The oil palms (Elaeis) comprise two species of the Arecaceae, or palm family. They are used in commercial agriculture in the production of palm oil. The African Oil Palm Elaeis guineensis is native to west Africa, occurring between Angola and Gambia, while the American Oil Palm Elaeis oleifera is native to tropical Central America and South America. The generic name is derived from the Greek for oil, elaion, while the species name refers to its country of origin.
Mature trees are single-stemmed, and grow to 20 m tall. The leaves are pinnate, and reach between 3-5 m long. A young tree produces about 30 leaves a year. Established trees over 10 years produce about 20 leaves a year. The flowers are produced in dense clusters; each individual flower is small, with three sepals and three petals.
The palm fruit takes five to six months to mature from pollination to maturity. The palm fruit is reddish, about the size of a large plum and grows in large bunches. Each fruit is made up of an oily, fleshy outer layer (the pericarp), with a single seed (the palm kernel), also rich in oil. When ripe, each bunch of fruit weigh 40-50 kilogrammes.
Oil is extracted from both the pulp of the fruit (palm oil, an edible oil) and the kernel (palm kernel oil, used in foods and for soap manufacture). For every 100 kilograms of fruit bunches, typically 22 kilograms of palm oil and 1.6 kilograms of palm kernel oil can be extracted.
The high oil yield of oil palm trees (as high as 7,250 liters per hectare per year) has made it a common cooking ingredient in southeast Asia and the tropical belt of Africa. Its increasing use in the commercial food industry in other parts of the world is buoyed by its cheaper pricing, the high oxidative stability of the refined product and high levels of natural antioxidants.
Since palm oil contains more saturated fats than canola oil, corn oil, linseed oil, soybean oil, safflower oil, and sunflower oil, it can withstand extreme deepfry heat and is resistant to oxidation.