Marks Daily Apple
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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. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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.

    Dan wrote on September 26th, 2013
  7. 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)

    Okpara Collins wrote on November 9th, 2013
  8. 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
  9. 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
  10. Where I live, Red Palm Oil is cheaper than butter. Definitely trying this out.

    Blippety wrote on May 25th, 2014
  11. Nutiva Red Palm Oil is from Ecuador (no orangutans) sustainably raised on small family farms, and not too expensive.

    Mary Dougherty wrote on August 26th, 2014
  12. Its not a perfect Industry, many policies are being made to produce palm oil sustainably. Palm oil is the driver of the Nations development especially for Malaysia and Indonesia. Sustainable palm oil making its way and Palm oil is the world first sustainable vegetable oil,, compared to Rapeseed, Canola Oil and Soy which are comparatively lower in productivity and uses way much larger areas for production of oil and fats and creates extensive destruction and uses way much fertilizers with the mass agricultural farms and practices.
    Malaysia especially has their policy on conservation of wildlife through education to the managers ans staffs in oil palm plantations and any human-wildlife are reported to the Sabah Wildlife Rescue Unit established with the collaboration of the Sabah Wildlife Department and MPOC .
    Malaysia still upkeeps its promise made during the world summit and still keeps a minimum of 50% fo its land mass under forest cover and Its doing way much better than the rest of the world, sad to say, compared to the developed world of US, EU and also Australia.
    Australians has many movements on anti plam oil campaigns but has forgotten that they have the highest mammal extinction in the world for the century. and this was not caused by palm oil.
    At times, it even looks like its a market competition between the soft oil producer where all the smearing and bad-mouthing is done by the rivals, in this sense for the palm oil industry the rival is significantly soy, rapeseed, canola, maize and sunflower. nevertheless, The fact is that #Palmoil is here to stay for the global community’s food security.

    Abhimanyu wrote on March 9th, 2015
  13. Thanks for sharing this info about the differences between palm oils. I don’t live near any good health food shops, only near ethnic markets. There’s tons of palm oil, but the labeling is not that good. I have been confused as to which one to buy, but it sounds as though I can look for a red-colored palm oil. I have been wanting to try it for quite some time.

    Sonja Larsen wrote on April 20th, 2015
  14. “Of the tropical oils, coconut gets the most attention, while palm oil gets mostly ignored.”


    IMO this is because of a couple of things. For one, coconut is more familiar to people than palm fruit (at least, at non-tropical latitiudes).

    For another, coconut oil is delicious, and by comparison palm oil is a poor substitute. For both texture and flavor coconut oil is wonderful and palm oil is, for lack of a better word, yucky by comparison.

    grisly atoms wrote on October 18th, 2015
  15. OMT,

    IMO unrefined red palm oil tastes kind of like pumpkin.

    grisly atoms wrote on October 18th, 2015

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