Palm oil

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the mesocarp (reddish pulp) of the fruit of the oil palms, primarily the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis,[1] and to a lesser extent from the American oil palm Elaeis oleifera and the maripa palm Attalea maripa.

The use of palm oil in food products has attracted the concern of environmental activist groups; the high oil yield of the trees has encouraged wider cultivation, leading to the clearing of forests in parts of Indonesia to make space for oil-palm monoculture.[2] This has resulted in significant acreage losses of the natural habitat of the three surviving species of orangutan. One species in particular, the Sumatran orangutan, has been listed as critically endangered.[3] In 2004, an industry group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil was formed to work with the palm oil industry to address these concerns.[4] Additionally, in 1992, in response to concerns about deforestation, the Government of Malaysia pledged to limit the expansion of palm oil plantations by retaining a minimum of half the nation's land as forest cover.[5][6]


Humans used oil palms as far as 5,000 years back. In the late-1800s, archaeologists discovered a substance that they concluded was originally palm oil in a tomb at Abydos dating back to 3,000 BCE.[7] It is believed that traders brought oil palm to Egypt.[8]

Palm oil from E. guineensiss has long been recognized in West and Central African countries, and is widely used as a cooking oil. European merchants trading with West Africa occasionally purchased palm oil for use as a cooking oil in Europe.

Palm oil became a highly sought-after commodity by British traders, for use as an industrial lubricant for machinery during Britain's Industrial Revolution.[9]

Palm oil formed the basis of soap products, such as Lever Brothers' (now Unilever) "Sunlight" soap, and the American Palmolive brand.[10]

By around 1870, palm oil constituted the primary export of some West African countries, although this was overtaken by cocoa in the 1880s with the introduction of colonial European cocoa plantations.[11][12]


Fatty acids

Palm oil, like all fats, is composed of fatty acids, esterified with glycerol. Palm oil has an especially high concentration of saturated fat, specifically the 16-carbon saturated fatty acid, palmitic acid, to which it gives its name. Monounsaturated oleic acid is also a major constituent of palm oil. Unrefined palm oil is a significant source of tocotrienol, part of the vitamin E family.[13][14]

The approximate concentration of esterified fatty acids in palm oil is:[15]

Fatty acid content of palm oil (present as triglyceride esters)
Type of fatty acid pct
Myristic saturated C14
Palmitic saturated C16
Stearic saturated C18
Oleic monounsaturated C18:1
Linoleic polyunsaturated C18:2
black: Saturated; grey: Monounsaturated; blue: Polyunsaturated


Red palm oil is rich in carotenes, such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene and lycopene, which give it a characteristic dark red color.[14][16] However, palm oil that has been refined, bleached and deodorized from crude palm oil (called "RBD palm oil") does not contain carotenes.[17]

Processing and use

Palm oil is naturally reddish in color because of a high beta-carotene content. It is not to be confused with palm kernel oil derived from the kernel of the same fruit[18] or coconut oil derived from the kernel of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). The differences are in color (raw palm kernel oil lacks carotenoids and is not red), and in saturated fat content: palm mesocarp oil is 49% saturated, while palm kernel oil and coconut oil are 81% and 86% saturated fats, respectively. However, crude red palm oil that has been refined, bleached and deodorized, a common commodity called RBD (refined, bleached, and deodorized) palm oil, does not contain carotenoids.[17] Many industrial food applications of palm oil use fractionated components of palm oil (often listed as "modified palm oil") whose saturation levels can reach 90%;[19] these "modified" palm oils can become highly saturated, but are not necessarily hydrogenated.

