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Palm Oil Uses & Consumer Markets

Among the commonly used vegetable oils and fats, palm oil is by far the most versatile. After refining, palm oil possesses all the characteristics required for many uses without hydrogenation. By fractionating palm oil, its uses are further increased.

Hydrogenation and interesterification increase its uses even further, especially in making specialised and sophisticated edible products. Its versatility makes it a suitable raw material for many applications both in edible and non-edible products.


There are several classes of foodstuffs made wholly or in large part from oils and fats. Some of the products include:-

    1. frying/cooking oils and fats
    2. shortening
    3. Vanaspati
    4. margarine and spreads
    5. imitation dairy products

(i) Frying/cooking oils and fats

More palm oil is used for frying and cooking than for any other purposes. Its uses range from salad and cooking oils by the housewife to industrial uses such as frying instant noodles, potato chips, doughnuts, etc. In many countries, traditional cooking provide a large market for liquid oil for domestic purposes. This oil may be used for salad dressing, for frying and for other purposes. Fats and oils used for cooking may be of the following kind:-

  • Liquid cooking oil
  • Cooking fat (margarine & shortening)
  • Vanaspanti

For liquid cooking oil, one of the important consumer requirements is that the oil must remain clear at relatively low temperatures. Palm olein, the liquid fraction of palm oil, is suitable as liquid cooking oil under tropical conditions. By blending with other liquid vegetable oils, palm olein is suitable in temperate countries. Blending not only improves the shelf life stability, it also achieves a well-balanced cooking oil in terms of fatty acids.

Shortening, margarine and vanaspati are also commonly used for cooking and pan frying.

A large amount of fat is used in large-scale industrial frying operations for the manufacture of doughnuts, instant noodles, crisps and chips and a wide variety of snack foods. The stability of the fat when used as deep-frying fat, is one of the most important requirements and for these operations, palm oil is highly suitable. It does not foam excessively, neither does it ocidise and polymerise as the more unsaturated oils, such as sunflower, rapeseed or soyabean oil. Hydrogenation of an oil to a solid fat gives good oxidative resistance but the mouthfeel of the product will depend on the melting point of the fat. A lower melting point has a better mouthfeel. Palm oil and palm olein comprise largely of saturated and monounsaturated fatty acids. They have very little tendency to form polymers. They have good oxidative stability and good flavors and are ideal for general frying shortenings and fats.

(ii) Shortenings.

Shortenings are characterised by having a fairly high melting point and solid fat content, except shortenings and together with their wide plastic range, are ideally suited to formulate these products. Palm oil in combination with palm stearin and/or hydrogenated palm oil can be used to produce shortenings of excellent quality and diverse applications, such as for making bread, cakes, pastries, cream and sweets.

A survey by deMann (1989) on USA and Canadian frying shortenings have indicated the high melting points and solid fat content of these shortenings. While the other liquid oils have to be hydrogenated to meet the requirement, palm oil itself fits into the profile in its natural form (Table1) and requires no further modification and chemical processing.

(iii) Vanaspati

Vanaspati is another product for which palm oil can be used to great extent. Palm oil, in combination with stearin or hydrogenated palm oil, is used in many countries for making vanaspati. Vanaspati or vegetable ghee is 100% vegetable fat. It is used in various countries of the world as a substitute for butter fat in cooking. Vanaspati when allowed to set up slowly, crystallises into a granular texture. This appearance is usually looked upon as a sign of purity and quality in vanaspati.

(iv) Margarine and Spreads

Margarine is a water in-oil emulsion similar to butter in texture and appearance. Various types of margarines are formulated according to their intended use, consistency and nutritional criteria.

Three main types of margarines which are formulated for different uses are:

(1) table margarine-tub/packet
(2) industrial or bakery margarine
(3) pastry margarine.

In all cases, various oils whether hydrogenated or interesterified can be used or blended together to achieve the desired attributes. In the case of table margarines, the consistency at temperatures of use is important. For packet margarines, the relevant temperature is 15°C - 20°C in hot climates. Tub margarines are expected to have spreadibility at refrigerated temperatures of 5°C - 10°C. Industrial margarines have their own physical properties and have to be evaluated by performance testing such as creaming and baking test. The performance test for pastry margarine would involve a baking test where preparation of volau -vent pastry is normally adopted. Different levels of palm oil could be incorporated into different types of margarines. However, with modern oils and fats modification techniques, various solid fat content profiles can be achieved. By blending different components at the right proportions, margarines of different requirements could be produced. This applies also to shortenings and vanaspati.

