You may have seen this food item listed on myriad processed foods as “palm kernel oil”—that stuff that makes a bag of microwaved popcorn so delicious, and is sure to also cause inflammation in the body, according to health reports.
You may also have seen red palm oil in jars in the supermarket and wondered, what’s the deal with this? Well, we have two different foods on our hands here.
Type of food: Oil
Name: Red Palm Oil (Elaeis Guineensis)
Origins: Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree. They are originally from West Africa, but can grow well wherever it’s hot and rainy. You can find them throughout Africa, along with Southeast Asia and South America. Currently, Indonesia and Malaysia are big producers of palm oil. The trees can produce fruit for up to an admirable 25-30 years.
Why/How Did We Start Eating it: Red palm oil (also often called palm fruit oil) is a common ingredient in tropical Africa, southeast Asia and Brazil. Traditionally, the oil is extracted by separating fruits from the tree and cooking them in boiling water. The fruits are then transferred to a wooden mortar, where they are pounded. All of this then goes back into the pot, is covered with water and simmered. The red palm oil rises to the surface, and then is scooped out.
Palm kernel oil, on the other hand, is a different story altogether. It’s off-white in color and higher in saturated fat. “Palm kernel oil is pressed from the seed, whereas red palm oil is pressed from the outer fruit flesh. I am guessing, however, that the kernel oil is capable of being more highly processed because it is capable of handling higher heat. And of course you don’t have the pigment issue,” said Lisa Howard, author of the Big Book of Healthy Cooking Oils. She’s talking about the fact that red palm oil is, well, red.
How it’s Used: Red palm oil (depending upon the particular palm oil) is often equal parts a monounsaturated and saturated fat, and somewhat soft at room temperature. It can’t handle the same high heat as palm kernel oil, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good cooking oil. Howard says palm kernel oil is “a favorite ingredient in commercially processed foods that would otherwise use butter”—think movie popcorn and, notoriously, Girl Scout Cookies. It also ends up in cosmetics, soaps, ice cream and myriad other products.
Howard features red palm oil in her book in a few recipes, including a Brazilian Shrimp, Coconut, and Cashews in Red Palm Oil, an African-style Cashew Chicken in Red Palm Oil, and a Hungarian-inspired Mushroom, Beef and Tomato Soup. “That’s pretty much my version of goulash.”
According to Yemisi Awosan, founder and CEO of the West African food company Egunsi Foods, it’s a staple in stews such as his company’s namesake, a melon seed stew, as well as in Nigerian vegetable stew and ofada, a spicy green pepper sauce. He calls it the “olive oil of Africa,” equating its common household use prior to the 1960s, to olive oil’s widespread use in Mediterranean countries. (Nowadays, he says vegetable and canola oil is more common in many African households.)
Unsustainable harvesting of this particular ingredient to support the growth of processed food—and the use of palm oil as a refined product—has resulted in deforestation along with species and habitat endangerment, most notably, orangutans. When a monoculture like this is created in a country, it negatively impacts the local community, farmers, and people, resulting in a less diverse food supply. Many manufacturers and countries have been making strides toward sustainable sourcing and practices, respectively, including Malaysia.
“A lot of times palm oil will not show up on a food’s ingredients list because there are hundreds of different names and derivatives that it can fall under, “ says Rebecca Lee, R.N. who operates the site Remedies for Me. If you are really curious about the ways in which palm oil shows up in products, the Philadelphia Zoo has created a list of common names for palm oil and its derivatives, including cetyl palmitate, octyl palmitate, palmitic acid, sodium palmate and more.
Palm oil seems to be trying to aiming for a bit an image makeover. The Malaysian Palm Oil Council runs a website that seeks to explain the benefits of sustainable palm oil to consumers. The U.S. sources about 80 percent of its palm oil from Malaysia since they know about the country’s strict environmental practices. Malaysia has had a zero-burn policy for almost 20 years, and it has mandated protection of at least 50 percent of its rainforest cover.
How it’s Purchased: You’re not likely to find palm kernel oil for sale in the grocery store for home use. Red palm oil is beginning to become more available and is usually sold in jars, like coconut oil.
If you are looking for something sourced sustainably, look for the acronym CSPO (Certified Sustainable Palm Oil), says Jeremy Wolf, an N.D. (naturopath) and the lead wellness advisor for LuckyVitamin.com. Lucky Vitamin, for example, sells organic Nutiva red palm oil. In order for companies to make CSPO claims about their products, Wolf says they must be members of a certification standards body, such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), a nonprofit organization that was founded 2004.
When in doubt, if these issues concern you, read the labels. “I would say the answer is for consumers to learn about oils and gain an understanding of the overall issues, then vote with their grocery dollars and avoid purchasing those almost nonperishable goods made with ingredients that harm farmers across the globe,” says Howard.
Sensory Experience: It’s deep red in color. Howard calls it “earthy, flavorful and rich.”
Nutrition and Other Benefits: Awosan says, “Growing up, I remember my mum using it as a cough suppressant for us, or an anti-inflammatory when you had welts from an infection on your body.”
Red palm oil most noticeably contains vitamin A. “Red palm fruit oil also contains Vitamin E, mixed Carotenoids, and antioxidants that may offer added nutritional health benefits over coconut oil. The alpha and beta carotenoids contained in this fruit are actually in part responsible for giving this fruit its red coloring similar to that of carrots and tomatoes,” says Wolf.
Trivia: Red palm oil can stain your cooking implements. Howard found this out the hard way while testing recipes, and uses only black or stainless steel cooking tools and vessels to avoid staining her wooden spoons.
Carrie Havranek is a recovering music critic and part-time baker who writes about food, farmers’ markets, chefs and restaurants—and sometimes travel—from her home in Easton, Pennsylvania. You may have seen her work elsewhere in Edible Philly, the Kitchn, or Frommer’s.