The oil palm produces bunches containing many fruits with the fleshy mesocarp enclosing a kernel that is covered by a very hard shell. The FAO considers palm oil (coming from the pulp) and palm kernels to be primary products. The oil extraction rate from a bunch varies from 17 to 27% for palm oil, and from 4 to 10% for palm kernels.[20]

Along with coconut oil, palm oil is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats and is semisolid at room temperature.[21] Palm oil is a common cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil. Its use in the commercial food industry in other parts of the world is widespread because of its lower cost[22] and the high oxidative stability (saturation) of the refined product when used for frying.[23][24] One source reported that humans consumed an average 17 pounds (7.7 kg) of palm oil per person in 2015.[25]

Many processed foods either contain palm oil or various ingredients made from it.[26]


After milling, various palm oil products are made using refining processes. First is fractionation, with crystallization and separation processes to obtain solid (palm stearin), and liquid (olein) fractions.[27] Then melting and degumming removes impurities. Then the oil is filtered and bleached. Physical refining removes smells and coloration to produce "refined, bleached and deodorized palm oil" (RBDPO) and free fatty acids, which are used in the manufacture of soaps, washing powder and other products. RBDPO is the basic palm oil product sold on the world's commodity markets. Many companies fractionate it further to produce palm oil for cooking oil, or process it into other products.[27]

Red palm oil

Since the mid-1990s, red palm oil has been cold-pressed from the fruit of the oil palm and bottled for use as a cooking oil, in addition to other uses such as being blended into mayonnaise and vegetable oil.[17]

Oil produced from palm fruit is called red palm oil or just palm oil. It is around 50% saturated fat—considerably less than palm kernel oil—and 40% unsaturated fat and 10% polyunsaturated fat. In its unprocessed state, red palm oil has an intense deep red color because of its abundant carotene content. Like palm kernel oil, red palm oil contains around 50% medium chain fatty acids, but it also contains the following nutrients:[28]

White palm oil

White palm oil is the result of processing and refining. When refined, the palm oil loses its deep red color. It is extensively used in food manufacture and can be found in a variety of processed foods including peanut butter and chips. It is often labeled as palm shortening and is used as a replacement ingredient for hydrogenated fats in a variety of baked and fried products.

Use in food

The highly saturated nature of palm oil renders it solid at room temperature in temperate regions, making it a cheap substitute for butter or hydrogenated vegetable oils in uses where solid fat is desirable, such as the making of pastry dough and baked goods. The health concerns related to trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oils may have contributed to the increasing use of palm oil in the food industry.[29]

Palm oil is also used in animal feed. In March 2017, a documentary made by Deutsche Welle revealed that palm oil is used to make milk substitutes to feed calves in dairies in the German alps. These milk substitutes contain 30% milk powder and the remainder of raw protein made from skimmed milk powder, whey powder, and vegetable fats, mostly coconut oil and palm oil.[30]

Biomass and biofuels

Palm oil is used to produce both methyl ester and hydrodeoxygenated biodiesel.[31] Palm oil methyl ester is created through a process called transesterification. Palm oil biodiesel is often blended with other fuels to create palm oil biodiesel blends.[32] Palm oil biodiesel meets the European EN 14214 standard for biodiesels.[31] Hydrodeoxygenated biodiesel is produced by direct hydrogenolysis of the fat into alkanes and propane. The world's largest palm oil biodiesel plant is the €550 million Finnish-operated Neste Oil biodiesel plant in Singapore, which opened in 2011 with a capacity of 800,000 tons per year and produces hydrodeoxygenated NEXBTL biodiesel from palm oil imported from Malaysia and Indonesia.[33][34]

Significant amounts of palm oil exports to Europe are converted to biodiesel (as of early 2018: Indonesia: 40%, Malaysia 30%).[35][36]. In 2014, almost half of all the palm oil in Europe was burnt as car and truck fuel.[37] As of 2018, one-half of Europe's palm oil imports were used for biodiesel.[38] Use of palm oil as biodiesel generates three times the carbon emissions as using fossil fuel,[39] and, for example, "biodiesel made from Indonesian palm oil makes the global carbon problem worse, not better."[40]

The organic waste matter that is produced when processing oil palm, including oil palm shells and oil palm fruit bunches, can also be used to produce energy. This waste material can be converted into pellets that can be used as a biofuel.[41] Additionally, palm oil that has been used to fry foods can be converted into methyl esters for biodiesel. The used cooking oil is chemically treated to create a biodiesel similar to petroleum diesel.[42]

In wound care

Although palm oil is applied to wounds for its supposed antimicrobial effects, research does not confirm its effectiveness.[43]


