What is Palm Oil?
Palm oil trees are a single stem tree, which can grow to over 60 feet tall, with huge fern like leaves that can be as large as 16 feet in length. This tree produces tightly packed clusters of small flowers, each made up of three petals. The fresh fruit is grown in bunches, and are similar in size to a plum, reddish in colour. Each small fruit is made up of a fleshy outer layer, which is called the pericarp, and a single palm kernel seed in it’s centre. Both the seeds and the pericarp are rich in oil, and once extracted are processed to produce two main products; crude palm oil and palm kernel oil bunches.
Palm kernel oil is widely processed into products such as shampoos and liquid
detergents, whilst crude palm oil is transformed into a variety of different products, including biodiesel, refined palm oil for frying, and for use in confectionary, baking and spreads.
Where is Palm Oil Grown?
It is helpful to have an understanding of the actual Palm oil plant. Palm oil is the oil extracted from the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), originally native to western Africa. With similarities to cocoa, the oil palm grows predominantly within a 5-10 degree belt from the Equator, with Indonesia and Malaysia being the largest growers of this tree.
Palm Oil trees generally give their first harvest within 4 years of being planted and continue to do so for up to 30 years, by which time they are too tall to harvest easily, as lifting the heavy bunches of fruit with a metal pole from the top of a tree spanning up to 60 feet is difficult!
The bundles of fruit are large and are found in between the branches, which when being harvested, needs the harvester at times to cut away the branches to dislodge the fruit and pull it to the ground. It is hard, physical work, but there is no easy mechanical alternative, so manual labour is the only option.
These bundles of fruit, often weighing up to 30kg, are placed on huge carts; which once filled are taken to the processing plants for the next part of the process. It is really important the fruits arrive at the processing plants within 24 hours of being harvested, as fatty acids are released into the bruised flesh of the fruits, and these fatty acids are detrimental to the quality and overall yield of the oil during processing.
Palm oil fruits are extremely hard, and need to be softened by being placed in huge steamers for an hour to soften up the flesh, making it pliable and oily, separating the kernel nut from the body of the fleshy shell. The oil is then extracted from the orange flesh of the fruit to make palm oil, and the kernel is crushed to extract the palm kernel oil, and the residual is palm kernel expeller; a product used for animal feeds.