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Palm oil as an ingredient

Bottles of oil in a production plant

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 crystallised 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, rich in palmitic fatty acid, is particularly advantageous for food products, especially cooking oil and processed oils and fats. Palm kernel oil, on the other hand, 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 kernel oil to animal tallow for its ease of application and low price.

However, exciting alternatives to palm oil are emerging, and we have highlighted two key examples below:

For Food Production: Meet PALM-ALT, a game-changing palm oil substitute from Queen Margaret University (QMU) in Edinburgh. Created by Dr. Julien Lonchamp and Catriona Liddle, this new ingredient aims to revolutionise the bakery industry while addressing environmental issues linked to palm oil cultivation. Read more in this BBC article and at QMU Press.

For Cosmetics and Home Care: Palmless, developed by MIT alumni at C16 Biosciences in New York and backed by Microsoft founder Bill Gates, offers an eco-friendly substitute to palm kernel oil. The innovation relies on fermentation and naturally occurring microorganisms. Explore more in this BBC article and at MIT News.

In the next Step, we’ll go into detail about palm oil plantations and the rapid expansion to meet consumer demands.

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Engaging with Controversies in the Food System: Palm Oil

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