In 2016, the global production of palm oil was estimated at 62.6 million tonnes, 2.7 million tonnes more than in 2015. The palm oil production value was estimated at $US39.3 billion in 2016, a increase of $US2.4 billion (or +7%) against the production figure recorded in the previous year.[44] Between 1962 and 1982 global exports of palm oil increased from around half a million to 2.4 million tonnes annually and in 2008 world production of palm oil and palm kernel oil amounted to 48 million tonnes. According to FAO forecasts by 2020 the global demand for palm oil will double, and triple by 2050.[45]


Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palm oil, surpassing Malaysia in 2006, producing more than 20.9 million tonnes[46][47], a number that has since risen to over 34.5 million tons (2016 output). Indonesia expects to double production by the end of 2030.[4] At the end of 2010, 60% of the output was exported in the form of crude palm oil.[48] FAO data shows production increased by over 400% between 1994 and 2004, to over 8.66 million metric tonnes.


In 2012, Malaysia, the world's second largest producer of palm oil,[49] produced 18.79 million tonnes of crude palm oil on roughly 5,000,000 hectares (19,000 sq mi) of land.[50][51] Though Indonesia produces more palm oil, Malaysia is the world's largest exporter of palm oil having exported 18 million tonnes of palm oil products in 2011. India, China, Pakistan, the European Union and the United States are the primary importers of Malaysian palm oil products.[52] Palm oil prices jumped to a four-year high days after Trump's election victory. [53]


As of 2011, Nigeria was the third-largest producer, with approximately 2.3 million hectares (5.7×10^6 acres) under cultivation. Until 1934, Nigeria had been the world's largest producer. Both small- and large-scale producers participated in the industry.[54][55]


Thailand is the world's third largest producer of crude palm oil, producing approximately two million tonnes per year, or 1.2% of global output. Nearly all of Thai production is consumed locally. Almost 85% of palm plantations and extraction mills are in south Thailand. At year-end 2016, 4.7 to 5.8 million rai were planted in oil palms, employing 300,000 farmers, mostly on small landholdings of 20 rai. ASEAN as a region accounts for 52.5 million tonnes of palm oil production, about 85% of the world total and more than 90% of global exports. Indonesia accounts for 52.2% of world exports. Malaysian exports total 37.9%. The biggest consumers of palm oil are India, the European Union, and China, with the three consuming nearly 50% of world exports. Thailand's Department of Internal Trade (DIT) usually sets the price of crude palm oil and refined palm oil. Thai farmers have a relatively low yield compared to those in Malaysia and Indonesia. Thai palm oil crops yield 4–17% oil compared to around 20% in competing countries. In addition, Indonesian and Malaysian oil palm plantations are 10 times the size of Thai plantations.[56]


In the 1960s, about 18,000 hectares (69 sq mi) were planted with palm. Colombia has now become the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35% of its product is exported as biofuel. In 2006, the Colombian plantation owners' association, Fedepalma, reported that oil palm cultivation was expanding to 1,000,000 hectares (3,900 sq mi). This expansion is being funded, in part, by the United States Agency for International Development to resettle disarmed paramilitary members on arable land, and by the Colombian government, which proposes to expand land use for exportable cash crops to 7,000,000 hectares (27,000 sq mi) by 2020, including oil palms. Fedepalma states that its members are following sustainable guidelines.[57]

Some Afro-Colombians claim that some of these new plantations have been expropriated from them after they had been driven away through poverty and civil war, while armed guards intimidate the remaining people to further depopulate the land, with coca production and trafficking following in their wake.[58]

Other countries


Palm is native to the wetlands of western Africa, and south Benin already hosts many palm plantations. Its 'Agricultural Revival Programme' has identified many thousands of hectares of land as suitable for new oil palm export plantations. In spite of the economic benefits, Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), such as Nature Tropicale, claim biofuels will compete with domestic food production in some existing prime agricultural sites. Other areas comprise peat land, whose drainage would have a deleterious environmental impact. They are also concerned genetically modified plants will be introduced into the region, jeopardizing the current premium paid for their non-GM crops.[59][60]


Cameroon had a production project underway initiated by Herakles Farms in the US.[61] However, the project was halted under the pressure of civil society organizations in Cameroon. Before the project was halted, Herakles left the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil early in negotiations.[62] The project has been controversial due to opposition from villagers and the location of the project in a sensitive region for biodiversity.


