The socioeconomic benefits of palm oil are difficult for both the producers and consumers to ignore. The crop spans a broad spectrum of food and non-food applications throughout the value chain. It is always in demand due to its extensive functionality and uniqueness.
How versatile or efficient can palm oil be? To answer that, let’s find out what are the products containing this seemingly ubiquitous ingredient.
First of all, the cholesterol-free palm oil accounts for about 35% of the world’s vegetable oil market. What does it tell you? Palm oil is the most popular cooking oil on earth. It is a type of fruit oil produced from the pulp of the fruit of the oil palm tree (Elaeis Guineensis). Each palm fruit contains about 30 - 35% oil. Given palm oil is bland by nature, it does not affect the finished product aroma, making it excellent for cooking and frying. Furthermore, palm oil is trans-fat-free and does not need be hydrogenated to produce hard fats of different characteristics for different uses. It boasts good oxidative stability for longer shelf life too.
Industrial frying fats
Palm oil’s edible usage goes beyond our home kitchen per se. It is widely used for frying in food industry. Its specific formulations are suited for instant noodle frying, deep frying (eg. chips of crispy nature) and tempura frying, for instance. Being stable at high cooking temperatures, palm oil is very suitable for use in products with a long shelf life. Better still, products containing palm oil maintain their flavours and structure especially their crispiness or crunchiness. As mentioned earlier, given its neutral taste and smell, palm oil can be used in many different foods without affecting their taste or smell.
Margarines and spreads
Palm oil is hidden in many everyday foods, including margarines and spreads, where it is often listed in the ingredients as “vegetable oil”. Palm oil may not be the key ingredient, but without it, you are unlikely to taste the smooth and creamy texture, not to mention the desired product stability. Generally, margarines and spreads are made with a combination of plant-based oils, including sunflower, canola, olive and palm oil. Due to commercial sensitivity, there is no single answer to how much the palm oil content is, which may vary from 5 to 18%. Unilever’s Bertolli and Flora, Goodman Fielder’s MeadowLea, Logicol, Olivani, Gold’n Canola, Olive Grove and Crisco, and Fonterra’s Anchor and Country Soft are among the household brands containing this crucial ingredient.
Palm oil in chocolates comes in the form of cocoa butter alternatives categorised into Cocoa Butter Equivalent (compatible with cocoa butter), Cocoa Butter Replacer (partially compatible with cocoa butter), and Cocoa Butter Substitute (not compatible with cocoa butter but can be mixed at a low percentage). Again, palm oil helps improve the finished product's fat composition profile and stability for consistency in texture while countering softness from other ingredients such as fruits, nuts and milk. To your naked eye, palm oil gives chocolates a smooth shiny appearance, together with a creamy texture in the mouth.
Because palm oil is solid at room temperature, it's commonly used in commercial baking. According to a survey by the Rainforest Foundation in 2017, Tesco, Asda and Morrisons all used palm in their bakeries. Scientist Oliver Buddrick, who is also a master pastry chef, points out that palm oil is nature's richest source of vitamin E tocotrienols and his research shows that using red palm oil can increase bread's vitamin E content nearly ten-fold as compared to that of other vegetable oils.
Biscuits or cookies
Typically, biscuits or cookies are made of flour, fat (usually margarine, shortening or butter), sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), sugar, salt, milk and other optional ingredients such as fruit extracts, nuts, chocolate chips or drops, eggs and flavour enhancers. Fats are important ingredients in biscuits or cookies because they give structure, improved eating quality and flavour to the product. Shortening (fat that is solid at room temperature) helps ‘shorten’ the dough to produce a “melt-in-the-mouth” and crumbly texture. Bread, cakes, pastries, icing, cream and sweets are other foods that generally contain palm-based shortening.
Palm kernel fats are widely used in palm-based or non-dairy ice cream and ice cream coatings. Ice cream made from palm oil is lower in saturated fat than dairy ice cream. The advantages of using palm-based ice cream include its sharp melting point properties at body temperature, and it’s suitable for people with lactose intolerance, and more economical than milk with good keeping quality. In an effort to support the World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation that only 10% of calories in our diet should come from saturated fats, Nestle clarifies that processed foods made using palm oil including its ice cream, when eaten as part of a healthy diet, typically makes only a small contribution to our daily intake of saturated fats and is not a health risk.
One of the key ingredients needed to make soap is fat. And vegetable oils produce soaps that are considered higher quality than animal fats. UK’s Stephenson Personal Care won much applause for being the first soap base supplier worldwide to use 100% Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certified sustainable palm and palm kernel oil in its production. According to the company, palm oil content can be as high as 50% depending on the blend. It is used to give the soap bar hardness and stability (to ensure the soap doesn’t soften and dissolve too quickly during use) and when combined with palm kernel, it gives the lathering effect while removing dirt and oil as well as moisturising.
In addition to soap, palm oil is part of the production formulation of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, cream, foundation and more. For shampoo, the natural ingredient helps remove oil and dirt while acting as a refatting agent to restore hair’s natural oils. Palm oil is used to produce sodium lauryl sulfate, an effective foaming agent found in shampoo and toothpaste, for example.
One of the key components of detergent is surfactant, the major building-block of all soaps, which is made primarily from palm kernel oil. Surfactant derived from palm fats or oils is an oleochemical capable of dislodging dirt and oils from clothing. And palm oil is an inexpensive and versatile vegetable oil used as a derivative for oleochemicals.
Palm oil is used in lipstick as it holds colour well, doesn’t melt at high temperatures, and has a smooth application and virtually no taste, according to World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The presence of this natural ingredient also makes lipstick easy to apply and remove.
Enough said, palm oil is more or less used everywhere. It is estimated that half of the packaged products sold at the supermarket contain this crucial ingredient. Love it or hate it, palm oil’s versatility and efficiency prevail.