This post was originally published on May 21, 2017 and updated on January 14, 2020.
Your favorite packaged food products may contain Malaysian certified sustainable palm oil. Many American food manufacturers have stopped using trans fat-laden partially hydrogenated oils in their products – the factory-created fat known to increase heart disease, diabetes and stroke risk – and have switched to this natural, tropical oil. Read labels, and you’ll spot palm oil in everything from your kids’ favorite cookies to your premium nutrition bar. Here’s how this better-for-you ingredient journeys from the tropics to your table.
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree
Malaysia is one of the world’s greenest countries. More than half of the nation is covered by a thick, dense forest. Amid these pristine, protected regions are eco-friendly plantations filled with oil palm trees. These trees produce bunches of oil-rich fruit year round. Malaysian oil palm plantations are incredibly high yielding. One acre of oil palm produces 11 times more oil than an acre of soybean, 10 times more than sunflower and 7 times more than canola. Best of all, because oil palm trees don’t need to be cleared and replanted annually they cause significantly less environmental impact than some other crops.
Family farmers tend many of Malaysia’s oil palm plantations
In Malaysia, more than 40 percent of the oil palm-planted land is tended by family farmers, called smallholders. These workers care for the trees and hand pick the fruit bunches which can weigh up 50 pounds each. Local organizations provide assistance to the smallholders, such as helping them gain a fair price for their product and earn in-demand MSPO sustainability certification. Many international experts have credited oil palm plantations and these organizations with reducing poverty in Malaysia.
Gentle processing produces the treasured oil
The fresh fruit bunches are delivered to the mill within 24 hours of picking. After going through a quality-sorting process, the bunches are carefully softened by steam. They are then placed in a rotating drum to isolate the individual fruitlets. Each bunch may contain up to 3000 individual fruitlets. In a process similar to olive oil production, the oil-rich fruitlets are pressed to extract the oil. The resulting crude oil, which is an intense orange color due to its abundant and nutritious carotenoid content, is then further purified to deliver the taste, texture and versatility that American manufacturers treasure.
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