Palm Oil — What is it used for?

Palm oil is a common ingredient used in a range of products. It is the most consumed vegetable oil on the planet.

The fruit of the oil palm tree grows in tropical climates and it is mainly found in Malaysia and Indonesia. 85% currently comes from here but new plantations are springing up in Africa and Latin America.

The food industry is responsible for 72% world wide usage of palm oil. Cosmetics and cleaning products are responsible for a further 18% usage whilst 10% globally is used for biofuels and animal feed.

In food, it's the fat ingredient in things like biscuits and margarine. In soap and cosmetics, it’s used as a fat to increase the thickness or viscosity of a product and it helps skin to retain moisture.

Palm oil and its derivatives is often masked under 200 different names in ingredients lists. More obviously it may be listed as palm kernel, palmitic acid or even simply as vegetable oil. As of 2014, in the EU, food ingredient lists must list which type of vegetable oil they contain.

Why is palm oil used?

Palm oil is used because it’s economical to grow. The whole of the palm fruit is used, both the flesh and the stone, to make oil, so it’s about 10 times as productive as a soya bean or rapeseed. Plus, it is a super efficient crop which means it’s something like nine times more productive per hectare than the next most productive oil.

Also, it does not require as many fertilisers and pesticides.

Palm oil is also used because it is semi solid at room temperature. Other vegetable oils have to be partially hydrogenated to make them more solid but in food process creates trans fats or trans fatty acids, which raise cholesterol.

Palm oil driving deforestation

A global average of 8kg of palm oil is consumed by each individual in a year. In order to produce palm oil on such a massive scale, it is said that the equivalent of 300 football fields of rainforests is cleared every hour.

Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation of the world’s most bio-diverse forests. Palm oil production at an uncontrollable rate is wiping out the habitat of already endangered species such as Orangutan, pygmy elephants and Sumatran rhino.

The continued deforestation is also contributing millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere leading to climate change. Issues of child labour and exploitation of workers are also prevalent. These reasons are sufficient enough for us to reconsider our actions and step up to address this serious global issue.

What are the beneficial properties of palm oil?

  • Since palm oil has a high melting point of 35oC, it is a semi-solid at room temperature.
  • Palm oil is considered to be healthier than other vegetable oils since it doesn’t contain Trans Fatty Acids (TFA). This is because it is semi solid at room temperature. Other vegetable oils have to be partially hydrogenated to make them more solid but in food process creates trans fats or trans fatty acids, which raise cholesterol.  
  • Palm oil is resistant to oxidation therefore it gives a longer shelf life to bakery products. Oil oxidation is a chemical reaction involving oxygen that degrades the quality of oil. Oxidation produces rancidity in the oil, giving it an off flavour and smell. 
  • Palm oil is smooth and creamy in texture making it the perfect ingredient for chocolates and spread    
  • Unlike other vegetable oils, palm oil is odourless and colourless, making it the perfect ingredient for edible as well as non-edible products such as lipsticks
  • It has a natural preservative effect allowing the products to retain their flavours and structure for a longer period of time     
  • Palm oil helps to increase the viscosity of a product which in turn helps the skin to retain moisture    
  • It is stable at high temperature so it helps to give fried products a crispy and crunchy texture. 

Palm oil in food

Biscuits/Cookies - Palm oil helps to ‘shorten’ the dough which results in a crumbly and melt-in-the-mouth texture. It helps to produce cookies that are softer in texture and more compact. Cookies and biscuits made with palm oil are considered to be healthier than other cookies/biscuits produced with other vegetable oils because it is free from Trans Fatty Acids (TFA).

Bread - Since palm oil is solid at room temperature and a cheap ingredient, it is commonly used for baking. Palm oil improves the loaf volume and helps to keep the bread soft.

Breakfast bar - Palm oil keeps breakfast bars from melting during transport and is a healthier alternative to hydrogenated oils.

Butter/Margarine -  Palm oil prevents butter and margarine from oxidation. Oil oxidation is a chemical reaction involving oxygen that degrades the quality of oil contributing to off flavour and smell. It provides consistency, texture ad structure. It is solid at room temperature and has no trans fats. 

Cake - Since palm oil has high oxidative stability it improves the shelf life of cake. It also helps to improve the texture of the cake by making them softer and airier and increases the moistness and volume of the cake. 

Cereal - Palm oil helps to keep the cereal crunchy and fresh.

