Within various industries, palm oil has a strong, irreplaceable presence. Countless products worldwide contain this vital vegetable oil, and without it, they would lose many of their beloved characteristics. Although you may know about how important palm oil is to these products and their formulations, you may not realize how palm oil is made and the way it is harvested and manufactured to go from plantations to consumer goods. Want to gain a better understanding about this process? We have to start at the very beginning – the palm oil plantations. Diving into the growth and harvesting can help us to learn about the way this crop provides such a ubiquitous product worldwide.
Palm oil is harvested from the fruit of oil palm trees, scientifically called Elaeis guineensis. These trees are natively found in places with a tropical climate. What does a tropical climate consist of? This means that the temperatures sit between 30–32°C and that there are high humidity levels. The crop needs an ample amount of sun to thrive and plenty of rainfall to sustain maximum growth. Oil palm trees were originally found in West Africa, which has the perfect conditions to foster the growth of this crop. In the present day, the majority of the world’s oil palm plantations are in Malaysia and Indonesia, but they are also found in Guatemala and Colombia. Because Malaysia and Indonesia have the ideal climate for these plants, these countries now account for about 90% of the entire world’s palm oil production.
Another important part of growing oil palm trees is the way that the fields are set up for proper growth. For the best results, these trees are planted between June and September, which are the months with the most rainfall. The sprouts are typically planted about 9 meters apart from each other. Considering the space between the sprouts may not seem that noteworthy, but it makes a big difference, especially when the sprouts start to grow into bigger trees. If they aren’t arranged in a certain way, they can easily block each other’s sunlight, inhibiting their growth. When expertly arranged, however, they can thrive. Plus, palm oil is known for its excellent yield, meaning the crop makes maximum use of the space as compared to other similar types of vegetable oil. More palm oil is manufactured in a smaller area of land than any of the other comparable oils of its kind.
Plantations also work more efficiently when intercropping is part of the growth process. Intercropping, or planting more than one type of crop together in the same field, is a wonderful use of the land and actually benefits the crops. Different plants offer different nutrients to the soil, and when only one crop is present, the soil may become deficient in the nutrients that plant lacks. On the contrary, planting crops like turmeric and tobacco in the same area as oil palm trees can supplement the soil with the most diverse nutrition, benefitting plant growth. This can also offer pest control benefits on the plantation.
After about 30 months of growth, it’s time to harvest. This is when the oil palm trees are considered mature. At this time, the fruit has a bright red-orange color, showing that it’s ready to be harvested. Once the first harvest is complete, it can be done again about every seven days. The workers on the palm oil plantations harvest the fresh fruit bunches using a long sickle to reach them up in the trees.
Following the harvest of the fresh fruit bunches, manufacturing begins. Two parts of the crop are used to make two different kinds of oil. The fruit makes crude palm oil, and the kernel makes palm kernel oil. They each serve their own purposes in different products. When the bunches are taken to the mills, they are sterilized with steam. After that, the fruit is removed from the bunches. The factories press both the kernel and the fruit to make palm oil.
If palm oil is found in so many diverse products, what is it that palm oil offers? Why is this vegetable oil included in the formulation of such a wide array of products across the world? After all, it really is in so many different products – soap, detergent, lipstick, chocolate, packaged cookies, instant noodles, and many more. It may leave you wondering how it can be such an irreplaceable part of all their formulations. Palm oil has a lot of characteristics that set it apart from other oils in the ways it can enhance the products it is added to. It can improve texture, making things smoother and creamier. It doesn’t have much of a taste or smell once refined, meaning it doesn’t alter the flavor of foods. Additionally, it melts at a higher temperature than other similar vegetable oils, and it has moisturizing and hydrating properties. All of these characteristics set it apart from other oils and make it so valuable in the formulas of these products.
Palm oil is a valuable product that can’t be replaced, so the way it’s grown, harvested, and manufactured is important to maximize output. Despite the fact that palm oil has a bad reputation due to sustainability issues and poor standards on palm oil plantations, many people are working to make these problems a thing of the past. With the right changes made, palm oil can be produced ethically with acceptable practices in place. Want to learn more about who is enacting change along the palm oil supply chain? Find out about Palm Done Right’s efforts to make organic, sustainable palm oil become the norm.