shortbread cookies palm vs butter

Why Palm Oil is Used in so Many Foods

What do cookies, hazelnut spread, cakes, cereal bars, pastries, frostings, margarine, and peanut butter all have in common?

They (may) contain palm oil.

Palm oil has become a ubiquitous ingredient in many foods worldwide. Also in places where no palm tree will ever grow. The omnipresence of palm oil has led to major environmental & social challenges in the supply chain, resulting in programs to address these challenges (such as RSPO palm oil).

But, why did palm oil become such a common oil in the first place?

This post is sponsored by What is Palm Oil?. All opinions and experiments are my own.

Palm oil is a special oil

Cookies are crispy and brittle, maybe soft and chewy. Cakes are soft and fluffy. Frostings are pipeable, peanut butter spreadable. Cereal bars are firm, hazelnut spread is soft.

Despite their differences, they may all contain considerable amounts of palm oil. Very few food ingredients are as versatile and as wide-spread as palm oil. Other fats, such as butter, olive oil, or lard, often have more specialized applications. You’d use butter in a cake, but not in peanut butter. Olive oil on a salad, but not in a cereal bar.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, palm oil boasts significantly higher yields compared to other oil crops. A single hectare of palm oil production can produce four times as much oil as the next highest-yielding crops, such as sunflower & rapeseed. It can produce over ten times as much as some of the lower-yielding crops such as olives and coconut.

Another key reason, and the one we’ll focus on for the rest of this article, is palm oil’s versatility. Depending on how palm oil is processed, it can behave like a liquid oil, or a solid fat. It’s what makes it suitable for many different products.

The important role of fats & oils in food

Fat plays a crucial role in many foods. Ice cream without any fat, or fat replacer, is watery, and thinner. Just compare a popsicle with a scoop of creamy gelato. Cookies without any fat become dry, like a cracker.

Even the type of fat or oil you use impacts the texture, maybe also the color or flavor of your food. A butter cookie has more crunch than one made with rapeseed oil. An olive oil chocolate mousse is lighter than one made with cream. A cake made with butter tastes different than one made with sunflower oil.

Fat’s behavior at specific temperatures is crucial

When selecting a fat, food manufacturers evaluate its behavior across various temperatures. Is it solid, liquid, or somewhere in between?

For instance, if you need to choose a fat to use in a firm chocolatey product, it must be solid at room temperature. But, you do want it to melt in your dosing equipment, so it flows through properly.

When slicing cookie dough to make cookies, you require a fat that’s firm at the slicing temperature. A liquid fat would make the dough too soft to slice. Conversely, for a soft, chewy cookie, you’d prefer a softer fat, perhaps even one that’s liquid at room temperature.

When designing an ice cream, you’d prefer a fat that doesn’t turn too hard in the freezer.

From a chemist’s perspective, fat and oils both refer to the same group of ingredients. They’re both mixtures of triglycerides. Typically, if it’s liquid at room temperature, we call it an oil – olive or sunflower oil for instance (though palm & coconut oil are exceptions). If it’s solid at room temperature, it’s referred to as a fat, think lard, butter, or margarine.

Palm oil is very versatile

So manufacturers need to choose their oils carefully. That’s where palm oil’s ‘superpower’ comes in: it is easy to make both liquid and solid products from palm oil.

This is due to the composition of palm oil. Palm oil contains both liquid and solid components at room temperature. This by itself is not uncommon for fats and oils. However, what sets palm oil apart is that there’s a big enough difference between these components to easily separate them into different fractions. Each resulting palm oil product behaves quite differently.

It’s why you can find palm oil in such a wide range of products. Developers simply use that ‘part’ of the oil that they need to achieve their required product properties.

Four different palm oil samples, there’s a clear color difference.

From orange palm oil to specialized fat

Freshly pressed from the fruit of a palm tree, palm oil is orange. The palm oil gets its orange color from β-carotene (which becomes vitamin A in your body), just like oranges, carrots and tomatoes.

