Palm oil and coconut oil are both classified as tropical oils and have a lot in common, but they also have some major differences. Let’s compare them in this SPICEography Showdown.
How does palm oil differ from coconut oil?
Palm oil and coconut oil have different sources. They both come from the fruit of palm trees but two different kinds of palm trees. Palm oil is extracted from the flesh of fruits harvested from the oil palm tree. Coconut oil comes from the dried and ground coconut fruit, which is called copra.
Palm oil and coconut oil have different effects on health. While both oils contain significant levels of saturated fat, palm oil has roughly equal amounts of saturated and unsaturated fat while coconut oil’s fat is almost entirely saturated. Saturated fat raises low-density lipoprotein in the body, which means that it increases your heart disease risk.
Palm oil is a far better source of vitamin E than coconut oil. Palm oil is said to have a perfect balance of tocopherols and tocotrienols, which are two forms of vitamin E. Palm oil also contains carotenoids that are beneficial for health and that you won’t find in coconut oil. Palm oil is said to be the richest natural source of beta-carotene in the world. Coconut oil does contain lauric acid, which can raise good cholesterol while palm oil contains only trace amounts of it.
Palm oil’s most distinctive quality is its appearance. It has a bright red color from the carotenoids it contains. Coconut oil has a pale-yellow color similar to the color of canola oil.
Palm oil has a flavor with a strong nutty component along with a hint of the same kind of grassiness that you might detect in extra virgin olive oil. The flavor is influenced by the carotenoids that color it so that some people describe it as tasting like carrots. Coconut oil has the sweet and nutty flavor of coconuts unless it has been refined. The flavor of refined coconut oil is more neutral.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
The bright red color of palm oil is one of the reasons that it won’t be a good substitute in many of the recipes that require coconut oil. The color won’t be a drawback in all recipes, but it will be for many.
The flavor of palm oil is quite different from that of coconut oil and may be an even greater issue than the color. Palm oil is beloved by many because of its striking flavor profile and that will likely be an issue if you use it in some recipes that require coconut oil.
On its own, coconut oil won’t provide the color that you would get from palm oil, but you can add annatto seeds to replicate it. The biggest drawback will be the flavor difference as coconut oil does not have the flavor that palm oil fans expect.
When should you use palm oil and when should you use coconut oil?
Use palm oil if you want authentic-tasting African dishes or to replicate those from the Bahia region of Brazil. Palm oil is the preferred cooking oil in these places and plays a major role in the flavor profiles of the cuisines.
Unrefined coconut oil is an important ingredient if you are making certain West Indian and Polynesian dishes. Refined coconut oil has a more neutral flavor and higher smoke point, so you can use it as an all-purpose cooking oil for deep-frying and stir-frying.