Kenya's domestic production of edible oils covers about a third of its annual demand, estimated at around 380,000 tonnes. The rest is imported at a cost of around US$140 million a year, making edible oil the country's second most important import after petroleum. Since 1993 a new hybrid variety of cold-tolerant, high-yielding oil palm has been promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in western Kenya. As well as alleviating the country's deficit of edible oils while providing an important cash crop, it is claimed to have environmental benefits in the region, because it does not compete against food crops or native vegetation and it provides stabilisation for the soil.[63]


Ghana has a lot of palm nut species, which may become an important contributor to the agriculture of the region. Although Ghana has multiple palm species, ranging from local palm nuts to other species locally called agric, it was only marketed locally and to neighboring countries. Production is now expanding as major investment funds are purchasing plantations, because Ghana is considered a major growth area for palm oil.

Social and environmental impacts


The palm oil industry has had both positive and negative impacts on workers, indigenous peoples and residents of palm oil-producing communities. Palm oil production provides employment opportunities, and has been shown to improve infrastructure, social services and reduce poverty.[64][65][66] However, in some cases, oil palm plantations have developed lands without consultation or compensation of the indigenous people inhabiting the land, resulting in social conflict.[67][68][69] The use of illegal immigrants in Malaysia has also raised concerns about working conditions within the palm oil industry.[70][71][72]

Some social initiatives use palm oil cultivation as part of poverty alleviation strategies. Examples include the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation's hybrid oil palm project in Western Kenya, which improves incomes and diets of local populations,[73] and Malaysia's Federal Land Development Authority and Federal Land Consolidation and Rehabilitation Authority, which both support rural development.[74]

Food vs. fuel

The use of palm oil in the production of biodiesel has led to concerns that the need for fuel is being placed ahead of the need for food, leading to malnutrition in developing nations. This is known as the food versus fuel debate. According to a 2008 report published in the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, palm oil was determined to be a sustainable source of both food and biofuel. The production of palm oil biodiesel does not pose a threat to edible palm oil supplies.[75] According to a 2009 study published in the Environmental Science and Policy journal, palm oil biodiesel might increase the demand for palm oil in the future, resulting in the expansion of palm oil production, and therefore an increased supply of food.[76]


Palm oil cultivation has been criticized for impacts on the natural environment,[77][78] including deforestation, loss of natural habitats,[79] and greenhouse gas emissions[80][81] which have threatened critically endangered species, such as the orangutan[82] and Sumatran tiger.[83]

The NGO Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil promotes 'certified sustainable palm oil'.[84] The Malaysian government seeks to allay concerns from environmental groups, which committed to preserve 50% of its total land area as forest.[5]

Environmental groups such as Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth oppose the use of palm oil biofuels, claiming that the deforestation caused by oil palm plantations is more damaging for the climate than the benefits gained by switching to biofuel and using the palms as carbon sinks.[85][86] While only 5% of the world's vegetable oil farmland is used for palm plantations, palm cultivation produces 38% of the world's total vegetable oil supply.[87] In terms of oil yield, a palm plantation is 10 times more productive than soybean, sunflower or rapeseed cultivation because the palm fruit and kernel both provide usable oil.[87] A 2018 study by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) concluded that palm oil is "here to stay" due to its higher productivity compared with many other vegetable oils. The IUCN maintains that replacing palm oil with other vegetable oils would necessitate greater amounts of agricultural land, negatively affecting biodiversity.[88][89] The IUCN advocates better practices in the palm oil industry, including the prevention of plantations from expanding into forested regions and creating a demand for certified and sustainable palm oil products.[89]

Palm oil is the most sustainable vegetable oil in terms of yield, requiring one-ninth of land used by other vegetable oil crops,[88] but in the future laboratory-grown microbes might achieve higher yields per unit of land at comparable prices.[90][91]

Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO)

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was created in 2004[92] to established international standards for sustainable palm oil production.[93] Products containing Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) can carry the RSPO trademark[94] since 2008.[92] Members of the RSPO include palm oil producers, environmental groups, and manufacturers who use palm oil in their products.[92][93]

