaste, lotions, sauces, baked goods, margarines,etc…..) my husband and I have been happy to use coconut oil and grapeseed oil for cooking if needed. We use much less oil (fat) and have each lost 10-15 lbs. – without even trying. Try it.
    Please stop destruction of the rainforests and the life within!
    When it is gone it is gone forever.

    roxanne wrote on June 29th, 2013
  23. I hope that everyone realises that palm oil is grown mainly on Indoesian and Malaysian plantations that have been set up on cleared rainforest land, causing endangered orangutan habitats to be wiped out. Say no to plam oil from plantations, choose coconut oil as a much more sustainable option.

    Karlie wrote on August 29th, 2013
  24. The best Red Palm Oil (RPO) on the planet. Harvested from wild palms, hand extracted by local, women owned cooperatives, and simply wonderful flavor and aroma. I’ve used many different brands of RPO and have stuck with this one.
    http://www.organicsoverseas.com/

    Dan wrote on September 26th, 2013
  25. Red palm oil is among the best type of edible oil. I’m from east Nigeria, where we have native wild red palm oil trees everywhere that have not undergo any biotechnological engineering. They are simply natural! And the red palm oil gotten from them remains liquid at room temperature unlike the engineered ones. For supply contact me. ozispesal (at) gmail.com

    Okpara Collins wrote on November 9th, 2013
  26. palm oil is far better than vegetable oil and i have been using it often in most of my dishes

    akosua wrote on December 9th, 2013
  27. Oh my! My mom bought this jar of oven-dried Roma tomatoes, packed in oil, at Costco. Since I’m a huge fan of tomato sauces, I tried some and I loved it! I was a little suspicious of all the bright red oil the tomatoes contained though. However, I didn’t get a nasty feeling like I usually do when I eat processed fats. I looked at the label and the second ingredients to the tomatoes were extra virgin olive oil and something called palm oil? It sounded like an unhealthy vegetable oil to me, so afterwards when I ate the tomatoes I tried to avoid the oil. I’m so happy palm oil IS healthy, and that a quality jar of delicious tomatoes, EVOO and red palm oil can be found at Costco!
    Being Chinese, my family frequently buys cold prepared foods at the Asian market. Some of these are really great; there’s beef tripe, pork and chicken liver, chicken hearts, jellyfish, beef tendon, you name it. But they often come in a spicy bright red oil. I always avoided the oil, thinking it some processed soybean oil junk. But maybe it’s palm oil as well?

    Carrie wrote on April 20th, 2014
  28. Where I live, Red Palm Oil is cheaper than butter. Definitely trying this out.

    Blippety wrote on May 25th, 2014

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