Chocolate/Chocolate spread - Palm oil gives a smooth and shiny appearance to chocolate and chocolate spread. Also, it helps to stop it melting as easily in warmer temperatures.

Cracker - Palm oil is used to give crackers a creamy texture and flavour. 

Crisps - Since palm oil is cheaper to produce compared to other vegetable oils, potato chips/crisps are fried in it and palm oil helps to make them more crispy.

Doughnut - Palm oil is used to fry doughnuts.

Dried nuts - Palm oil is used to roast nuts because it is the cheapest vegetable oil.

Dry/canned soup - Palm oil functions as a natural preservative in processed meals.

Fast food - Palm oil enhances the taste of processed food. It is also used for frying because it has a high melting point. It also leads to fast food being less greasy. 

Frozen meal - Palm oil is added to frozen meals to prevent them from sticking and it functions as a natural preservative in processed meals.

Frozen waffle and pancake - Palm oil is used as it is cheaper than other vegetable oils. 

Gravy granules - Palm oil gives a thick consistency to the gravy when hot water is added to the granules. 

Ice cream - Palm oil increases the melting point for ice cream. It also provides a suitable replacement for dairy fats as they help give ice cream a thicker consistency wile keeping it smooth and creamy. 

Infant formula - Palm oil is used in infant formula to replicate a fatty acid that is present in human breast milk. It is the primary fat present in instant formula. It is also used to make it creamy in texture.  

Instant noodles - The average pack of instant noodles contains 20% palm oil. The instant noodles are fried in palm oil. 

Microwave popcorn - Palm oil gives a buttery taste to microwave popcorn and helps the kernels to pop. 

Non-dairy creamer - Palm oil aids in giving non-dairy creamer, a creamy flavour and texture.

Peanut butter - Palm oil keeps the nut oil from separating from the solid part of the nut. Adding the palm oil results in peanut butter that does not require to be stirred and spreads more evenly. It is also used to top up the nut content of peanut butter. 

Dog food/cat food - Palm oil is used as fillers as it it both edible and heat resistant, giving it a longer shelf life. Since pet food is heavily processed, palm oil acts as a natural preservative to it. 

Pizza base - Palm oil prevents the dough from sticking and helps to enhance the texture. It also adds a crispiness of the pizza base. 

Salad dressing - Palm oil is a very stable oil due to its high content of vitamin E, a natural anti-oxidant.

Stock cube - Palm oil is added to stock cubes because of its health benefits due to nutrients like carotenoids and vitamin E. 

Vegetable shortening - Palm oil is used in producing vegetable shortening because it is solid at room temperature. It also gives a thick texture that makes shortening good for cooking and baking. It also allows shortening  to be very shelf-stable.

Vitamins -  Superior nutrient profile which makes it useful in vitamins. 

Whipping cream - Palm oil is used in whipping cream because of its superior stability and it has adequate stand-up properties in summer weather.

Palm oil in non-food

Biofuel - Palm oil is used as a more sustainable alternative to coal.

Candle -  Palm wax burns cleaner which means that it does not give off lots of soot/smoke into the air. Palm wax has a very hard texture therefore candles can withstand summer heat without bending and melting. Palm wax takes colours easily and holds fragrance well. 

Cleaning products - Palm oil is refined to create soaps, washing powder and other cleaning products. Also, it is used to create synthetic ingredients.  

Deodorant - Palm oil makes deodorants more effective and helps the fragrance to last longer. 

Detergent - Palm oil provides the foaming agent for detergents.

Lipstick - Palm oil makes the application smoother. It does not melt at high temperatures and holds colour well. 

Shampoo - Palm oil provides the foaming agent in shampoo. It is efficient in removing dirt and oil from hair.

Conditioner - Palm oil helps to restore the natural oils stripped away from shampoo.

Skin moisturiser - Due to its nutrient-dense profile, palm oil is beneficial for skin health. It gives the moisturiser anti-aging properties as well as moisture for softer, more supple skin. 

Shaving cream - Palm oil helps to create a thick, stable lather that enfolds follicles and holds them upright.

Soap - It helps to make soap more bubbly by providing the foaming agent. which helps to remove dirt and oil.

Sunscreens -  The vitamin E in palm oil protects against UV radiation. Other palm oil derivatives may also be used in sunscreens.

Toothpaste - Palm oil serves as a wetting agent. Palm oil derived ingredients are used as a sweetening and foaming agent. 
 

Free Issue

Sign up now to our email newsletter for a free digital copy of Ethical Consumer magazine.

Sign up now for our email newsletter