After the meeting in 2009 a number of environmental organisations were critical of the scope of the agreements reached.[92] Palm oil growers who produce CSPO have been critical of the organization because, though they have met RSPO standards and assumed the costs associated with certification, the market demand for certified palm oil remains low.[93][94] Low market demand has been attributed to the higher cost of CSPO, leading palm oil buyers to purchase cheaper non-certified palm oil. Palm oil is mostly fungible. In 2011, 12% of palm oil produced was certified "sustainable", though only half of that had the RSPO label.[95] Even with such a low proportion being certified, Greenpeace has argued that confectioners are avoiding responsibilities on sustainable palm oil, because it says that RSPO standards fall short of protecting the environment.[96]


According to the Hamburg-based Oil World trade journal, in 2008 global production of oils and fats stood at 160 million tonnes. Palm oil and palm kernel oil were jointly the largest contributor, accounting for 48 million tonnes, or 30% of the total output. Soybean oil came in second with 37 million tonnes (23%). About 38% of the oils and fats produced in the world were shipped across oceans. Of the 60 million tonnes of oils and fats exported around the world, palm oil and palm kernel oil made up close to 60%; Malaysia, with 45%of the market share, dominated the palm oil trade.

Food label regulations

Previously, palm oil could be listed as "vegetable fat" or "vegetable oil" on food labels in the European Union (EU). From December 2014, food packaging in the EU is no longer allowed to use the generic terms "vegetable fat" or "vegetable oil" in the ingredients list. Food producers are required to list the specific type of vegetable fat used, including palm oil. Vegetable oils and fats can be grouped together in the ingredients list under the term "vegetable oils" or "vegetable fats" but this must be followed by the type of vegetable origin (e.g., palm, sunflower, or rapeseed) and the phrase "in varying proportions".[97]

Supply chain institutions

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004[92] following concerns raised by non-governmental organizations about environmental impacts resulting from palm oil production. The organization has established international standards for sustainable palm oil production.[93] Products containing Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) can carry the RSPO trademark.[94] Members of the RSPO include palm oil producers, environmental groups, and manufacturers who use palm oil in their products.[92][93]

The RSPO is applying different types of programmes to supply palm oil to producers.[98]

  • Book and claim: no guarantee that the end product contains certified sustainable palm oil, supports RSPO-certified growers and farmers
  • Identity preserved: the end user is able to trace the palm oil back to a specific single mill and its supply base (plantations)
  • Segregated: this option guarantees that the end product contains certified palm oil
  • Mass balance: the refinery is only allowed to sell the same amount of mass balance palm oil as the amount of certified sustainable palm oil purchased

GreenPalm is one of the retailers executing the book and claim supply chain and trading programme. It guarantees that the palm oil producer is certified by the RSPO. Through GreenPalm the producer can certify a specified amount with the GreenPalm logo. The buyer of the oil is allowed to use the RSPO and the GreenPalm label for sustainable palm oil on their products.[98]

Nutrition and health

Contributing significant calories as a source of fat, palm oil is a food staple in many cuisines.[99][100][101] On average globally, humans consumed 7.7 kg (17 lb) of palm oil per person in 2015.[25] Although the relationship of palm oil consumption to disease risk has been previously assessed, the quality of the clinical research specifically assessing palm oil effects has been generally poor.[102] Consequently, research has focused on the deleterious effects of palm oil and palmitic acid consumption as sources of saturated fat content in edible oils, leading to conclusions that palm oil and saturated fats should be replaced with polyunsaturated fats in the diet.[103][104]

A 2015 meta-analysis and 2017 advisory from the American Heart Association indicated that palm oil is among foods supplying dietary saturated fat which increases blood levels of LDL cholesterol and increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, leading to recommendations for reduced use or elimination of dietary palm oil in favor of consuming unhydrogenated vegetable oils.[105][106]

Palmitic acid

Excessive intake of palmitic acid, which makes up 44% of palm oil, increases blood levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and total cholesterol, and so increases risk of cardiovascular diseases.[103][104][107] Other reviews, the World Health Organization, and the US National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute have encouraged consumers to limit the consumption of palm oil, palmitic acid and foods high in saturated fat.[99][103][107][108]

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