|Picture by Marco Shmidt|
From the west coast of Africa through Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and to Zaire, the tropical belt of the continent is home to Elaeis guineensis, the oil palm. In recent times, however, this versatile crop, has expanded its reach to include South East Asian countries, and artisinal products are now making their way to American tables by way of specialty food stores.
Human use of palm oil has a long and storied history; from residue in the Egyptian Pyramids to the great gears and machines of the Industrial Revolution. In its traditional form, unrefined red palm oil is a popular cooking oil, essential to many types of West African cuisine. However, the palm oil most of us use is known as RBDPO (refined bleached deodorized palm oil). It dominates the world market for natural oils, even surpassing soybean oil, and can be found in a wide range of personal care and beauty products, bio-diesel, and processed foods. A derivative of palm oil (palmitic acid) was also 1/2 of the infamous substance known as Napalm.
|Ripe palm fruits with white kernels. Image from RPSO|
Traditional palm oil production is highly labor intensive and involves hand picking, sorting, washing, steaming, and pounding of the fruits. The kernel (nut) is separated out and used to produce palm kernel oil. Next, the mashed palm fruit and fiber is squeezed in screw presses which extract the oil from the fibrous mass. The oil is then heated at a low temperature (105 Fahrenheit) to remove water and the mixture is allowed to sit. As the oil settles, impurities fall to the bottom of the storage vessel allowing the pure oil to be drawn off through a gravity filtering system.
The finished product is a deep red color due to the abundant carotene content which includes vitamin A, leutein, and beta carotene. Palm oil is also high in tocopherols and tocotrienols of vitamin E. Additionally, palm oil contains CoQ10, and numerous other phytosterols and glycolipids. These substances are considered to be the likely cause of palm oils cardio protective effects (as seen in this rat study).
Unusual among plant oils, excepting for coconut and palm kernel oils, palm oil is highly saturated and forms a semi-solid at room temperature. The specific fatty acid composition includes: glyceryl laurate (0.1%, saturated), myristate (1%, saturated), palmitate (44%, saturated), stearate (5%, saturated), oleate (39%, monounsaturated), linoleate (10%, polyunsaturated), and linolenate (0.3%, polyunsaturated).
|Palm oil farmers in Thailand are being taught sustainable practices.|
Some concerns, both social and environmental have been directed at palm oil producers. Like many industries (you can read about the shocking history of bananas here), palm oil producers have been accused of human-rights violations ranging from unfair wages to outright murder. However, there are responsible producers and fair-trade products that ensure that workers rights are being supported.
Environmental groups have also pinned the destruction of tropical rain forests on palm oil production. While large scale plantations have leveled habitat that supported populations of orangutan and Sumatran tiger, small scale family farms also produce palm oil products. Unlike large commercial plantations, these operations often exist in harmony with local flora and fauna.
|Freshly harvested palm fruit.|
In searching for red palm oil products, I found one in particular that seemed to exclusively support small scale family farms. This company, Jungle Products, sells organic extra virgin red palm oil that utilizes only the variety of palm known as "dura". Dura is the variety of oil palm traditionally used due to its superior taste and nutritional qualities, but a more commercially viable hybrid, "tenera", has been promoted in recent years by the World Bank and IMF. While many company's have "mission statements", Jungle Products is unusual in that they actually live up to their promise to "sell products of the highest possible integrity, vitality, and value."
If you're interested in trying Jungle Products Organic Extra Virgin Red Palm Oil, check your local specialty store, or order it by mail through Amazon.com.
If you already have some on hand, here are a few recipes that you might like to try...
RPO Fried Eggs