When your aircraft glides for a touchdown at Kuala Lumpur International Airport,
take a peek through the window. You will see a carpet of green foliage. It
belongs to the oil palm, a native of Africa but thriving in Malaysia. Unlike the
coconut or the rice whose significance is immediately identifiable, the oil palm
rarely gets a bat of the eyelash from a layperson. Because the plant yields
nothing that could be readily consumed, its importance as a versatile plant is
There are basically two types of oil palm trees. The
Elaeis guineensis is a native of West and Central Africa. The south American
oil palm, Corozo oleifera, originates from Central and South America.
Today, palm oil derived from Elaeis guineensis is used for many
commercial purposes, from making chocolates to soaps to margarine, and maybe
soon, to fueling cars.
Palm oil use can be traced back to Egypt during the reign of the Pharaohs. In
the late 1800s, anthropologist M.C. Friedel stumbled upon an early tomb at
Abydos dated 3000 B.C. In it was an earthen jar of an oily residue. Upon careful
chemical analysis, this was later determined to be palm oil. The large quantity
suggested the oil was used more for dietary purposes than as a mean of
embalming. There were written records by European travelers of West African
locals using the oil extensively for cooking. The oil palm Elaeis guineensis
was typically self-seeded and not planted for commercial purposes. It wasn't
until the 1830s, when palm oil export trade developed, deliberate plantings were
made, beginning in the kingdom of Dahomey.
The Elaeis guineensis is a perennial crop that flourishes in the humid
tropics between 10 degrees north latitude and 10 degrees south latitude. It
fruits all year long and is the highest yielding oil crop. They're black when
ripe, red at the base and yield two types of oils: palm oil and palm kernel oil.
Palm oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit. It is reddish-orange in color
due to the high presence of carotenes, and has a distinctive taste. Palm kernel
oil is extracted from the nut or kernel of the palm. It is yellowish-white in
color with a pleasantly mild flavor. The oils are today used widely in the
manufacture of various products, including margarine, shortenings,
confectionery, biscuits, soaps and cosmetics. As a food, the vitamin A and
E-rich palm oil has been included in the CODEX Alimentarius specification of the
Food and Agricultural Organisation as a wholesome source of food for human
Like most other edible vegetable oils, palm oil is cholesterol-free. Palm oil
is also anti-thrombotic, which means it can prevent blood clots in blood vessels
or the heart. Used in a healthy diet, the oil helps raise good cholesterol and
lowers bad cholesterol. The invention of hydrogenation of oils and fats in 1902
had created a bigger market for palm oil in the West. Hydrogenation is a process
by which liquid oils could be turned into plastic or hard fats to a controlled
degree. As a result, vegetable oil-based 'shortenings' were produced to replace
lard and beef tallow as ingredients for cakes, pastries, biscuits and frying
Back in the 1980s, palm oil became a target of a massive negative advertising
campaign. This included allegations that palm oil was 'hazardous to health'.
Much of it had to do with the fact that palm oil was gaining a bigger slice of
the industrial pie than the then favored soybean. The Palm Oil Research
Institute of Malaysia (PORIM) did not have enough evidence then to convince the
world. After extensive research, the full potential of palm oil is exposed.
PORIM's extensive research into palm oil has yielded many new discoveries in
both food and non-food applications. More recently, it extensively tested the
use of palm-based methyl esters as a diesel substitute in cars. Other parts of
the oil palm have also been successfully adapted for commercial use. The caked
residues of crushed palm kernels are used as cattle feed in the Netherlands and
Germany. Empty fruit bunches and fibers from palm fronds are used to make
medium-density fiberboard and chipboard. The trunks could also be developed into
furniture. Consistent with the industry's zero waste and zero burning concept.
PORIM has made Malaysia's oil palm plantations more environmentally-friendly by
recycling nutrient-rich oil palm residues as fertilizers. Disposed old palms are
decomposed and returned to the fields as soil nutrients thus avoiding
unnecessary burning. PORIM is also working with Malaysia's national car
manufacturer, PROTON, to produce parts of cars from palm tree composites.
The oil palm is a unique plant. Every part of the plant can be used for some
purpose, none is wasted. It has full potential, especially on downstream product
use that has yet to be fully exploited.