But, most foods that contain palm oil shouldn’t be orange. It’s why most palm oil is bleached, to make a colorless fat. It’s also filtered to remove impurities and stripped of flavor so it doesn’t influence the flavor of products it’s added into. The resulting oil is neutral and stable, but does contain fewer of its original vitamins.

The next step is where the magic happens. The palm oil is split into its different fractions in a process called fractionation. This process in and by itself is not unique to palm oil. But, globally, palm oil is by far the most fractionated fat.

From liquid (at room temperature)

On one end of the spectrum, we end up with the most liquid palm oil fraction, called olein. It has a melting point of 18–20°C. As such, it’s liquid at any temperature above that. You can use it when you need a liquid oil in your product.

To solid

On the other end, you’ll find a fraction called super stearin. This is the hardest fat. It is still (very) hard at temperatures below 40–45°C. You need temperatures of 65–70°C to completely melt this fat, making it suitable for applications that require harder fats.

Mixing and matching fractions

In between these two extremes, there are several other palm oil fractions. They all behave just a little differently. By mixing fractions, you can create an even wider range of products. This gives manufacturers a wide range of oils to choose from. They can use the one oil that works best for them.

Designing foods with palm oil

Food manufacturers have been looking for ways to ‘design’ fats for decades. Based on nutritional guidelines, they often prefer to use ‘healthy’ fats, the unsaturated kind, made from plants. However, inherent to them being unsaturated, and thus healthy, they are also mostly liquid at room temperature – think of olive, sunflower and rapeseed oil.

But, as we discussed before, for many foods you need a solid fat. Our shortbread cookies would turn into a puddle if we’d just use an oil (which we tried, see photo below).

shortbread cookie dough different fats

From trans fats to palm

Until not too long ago the solution most manufacturers used was to use partially hydrogenated fats. These are liquid (unsaturated) fats that have been modified to become more solid. The process allowed manufacturers to design the fat with just the right consistency. However, the process of doing so results in the formation of trans fats.

Over time, it has become clear that trans fats are decidedly unhealthy for humans. So, instead of making products healthier by using these solid unsaturated fats, the trans fats made them unhealthier. It’s why, by now, trans fats have largely been banned from foods globally.

But, food makers still need those fats with the right behavior. That’s where palm oil stepped in. In many products palm oil proved to be a great solution for this problem. Just like partially hydrogenated fats, it can be ‘designed’ to the desired consistency and behavior. But, unlike partially hydrogenated fats, palm oil doesn’t need to be modified. It just needs to be separated into fractions. Resulting in a trans fat free ingredient.

Palm oil is stable

Another advantage of palm oil is that it is very stable. Palm oil is mostly solid at room temperature and can often be stored at room temperature for months, if not years, without spoiling and oxidizing. The composition of triglycerides in palm oil makes it naturally stable, but also the presence of antioxidants such as tocotrienols (a type of vitamin E).

For comparison, butter, a possible palm oil replacer, needs to be refrigerated during storage. That costs energy and money. It’s another reason manufacturers may opt for a palm oil.

Lastly, palm oil has a more stable composition throughout the year, unlike other fats such as butter. Butter’s consistency changes throughout the year, since the diet of cows, who produce the milk to make the butter, changes as well. Of course, palm oil is a natural product as well, but it is more consistent, especially the individual fractions.

A selection of fats which are solid at room temperature.

Sourcing Palm Oil Sustainably – RSPO

The surge in demand for palm oil resulted in major issues in the supply chain. As we humans tend to do when there’s a ‘gold rush’, a lot of people see opportunities to earn some money. As a result, rainforests were cut down to enable the expansion of palm oil farms and local workers weren’t treated well. By now, after those initial ‘gold rush years’ a major global initiative, RSPO (roundtable on sustainable palm oil), has ensured that more and more palm oil is grown and harvested in a sustainable manner, for both the local communities as well as for the environment.

