The Story of Palm

From the tombs of Ancient Egypt to the fish fryers of modern Britain, palm oil has had a rich and exotic history.

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What is palm?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the mesocarp (reddish pulp) of the fruit of the oil palm tree. The Latin name for palm is Elaeis Guineensis and it is primarily grown in Malaysia and Indonesia but also in a 10° band either side of the Equator.

Palm oil is naturally reddish in colour due to the high beta-carotene content. It should not be confused with palm kernel oil which comes from the kernel of the same fruit. The difference between the two is that the colour of raw palm kernel oil lacks carotenoids and therefore is not red, plus it is much higher in saturated fat.

Palm usage

The human use of oil palms is believed to date back as far as 5,000 years. In the late 1800s, archaeologists discovered a substance in a tomb at Abydos that they concluded was originally palm oil which dated back to 3,000 BC. It is thought that Arab traders had brought the oil to Egypt. Due to the quite large quantity of oil that was discovered it is thought that the oil was likely used for dietary purposes.

There are several written records of the culinary use of a palm oil from the documents of European travellers to West Africa that date from the middle of the fifteenth century onwards.

The British Industrial Revolution created a distinct requirement for palm oil for candle making and as a lubricant for machinery. As a result, West African farmers began a modest export trade supplying palm oil at the beginning of the early 19th century.

From the 1900’s onwards, European-run plantations were established in Central Africa and Southeast Asia, and the world trade in palm oil continued to grow slowly, reaching a level of 250,000 tonnes (metric tons) per annum by 1930.

After World War II, further improvements in palm oil refining technology and transport methods made it possible to expand the use of palm oil in Western food products which had restricted palm use until that time.

A rapid expansion of the palm oil export trade followed from the 1960’s onwards and Malaysia emerged as the world’s largest producer. Early in the 21st Century Indonesia surpassed Malaysia as the world’s largest palm producer.