20120525-Palm_oil gve.jpg
palm oil
Palm oil, extracted from the fruit of oil palm trees, is a low-cost vegetable oil with a long shelf life and is almost solid at room temperature, characteristics that suit its use in processed foods like cereal, bread, biscuits, candy, potato chips and margarine. Palm oil is also versatile and the trees that produce it grow quickly.

Oil palms yield more oil per acre any other crop. Indonesia and Malaysia are far away the largest palm oil producers, but the oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, is not from Asia. It is native to west and central Africa and has been introduced all over the world. Palm oil is now the world’s most popular vegetable oil, accounting for one-third of global consumption.

The oil palm tree produces a nut or kernel that is pressed to produce palm-kernel oil. The endosperm — the pulp around the kernel of the mahogany-red fruit that hangs below the palm fronds like bananas — produces oil which is used in making a number of foods and products. The oil palm tree was introduced to Malaysia in 1870, with commercial production beginning in 1917. Many tropical rain forests have been cleared to make way for palm oil plantation which are comprised of endless rows of palm oil trees. On the largest palm oil plantations the fruit is moved to the processing plants by light railways that run along dirt roads that run across the plantations.

Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic:“Oil palms, with giant bunches of red fruit growing beneath unruly fronds, are an ancient staple crop. For millennia humans have boiled and pounded their fruit to extract cooking oil, burned their seed-kernel shells for heat, and woven their leaves into everything from roofs to baskets. Over the past few decades, however, palm oil use has exploded — in part because of the versatility and creamy texture of the oil (think Oreo filling) and in part because of the productivity of the trees. They require only half as much land as other crops, such as soybeans, to generate a given amount of oil. [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

Websites and Resources: Sunpalms ; Palm Trees ; Wikipedia article on palms Wikipedia ; Palmpedia ; Greenpeace on Palm Oil ; Wikipedia article on palm oil Wikipedia ; Malaysian Palm Oil Board ; Palm Oil Processing

Uses of Palm Oil

Palm oil is found in mayonnaise, ice cream, French fries, noodles, oleochemicals, Palmolive soap and biofuels and someday may be used to make plastics and paint. It is a key ingredient in cosmetics, detergents and household cleaners and is a popular cooking oil. Jason Motlagh wrote in the Washington Post, “Long a preferred cooking ingredient in developing countries, palm oil is now in greater demand in Western markets because of its low price and long shelf life..It can be found in more than half of all the products sold in U.S. supermarkets, including cookies and cosmetics. And its use is increasing as the commercial food industry phases out trans fats to meet government-mandated labeling requirements. [Source: Jason Motlagh, Washington Post, November 26, 2012]

Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic: It’s a common cooking oil in India and some other countries. As an ingredient, it has become difficult to avoid almost everywhere. It’s in all manner of supermarket items: cookies, pizza dough, bread, lipstick, lotion, soap. It’s even in supposedly eco-friendly biodiesel: In 2017, 51 percent of the European Union’s palm oil consumption was to power cars and trucks. The abundant oil from the fruit of oil palms can be found under different ingredient names in everything from cookies to soap to lipstick. A natural alternative to trans fats, it has many other advantages: It’s cheap to produce, stable in processing, and slow to smoke — plus it has a long shelf life. [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

Deborah Gough wrote in The Age, “It's everywhere - in your bathroom, your pantry - and if you use make-up, it's probably on your face as well. According to a report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and the Food and Grocery Council of Australia, Australians consume an average of about six kilograms of palm oil a year, in products as diverse as bread, shampoo and cosmetics. Consumer group Choice said about 50 percent of packaged products on supermarket shelves contain palm oil, yet Food Standards Australia and New Zealand allowed it to be labelled as vegetable oil. It said palm oil was widespread and found in potato chips, shampoo, muesli bars and many other products, but shoppers could not tell by looking at the labels. [Source: Deborah Gough, The Age, May 21, 2013]

Palm Oil and Health

palm oil fruit
According to one study palm oil performed as well as olive on tests that measured LDL, HDL and total cholesterol levels in the blood. The study showed that palm oil does not raise baseline cholesterol levels, but does reduce bad LDL levels and raise good HDL levels. The vitamin E in palm oil behaves as an anti-oxidant and palm oil inhibits tumor growth compared to other polyunsaturated oils. According to the Nutrition Advisory Committee of Europe palm oil is unfairly grouped with other "high-fat" tropical oils and "should be clearly distinguished from palm kernel oil and coconut oil because it has a lower level of saturated components and contains an equal proportion of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids."

