Palm Oil: An African Cooking Oil

Palm oil has been in use for thousands of years. Archaeologists have found evidence of its use dating back to 3000 BCE. There is evidence of palm oil being used in Ancient Egypt. The palm oil that the Ancient Egyptians used was imported from West Africa. There are different varieties of oil palm trees found in various parts of Africa from Senegal to Nigeria.

In the 1600s, The Portuguese arrived in Africa and found Africans using palm oil in various dishes. The oil would later be included among the provisions on slave ships. Palm oil would go on to become a staple in parts of Brazil because of the slave trade. The palm trees brought with the slaves from Africa were introduced along the Brazilian coast.

In the early 19th century, the British would introduce the oil palm tree to India. Later that century, the Dutch took oil palm seedlings to Java. At this point in history, the oil palm was seen mostly as a decorative plant. In the late 1800s, the industrial revolution created a demand for palm oil as an industrial lubricant. At that time, it was also used for making candles.

In the early 1900s, Malaysia and Indonesia saw their first oil palm plantations begin operation. William Lever — the founder of Unilever — sought land in West Africa to start palm oil production. Unilever consumes most of the world’s palm oil.

Malaysia and Indonesia saw their respective palm oil industries grow throughout the 20th century. By the 1980s, Malaysia would be the largest palm oil producer in the world. These days, about 85 percent of the world’s palm oil supply comes from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Palm oil flavor profile

The taste of the red palm oil used in Brazil and parts of Africa can be described as earthy and nutty. There is a hint of pumpkin flavor from the carotenoids that are responsible for its red color.

Health benefits of palm oil

Palm oil’s strong reputation for nutritional value comes from ingredients like:

  • Carotenoids: Palm oil is a rich source of beta-carotenes that your body can convert to vitamin A.
  • Vitamin E: Palm oil is a good source of vitamin E in the form of tocotrienols and tocopherols.

A diet with lots of palm oil may help to prevent or treat health conditions like:

  • Dementia: The tocotrienols in palm oil may be effective for slowing the progression of dementia.
  • High cholesterol: Despite questions about its heart health benefits, researchers have found that people who have a lot of palm oil in their diets tend to have lower cholesterol levels than people who consume diets rich in trans fats.

Health concerns

While palm oil is generally considered to be beneficial for heart health, some studies show otherwise. They indicate that the low-density lipoprotein that is most commonly associated with heart attacks increased with palm oil consumption but was lower when study participants consumed other oils. Animal studies show that palm oil may be more likely to cause heart disease when it has been reheated repeatedly.

Common uses

Dishes that include palm oil include the Brazilian fish stew known as moqueca. It is the oil of choice for frying the cowpea fritter known as acaraje and in Senegal’s national dish thieboudienne. You will see it in recipes for another Senegalese favorite soupou kandja and Nigerian alapa, a beef and pepper stew.