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 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!