(v) Confectionery Fat

In the search for an economical cocoa butter alternative, palm oil and lauric oils have emerged as important source oils in the development of hard butters. Hard butters are well suited for a variety of confectionery applications. Palm oil has been identified as a valuable component in all types of cocoa butter alternatives, namely cocoa butter equivalent, cocoa butter substitute, and cocoa butter extender. It is a source of symmetrical triglycerides vital in the formulation of a cocoa butter equivalent. It can be hydrogenated or hydrogenated and fractionated to yield hard butters with a limited degree of compatibility with cocoa butter, allowing some chocolate liquor to be included in a coating for a flavor enhancement.

Cocoa butter extender prepared from palm olien is suitable for soft coating for cakes and confectionery centres as well as creaming fat for biscuits.

(vi) Coffee Creamers and imitation Dairy Products

The spray-dried, free flowing powders are generally preferred by the ultimate consumer because they need not be refrigerated. While the principal use of these products is as replacement for cream in coffee, they are also reconstituted and used with cereals, as whipped toppings and in other foods. In formulating coffee creamer, the vegetable fat used range from 35-40% and is one of the most important criteria of quality performance of the product.

(vii) Miscellaneous Uses

Other uses of palm oil include filled milk, spray oil, cream fillings and ice cream powder. Among these, the most important is filled milk (milk from which most of the butter has been replaced by vegetable oil). The product has better keeping quality than natural milk while being similar taste.


B) Non-Food Applications of Palm Oil and Their Products.

Malaysian palm oil are mainly used for food applications. At present only 10% is used in non-food products mainly as feedstocks for soap making and oleochemicals.

(i) Soaps
The single largest non-edible use of palm oil is in the manufacture of soaps. Palm -based soaps are well accepted by local and overseas users. Even tough saponification is a widely practiced process, the trend has moved towards neutralisation process from fatty acids. Palm oil produce high quality soaps with advantages including better perfume retention and being a vegetable oil fat it is therefore acceptable to all religions. The palm-based soaps are exported as bar soaps or soap chips/noodles.

(ii) Oleochemicals
Palm oil and palm oil products can be used as feedstocks in the oleochemical industry namely fatty acids, fatty esters, glycerine, fatty amines and fatty alcohols.

(a) Fatty Acid
Fatty acids are the most important oleochemicals. Distilled fatty acids produce good quality soaps and candles. Incorporation of palm based fatty acids in candle formulation improves the shrinkage property of the product. Stearic acid is an essential ingredient in the vulcanisation of natural rubber and it imparts plasticity to the finished products.

Fatty acids are also widely used in the production of food emulsifiers.

(b) Methyl Esters
Methyl esters are mainly used for the production of fatty alcohols and derivatives and sulphonated methyl esters. These products are then used in various applications such as detergents, plasticizers, lubricants, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products. Methyl esters can also be used as a diesel substitute when it is economically feasible.

(c) Fatty Amines
These include important derivatives such as quaternary ammonium salts which are cationic surfactants used as fabric softeners, hair conditioners, anti-caking agents for fertilizers, antistatic agents for bitumen in road construction.

(d) Fatty Alcohols
Small amounts of fatty alcohols and fatty alcohols ethoxylates derived from palm and lauric oils are used in cosmetic creams and lotions. Other uses include emulsifiers and shampoos, lubricants, detergents and fabric softeners.

(e) Glycerine
Palm and lauric oil are the major sources of natural glycerine. It is a by-product of fat splitting and it finds wide applications in pharmaceuticals, toiletries, industrial explosives, and as alkyd resins in the paint industry.

(f) Expoxidised Palm Oil (EPO)
Palm oil can also be applied directly to produce expoxidised palm oil (EPO). Its Main application is as a stabilizer/plasticizer for rubber and poly vinyl chloride (PVC). Another application of EPO is as an epoxy-resin for surface coating.