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What is palm oil?

Palm oil has become an integral part of our daily lives: According to estimates by the WWF, around 50 percent of all products in the supermarket contain palm oil - from detergents and lipstick to ice cream and sausages. A large part of the palm oil produced around the world also ends up in our tanks as biofuel.

The oil palm

Palm oil is made from the fruits of the oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and has been used in human nutrition for over a thousand years. Originally native to West Africa, the oil palm is now planted in almost all tropical regions of the world. The main growing areas are Indonesia and Malaysia. A total of around 62.3 million tons of palm oil were produced here in 2019 (IndexMundi, 2020). In Indonesia alone the oil palms grow on 11.7 million hectares - this corresponds to almost 70% of the total cultivated area in Germany. However, their distribution is also increasing in South America and Africa. According to IndexMundi, palm oil production in Ecuador and Peru, for example, rose by over 7% each last year. In the ranking of the palm oil-producing countries, Ecuador is in 9th place, Peru in 20th place.

The oil palm is a versatile plant. After the plant has been grown, it takes about three to five years for it to be fully commercially available. The yield stabilizes after about four to six years, and production only slowly declines from the 21st year onwards. The old palm trees are then replaced with new ones. An adult oil palm produces bunches of fruit weighing more than 20 kg approximately 15 times a year; which grow in large and dense fruit stands. The high productivity of the oil palm, along with other properties that are of interest to industry, has made it the most successful of all oil plants today: With an average of 3.69 tons per hectare (t / ha), the oil palm has by far the highest yield of all oil plants (On the oil trail, WWF). In addition, the oil palm is robust and less susceptible to pests.

Valuable oils are extracted from the pulp as well as from the core of the oil palm fruits: palm oil from the pulp and the solid palm kernel oil from the kernel of the fruit.

Palm oil

Palm oil is extracted from the yellowish to orange colored pulp. The oil content of the fruit is highest shortly before harvest, when it is between 45 and 50 percent. After the harvest, the ripe fruits are sterilized and pressed. This creates the crude palm oil (Crude Palm Oil, CPO).

Palm oil combines many positive properties: it has a firm consistency at room temperature, so it does not have to be chemically hardened. In addition, it is tasteless, very heat-stable, extremely durable and makes food particularly spreadable. These properties explain why palm oil is used equally in margarine, finished products, baked goods and confectionery. Palm oil is also used to make candles, cosmetic products and detergents. Because of these unique natural properties, palm oil can hardly be replaced by other raw materials.

Almost 72 percent of the palm oil produced worldwide is used in food production (IISD, 2020). Another 10 percent is used as bioenergy. The remaining 18 percent can be found in cosmetic products, detergents, candles or as lubricants in industry.

The largest palm oil producers in the world: Malaysia and Indonesia

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, 2020), around 74 million tons of palm oil were produced worldwide in 2019 - a little more than 20 percent (15.58 million tons) of which came from sustainable production. This required more than 23 million hectares of cultivation area. This corresponds to around 1.5 percent of the world's arable land. The world's largest producers of palm oil are, besides Indonesia and Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia and Nigeria. Indonesia and Malaysia alone supply around 84 percent of the palm oil on the world market.

After India (19 percent), the European Union is the world's second largest import market for palm oil with 15 percent and 7.3 million tons, ahead of China (14 percent) (IndexMundi 2020). In a global comparison, most palm oil is consumed directly through food in India (9.4 million tons) and Indonesia (6 million tons). Here, palm oil is traditionally used primarily for frying and cooking. The EU is the third largest consumer of palm oil in the world. The direct import of palm oil to Germany is declining and was around 1.12 million tons in 2017. In addition, a further 695,000 tons of palm oil were imported into Germany as a component of end and intermediate products. The total consumption of palm oil in Germany corresponds to less than two percent of world production.

Palm kernel oil

Although they are obtained from the same fruit, palm oil and palm kernel oil have very different compositions. Because of its consistency, palm kernel oil is mainly used in the confectionery industry. Its properties as a carrier for flavors and vitamins, which cannot be incorporated into food without palm kernel oil, are highly valued. It is also in great demand from the cosmetics and detergent industries because of its special properties - which are only found in coconut oil in other vegetable oils. Palm kernel oil is used in cosmetic products such as skin cream and lipstick. Detergent substances obtained from palm kernel oil are found in shampoos, detergents and cleaning agents as so-called surfactants.

Where is palm kernel oil used?

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA, 2020), around 20 million tons of palm kernel oil were produced in 2019. Of this amount, Germany imported about 0.43 million tons directly. Another 0.09 million tons came to Germany indirectly through end and intermediate products. This corresponds to less than eight percent of the volume traded worldwide (MEO Carbon Solutions, 2016).

Over 120,000 tons of the palm kernel oil imported into Germany were also used here. The largest amounts of this were used in 2015 in the detergents, care and cleaning agents (WPR) sectors as well as in the cosmetics sector with almost 80,000 tons. Other sectors in which palm kernel oil is used are the food sector with almost 30,000 tons as well as the chemical and pharmaceutical sectors. Around 15,000 tons of palm kernel oil were used here in 2015. In the food sector, the consumption of palm kernel oil has thus decreased significantly by almost 25,000 tons compared to 2013. At the same time, the consumption of palm kernel oil in the WPR and cosmetics sectors increased by around 10,000 tons.

Palm (kernel) oil derivatives

Palm or palm kernel oil can be changed through complex chemical conversion processes. This creates so-called derivatives that are used, for example, as surfactants or emulsifiers in cosmetics and cleaning agents. Emulsifiers have the effect that two liquids that are actually immiscible with one another, such as oil and water, can be mixed. Surfactants are washing-active substances. Derivatives from palm oil and palm kernel oil are common ingredients for which there are currently hardly any alternatives with comparable properties.