Choice spokesman Tom Godfrey told the Age that palm oil's saturated fat content was 51 percent, which was much higher than other vegetable oils, such as canola, sunflower and olive oil. "For a product with such high levels of saturated fat, we think it is important to clearly and specifically label, rather than leave it up to the consumer to decipher fat levels on the nutritional panel,” Mr Godfrey said. It named Arnott's, Coca-Cola (SPC Ardmona), Goodman Fielder and Nestle, as all using palm oil but labelling it as vegetable oil. It said Aldi's private-label goods called palm oil "vegetable oil", but Coles' and Woolworths' labelled goods both specifically identified it. [Source: Deborah Gough, The Age, May 21, 2013]

Choice also criticised the use of palm oil in products for children. In Australia, Choice highlighted Woolworths' recent release of organic Mini Macro products sold in its health-food aisles, that contained palm oil. It said Woolworths claimed palm oil "tastes better" and is more widely available than organic oils. Choice also said Aldi used palm oil in products for children, including potato chips, which it recommended as a part of its balanced lunch box campaign. Choice tips for identifying palm oil: 1) Check the nutritional panel for the proportions of saturated to unsaturated fats. 2) Note high saturated fat content where vegetable oil is listed means the product probably contains palm oil. 3) Be aware that when buying processed products there is a chance it may contain palm oil.

History of Palm Oil

In west and central Africa, archaeologists have found 3,000-year-old palm nuts buried in streambeds deep in the forest. Reporting from Gabon. Hillary Rosner wrote in National Geographic:“Seven hours from Libreville, at the end of three hours of bone-jarring dirt roads, lies Lopé National Park On hilltops near Lopé’s western boundary, French archaeologist Richard Oslisly has uncovered evidence of Stone Age and Iron Age communities — chips from the making of quartz arrowheads, iron tools and furnaces. Three thousand years ago, Bantu peoples began to migrate along the Atlantic coast to Gabon from Cameroon. They brought oil palms with them. Wading in a stream in Lopé’s forest, Oslisly scratches at the bank and pulls out domesticated palm nuts dating back two millennia. [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

“By around 1,500 years ago, those early farmers had covered large parts of Gabon and northern Congo in palm groves. “Central Africa,” White says, “probably looked like Indonesia does today.” A drastic population crash — perhaps caused by an epidemic — wiped out those Iron Age people. The rain forest came roaring back. “Now we are starting the cycle again,” White says. “Our management actions will tell whether once again we destroy the forests or if we can maintain an equilibrium.” For humans, balance is often an elusive goal.

“Throughout the 1800s, British traders imported African palm oil, using it for a growing number of products, from soap to margarine to candles. Once scientists discovered how to isolate glycerin from the oil, its applications multiplied: pharmaceuticals, photographic film, perfume, even dynamite.

“By the turn of the 20th century, oil palms had been shipped to Indonesia, and commercial plantations had taken hold. In the late 1930s they covered just 250,000 acres. Over the next half century or so, agricultural breakthroughs — breeding trees resistant to a common pathogen, introducing an African weevil for pollination — led to greater yields and a flourishing investment in oil palms.

“But as global demand for palm oil grew, companies racing to supply it burned and bulldozed some of those forests. Health concerns over trans fats fueled the boom — palm oil replaced trans fats in many products — as did rising demand for biodiesel. By the early 2000s, the boom was in full swing, and thousands of square miles of lowland forests and peatlands across Borneo were planted with oil palms.”


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Palm oil production in
Jukwa Village Ghana
Next to grains and other grasses, palms are regarded as the most useful of all plants. They yield coconuts, palm oil, sugar, dates and materials that are used to make houses, boats, baskets, furniture and other things.

