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What is palm oil and why is it so useful?

Palm oil is extracted from the palm fruit, which grows on the African oil palm tree (Elaeis guineensis).

African oil palm tree with ripening fruits

©T.K. Naliaka [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Palm oil (and palm kernel oil) are mostly used in processed foods. In fact, according to Rainforest Action Network, palm oil is found in about half of packaged products in our grocery stores. About 75% of all the palm oil produced goes into food products such as chocolate, biscuits and potato crisps (for example, Doritos which were the focus of a boycott a few years back because of their use of palm oil), margarine, bread, pizza dough and instant noodles. The remaining 25% is used in shampoo, soaps and lipstick, and, literally, hundreds of other domestic and packaged products. More controversially, some palm oil is used as biofuel in vehicles. The EU’s Renewable Energy Directive (RED), adopted in 2009, included a 10% target for the share of transport fuels coming from biofuels by 2020 and energy companies were encouraged to switch in order to reduce the impacts on the climate system of burning pure fossil fuels. This part of the RED is now being phased out, much to the irritation of palm oil exporters from South East Asia, who fear a drop in the price of palm oil as a result of this move.

So is it clear from this wide variety of applications, that palm oil is an incredibly versatile product. In fact, it has become the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet. But what’s so great about palm oil?

Palm oil production

Firstly, let’s look at its production - the way it’s farmed. It’s perennial and evergreen, producing fruit all year round. It can grow in relatively poor quality soils and is less demanding with respect to soil preparation than other crops. Palm oil has an extremely high yield compared to comparable oil crops. It easily surpasses the yields of other vegetable oils such as soya, canola, olive, sunflower and rapeseed several times over. Average yields of palm oil are 3.6 -3.8 tonnes per hectare (a hectare is roughly the size of an international level sports pitch), against 0.3-0.5 tonnes per hectare for soya and 0.8 tonnes of oil per hectare for oil seed rape. With 18.7 million hectares of planted industrial-scale oil palm in 2017, it is the 3rd largest oil crop in terms of planted area behind soy and rapeseed. Because of its high yields, oil palm produces about 35% of all vegetable oil on less than 10% of the land allocated to oil crops.

Bar chart to show top end of average yield in tonnes per hectare, palm oil 3.7, soybean 0.4, rapeseed 0.8, sunflower 0.7

As well as being much higher yielding than its closest competitor crops, palm oil also has lower production costs, relative to these potential substitutes. It consumes considerably less energy in production and uses less land than its competitors – with sunflower requiring 4 times more land to produce the same amount of oil. This makes it even more attractive to farmers. It is also more efficient in terms of inputs: palm oil requires an average of 47 kg of fertiliser and 2k of pesticide per tonne of oil produced, whereas soya requires 315kg of fertiliser and 29kg of pesticide, and oil seed rape requires an average of 99kg of fertiliser and 11kg of pesticide per tonne of oil produced.

Bar chart to show amount of fertiliser per tonne of oil produced in kg. Palm oil 47, Soybean 315, Oil Seed Rape 99

Bar chart to show amount of pesticide per tonne of oil produced in kg. Palm oil 2, Soybean 29, Oil Seed Rape 11

It is something of a wonder crop, a fact that led Inger Andersen, IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Director General, to comment,

When you consider the disastrous impacts of palm oil on biodiversity from a global perspective, there are no simple solutions… [i]f we ban or boycott it, other, more land-hungry oils will likely take its place.

Palm oil as an ingredient

Why has palm oil become so ubiquitous as an ingredient in foods and other domestic products? It has a number of extremely useful properties:

  • The oil has a high melting point so that it is semi-solid at room temperature.
  • Both the palm oil and palm kernel oil are lower in saturated fat than butter and because of its specific fatty acid composition, which includes 50% saturated and 50% unsaturated fatty acids, palm oil can be readily and inexpensively fractionated. In other words, it can be partially crystallized and separated into a high melting point fraction (stearin) and a low melting point fraction (olein), which makes it useful for a wide range of applications.
  • It has a neutral odour and taste.
  • It gives products a creamy, smooth texture. This property is especially important for confectionery products like Nutella.
  • Substituting other vegetable fats for palm oil avoids the use of the hydrogenation process, which creates unhealthy trans fats in products.
  • Finally, palm oil acts as a natural preservative in processed foods.

Palm oil is high in palmitic fatty acid, which is very useful for food products, particularly cooking oil and processed oils and fats. For its part, palm kernel oil is high in lauric fatty acids and is used mostly to provide the foaming agent in soap, shampoo, and detergents for industrial purposes, as well as in some processed foods. Although there are commercially available alternatives to these uses, they tend to be uneconomical given the volumes of palm oil being used for food and industrial purposes, which brings its price down. Cosmetics manufacturers also prefer palm oil to animal tallow for its ease of application and low price.

You can read more in ‘Palm oil ‘disastrous’ for wildlife but here to stay, experts warn’ and ‘How the world got hooked on palm oil’ Both on the UK Guardian news website.

The IUCN report referred to in the first news article is: Meijaard, E., Garcia-Ulloa, J., Sheil, D., Wich, S.A., Carlson, K.M., Juffe-Bignoli, D., and Brooks, T.M. (eds.) (2018). Oil palm and biodiversity. A situation analysis by the IUCN Oil Palm Task Force. IUCN Oil Palm Task Force Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

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