Palm oil: the world’s leading vegetable oil source

Oil palm, the world’s most widely grown fruit crop and the number one vegetable oil crop, is a tropical palm tree that can grow up to 24 meters (or 79 feet) in height in nature, but rarely more than 14 meters (or 46 feet)  tall under cultivation. Originally cultivated in northern Africa, the oil palm was introduced in the 1900s to Indonesia and Malaysia, which are today the world’s top two palm producers. Together these nations supply about 80 percent of the world’s total palm oil.

Tops of palm trees, mountains in background.The palm fruit is reddish, about the size of a large plum, and grows in bunches that weigh 10 to 40 kilograms each. The fruit takes about five to six months to develop from pollination to maturity. Within each fruit is a single seed, the palm kernel, which is surrounded by an oily pulp. Both the pulp and the kernel yield oil when crushed.

Uses of palm oil

As an edible vegetable oil, palm oil is used mainly for food applications such as cooking oil and as an alternative for margarine, shortening, vanaspati/ghee, frying fat, and cocoa butter. Palm oil is also used in non-food items, such as soap and cosmetics. Palm kernel oil is used for both food and non-food purposes but primarily as a specialty fat used in applications such as confectionary and coating fats. Both palm oil and palm kernel oil also are becoming more widely used as a source for biofuels, which is an alternative to petroleum-based fuels derived from natural oils such as palm oil and soybean oil.

Palm oil is consumed in more than 130 countries worldwide but is most widely used in the Asia-Pacific region.