Some palms yield palm hearts, the tender, inner section or buds of the baby palm tree. Each palm tree has a single bud in the heart of the crown of the leaves that heart that can only be harvested if the palm is cut down. These buds are delicacies in Argentina and used in a curies and salads (sometimes called "millionaire's salads" because of the expense incurred by cutting down the tree). In some places it is called "cabbage" and is used as a salad vegetable. In other places it is pickled.

Palms grow primarily in tropical areas but are also found in the highlands of the Himalayas and the Andes, in mangrove swamps and in the desert. Members of a diverse plant group that also includes grasses and orchids, they range in height from six inches to 200 feet. Some palms are trees. Some are bushes. Rattan palms, which grow as a vine, can reach lengths of 600 feet or more.

Palm trees do not branch. They generate all their growth from a huge bud at the apex of the tree, which is called the palm heart. It produces leaf after leaf as the plant grows. The palm heart is often very tasty and animals like to eat it. If something happens to it the plant can die. Many palms have sharp spines for protection.

Palm trunk have a pith center but no bark or growth rings. Leaves called fonds fan out from a crown at the top. Some leaves are 30 to 45 feet long and 4 to 8 feet wide. African raffia palms have the world’s largest leaves, reaching 75 feet in length. Palms bear flowers and fruit. The fruits have hard kernels containing tiny germs. Some kernels, such as dates, are surrounded by a fleshy pulp. The world’s largest seed, a double coconut from the Seychelles, comes from a palm. Most palms begin flowering when they five or six and mature when they are 10 to 15 years old. Some palms live 150 years or more.

PC is a disease that has devastated African oil palms in Columbia. PC stands for the Spanish words for “bud rot.” The disease is caused by a microorganism called phytophthora that attacks the soft growth matrix of the palm and this in turn attracts insects called palm weevils that bore into the tree, killing it. In recent years the PC microorganism has mutated into strains that spread much faster than before and can not be controlled by conventional means.

Palm Oil Cultivation

The palm oil comes from a mahogany-red fruit that look sort of like plums and hangs in oven-size bunches below the palm fronds like bananas. On the largest palm oil plantations the fruit is moved to the processing plants by light railways that run on dirt roads that run across the plantations. Otherwise much of fruit is carried in huge piles in overloaded, teetering trucks.

The palm oil palm is an oil-producing monster, with some 20 fruit bunches, found at the top of its trunk, each containing up to 3,000 palm fruits. Each palm produces several groups of bunches each year. Oil palms grow best in the steamy tropics, where rainfall and sunshine are abundant. Trees produce less fruit as they age and get taller, producing oil for about 25 years. After that time they are cut down and replaced. [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

At oil palm nurseries, seedlings are grown which are tended and weeded by gardeners.Germinated seeds are planted and the seedlings spend about a year in the nursery before being transferred to the fields. Here, the young palms are planted about nine metres apart resulting in 128 to 140 trees per hectare. [Source: Wilmar]

A palm tree reaches maturity in roughly four years, when it is about 3.2 meters (seven feet tall). It will eventually reach a height of more than 10 meters (30 feet). Oil palms generally begin to produce fruits 30 months after being planted in the fields with commercial harvest commencing six months later. However, the yield of an oil palm is relatively low at this stage. As the oil palm continues to mature, its yield increases and it reaches peak production in years seven to 18. Yield starts to gradually decrease after 18 years.

Bunches of oil palm fruit are harvested by hand and machines are trucked to a mill for processing. At an old plantation, workers sometimes still harvesting palm fruit from very tall trees by hand. More commonly an excavator grabs palm-fruit bunches to load onto trucks or a conveyor belt. At some plantation, harvesters cut bunches of fruit from oil palm trees and loaders toss the bunches, which can weigh up to 22 kilograms (50 pounds each), into trucks that deliver them to the on-site mill for processing into crude palm oil.

Fully mature oil palms produce 18 to 30 metric tonnes of fresh fruit bunches (FFB) per hectare. The yield depends on a variety of factors, including age, seed quality, soil and climatic conditions, quality of plantation management and the timely harvesting and processing of FFB. The ripeness of FFB harvested is critical in maximising the quality and quantity of palm oil extracted. Harvested fruits must be processed within 24 hours to minimise the build-up of fatty acids.

