Palm oil and palm kernel oil are sometimes mistaken for each other, but they are actually very different products. If you are trying to choose between them, this SPICEography Showdown explains how they compare to each other:
How does palm oil differ from palm kernel oil?
Palm oil and palm kernel oil are from the same fruit, but they come from different parts of that fruit. The palm oil comes from the flesh of the oil palm fruit, also called the mesocarp. It is pressed from the fruit with a method like the extraction process for extra virgin olive oil. Palm kernel oil comes from the palm kernel, which is the inner part of the stone in the oil palm fruit.
Like the fruit of the oil palm tree, palm oil is red. The palm kernel does not have that color but is off-white and produces a pale-yellow oil similar in appearance to coconut oil and other common cooking oils.
Palm oil and palm kernel oil don’t affect health in the same ways. The color of palm oil comes from its carotenoids, which include beta-carotene. Palm oil has a reputation as the richest source of that nutrient, which is a powerful antioxidant.
Palm oil is also a rich source of vitamin E, another antioxidant. Palm oil is only half saturated fat so it is relatively heart-healthy. Palm kernel oil lacks palm oil’s carotenoids and has much less vitamin E. About 85 percent of palm kernel oil’s fat is saturated, which means that it is more likely to cause heart disease compared to palm oil.
Palm oil has a grassy flavor that some compare to the flavor of extra virgin olive oil with nuttiness. Its flavor is also often described as being carrot-like and is due to its beta-carotene content. In comparison, palm kernel oil has a mild flavor with a hint of nuttiness. Some compare palm kernel oil’s taste to that of walnut oil.
Can you use palm oil as a substitute for palm kernel oil and vice versa?
Both palm oil and palm kernel oil have relatively high smoke points, which means that they can work as substitutes for each other without breaking down, but they are not identical.
The big obstacles to using palm oil in place of palm kernel oil are the color and the flavor. The bright red of palm oil means that it will affect the color of many of the dishes in which it is used. Unless you don’t care about the dish’s color or the oil is unlikely to affect it, you may want to avoid using palm oil for this reason alone.
Flavor can be another big problem since palm oil has a strong taste. When you use it in a dish, it will stand out more than palm kernel oil would. Unless you want to add the palm oil flavor to your dish, you may want to try another substitute.
Palm kernel oil can work as a substitute for palm oil but it won’t give you a distinctive color and flavor. The color of palm oil and its ability to impact a dish’s flavor profile are the reasons that many people use it so palm kernel oil probably won’t be a great substitute.
When should you use palm oil and when should you use palm kernel oil?
Use palm oil for African and Brazilian style recipes where it will serve as a seasoning and a food coloring. Use palm kernel oil when you want a versatile cooking oil with a milder flavor profile.