The percentage of sustainably grown palm oil is growing year on year, but globally, less than half of palm oil has been certified by RSPO. Use of sustainable palm oil various by region as well. Europe is the main importer. At the time of writing (Dec-2023) over 90% of all palm oil imported into Europe is sustainably sourced (RSPO certified) and thus has not caused deforestation.

Making cookies with palm oil vs. butter

So, what does this look like in practice? Let’s have a look at some shortbread cookies.

As a consumer, it’s virtually impossible to get your hands on all those different types of palm oil. Nevertheless, we wanted to do a comparison of palm oil versus the fat that’s most commonly used in baking: butter. So, we baked shortbread cookies with both butter and a palm oil product:

shortbread cookies palm vs butter
Shortbread cookies baked with palm oil (a fat designed for use in deep frying) at the top and baked using butter at the bottom, using our shortbread recipe. The palm fat cookie was a little harder in texture than the butter cookie.

As you can see above and below, you can bake perfectly fine cookies by replacing butter with palm fat. Keep in mind that we just used whichever palm oil we could get our hands on. Manufacturers have a lot more choice. They can use the exact right type of palm oil for their application. For a hard crisp cookie, they’ll use a harder fat which gives that right amount of crispness. For a softer cookie, they’ll use a different blend.

As such, cookie developers can truly ‘design’ their cookies the way they want.

Another advantage: no need for chilling the dough

When baking shortbread cookies with our palm oil, we noticed that we did not have to chill the cookie dough, whereas the butter dough did need to be chilled in the fridge before cutting it. The palm fat was firm enough at room temperature by itself. This can be a huge benefit for manufacturers. It might allow them to save on refrigeration equipment, saving both costs and energy.

thumbprint cookies butter vs palm vs margarine
Thumbprint cookies filled with fruit jams made using three different types of fat. From top to bottom: butter, palm fat (designed for deep frying applications) and margarine (made from palm and rapeseed).

All in all, both cookies tasted great, especially when we added a little hint of vanilla flavoring to make up for the blander palm oil taste.

So next time you find ‘palm oil’ as one of the ingredients in your product, know that it’s been put there for a specific reason!

This post is sponsored by What is Palm Oil?. All opinions and experiments are my own.

Sources

Chester Zoo, SUSTAINABLE palm oil – Everything You Need To Know, link

Jin, Jun & Jie, Liang & Zheng, Liyou & Cheng, Min & Dan, Xie & Jin, Qingzhe & Wang, Xingguo. (2018). Characteristics of palm mid-fractions produced from different fractionation paths and their potential usages. International Journal of Food Properties. 21. 10.1080/10942912.2018.1437632., link ; contains a simple graph illustrating the fractionation of palm oil

Hanna Ritchie, Palm oil, Our World in Data, Feb-4, 2021, link ; this is a great data-based article on palm oil production.

New Foresight, Sustainable Palm Oil: Europe’s Business Facts, analysis and actions to leverage impact, SEPTEMBER 2022 REPORT, link

RSPO, https://rspo.org/

RSPO, Impact Update 2023, link

Sen CK, Rink C, Khanna S. Palm oil-derived natural vitamin E alpha-tocotrienol in brain health and disease. J Am Coll Nutr. 2010 Jun;29(3 Suppl):314S-323S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2010.10719846. PMID: 20823491; PMCID: PMC3065441.

Science Direct, Olein, link

Teah Yau Kun, Applications and Advantages of Palm Specialty Fats, Malaysian Palm Oil Council, Jul-24, 2017, link

Fat, Oil Solutions, Prepared Foods, link

WWF, 8 things to know about palm oil, link ; a simple clear overview of why palm oil can be found in almost half of all packaged products and how it can be sourced sustainably

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2 Comments

  1. I love your website and articles! I am a high school chemistry teacher and this year I have started a kitchen chemistry class. Your articles are very relevant to much of what we are learning. I hope to take your food microbiology course because that is one of my weak areas.

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