Pollinating Weevil Revolutionized Oil Palm in the 1980s

Oil palm cultivation in Malaysia and Southeast Asia were revolutionized in the early 1980s when the oil palm pollinating weevil Elaeidobius kamerunensis was introduced from Africa. Before that pollination of oil palms was done manually and that was a very laborious and labor-intensive method. [Source: T. M. Teo , Agriculture Science Journal, 2018]

T. M. Teo wrote in Agriculture Science Journal: Each palm oil tree “bears male and female flowers, on separate inflorescences, requiring pollen to be transferred by wind or insects. In the beginning, oil palm plantations in Malaysia relied mainly on wind pollination. There were natural Malaysian oil palm insect pollinators, Thrips hawaiiensis and Pyroderces sp. But these were found to be inefficient (Wahid & Kamarudin, 1997). To improve the yield, hand pollination was developed and the collection, processing and trade in oil palm pollen became a thriving sub-industry within the oil palm industry until the introduction of the weevil Elaeidobius kamerunensis.

The introduction of E. kamerunensis to address the poor natural pollination problem in Malaysia, was the result of a study led by R.A. Syed which commenced in Cameroon in 1977. Syed found that this weevil was the main pollinator for oil palm. It was found to be the most suitable of all species as it was the most abundant in both wet and dry seasons. It was also found to have the highest capacity for pollen cartage of all pollinators (Syed, 1979). Hence, E. kamerunicus was brought into Malaysia in 1980 to increase pollination of oil palm.

The first release of these weevils took place in Johor and Sabah Pamol plantations (Syed et al., 1982), and the weevils were found to multiply and spread rapidly in oil palm plantations nationwide in a few short years. Hand pollination was soon discontinued in most parts of the country. Elaeidobius kamerunicusis is entirely dependent on the male inflorescence of the oil palm Several Elaeidobius kamerunicus weevils on a spikelet of a male oil palm Modern oil palm variety with heavy predominance of female expression to survive. Adult weevils consume oil palm pollen and lay eggs in anthesizing male inflorescences. The larvae live on and consume the decomposing male inflorescence and pupate within the spikelets of the flowers, emerging as adults about 10 days later (Tuo et al., 2011).

Palm Oil Processing

Palm fruit must be processed within 24 hours to prevent the buildup of fatty acids. The outer, fleshy part of the fruit produces the palm oil, which is crushed at a mill to produce a yellow-red liquid. The crude palm oil is clarified, purified and then sent to a refinery for further processing before being shipped out.

Palm oil agriculture and production are very mechanized. Malaysian mills can process 44 tons of fruit an hour, which will yield 2.2 tons of crude palm oil. At the mill the following processes take place: 1) glycerolysis, in which chemical bonds are broken with glycerol to keep oil from separating from water; 2) interesterification (IE), in which fatty acids are rearranged to change melting point; 3) distillation, in which oil is heated and cooled to extract fatty acids; and 4) fractionation, in which oil is separated into liquids (oleins) and solids (stearins) [Source: Hillary Rosner, National Geographic, December 2018]

At the mill the palm fruit is put in a steamer that softens it up for pressing. The flesh of the palm fruit and the kernel (once crushed) both produce oil. The milling process includes: 1) crushing, in which kernels are cracked to remove shell and then crushed and pressed; 2) milling, in which palm fruit is steamed and pressed to separate oil from kernel and fibers; and 3) refining, in which impurities are removed from the oil. After refining, the different oils are modified into varying products.

Milling of FFB takes place within 24 hours from the harvesting of FFB. FFB are first transferred to the palm oil mills for sterilisation by applying high-pressure steam, whereupon the palm fruits are enzyme-deactivated and separated from the palm bunches. After steaming, the palm fruitlets are crushed in a pressing machine to obtain crude palm oil (CPO) and palm kernel. Waste and water is then cleared and separated from the CPO by means of a centrifuge. The cleared crude palm oil emerging from the centrifuge is then sent for refining while the palm kernel nut is sent for crushing. The empty fruit bunches and liquid waste arising from the process are recycled as fertiliser in the plantations.

Image Source: Mongabay ; Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: “The Private Life of Plants: A Natural History of Plant Behavior” by David Attenborough (Princeton University Press, 1997); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated April 2022

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