This post was originally published on August 26, 2015 and updated on February 5, 2020.
Palm oil and palm kernel oil are both sustainable tropical oils which come from the fruit of the oil palm trees grown in eco-friendly Malaysia. These versatile oils, however, have very different chemical compositions and physical characteristics. Palm oil is made by simply steaming and pressing the fleshy part of the fruit. Palm oil has a heart-healthy 50/50 balance of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. Palm kernel oil is extracted from the fruit’s seed. It contains about 85 percent saturated fatty acids and is thought to raise cholesterol. Palm oil is often used for edible purposes while palm kernel oil is mainly used for non-edible purposes such as making soaps, cosmetics and detergents.
The environmentally friendly oil palm tree
Malaysia’s oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis, is the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world. These trees produce bountiful supplies of fresh fruit bunches throughout the year. These bunches weigh between 20 and 50 pounds, and contain up to 3,000 orange-red fruitlets. Plantation workers, many of whom are family farmers, harvest the fruit by hand.
Palm oil is a healthy oil used in foods
Palm oil is sometimes called palm fruit oil because it comes from the fruit’s flesh. It’s pressed, similar to how olive oil is made. Many food manufacturers looking to remove trans fats from their products are turning to Malaysian sustainable palm oil because it is naturally trans fat free. It’s also semi-solid at room temperature, giving it the same desirable characteristics as partially hydrogenated oils, but without the health risks. Rich in nutrients such as beta carotene and vitamin E tocotrienols, palm oil can be used as an ingredient in ice cream, cookies, crackers and cake mixes. Non-GMO Malaysian sustainable palm oil can already be found in many better-for-you products such as Smart Balance spreads, Luna bars and Nutella.
Palm kernel oil is often used in cosmetics, home and personal care products
Palm kernel oil, extracted from the fruit’s seed, has more saturated fat than palm oil making it more solid and ideal for use in soaps, detergents and cosmetics. Palm kernel oil is similar to coconut oil in terms of chemical composition, physical characteristics and uses.
Most of the United States sustainable palm oil is sourced from environmentally progressive Malaysia. More than 50 percent of the country’s land is set aside as permanent forest cover. The Malaysian palm oil industry has a long record of caring for its environment and its people. It has even created organizations to improve the lives of the farmers who tend the oil palm plantations.
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