Palm oil is an oil that is extracted from the fruit of the palm oil tree, an African palm which has been cultivated for centuries for its useful oil. In addition to oil, the tree also yields palm-kernel oil, which is extracted from the seeds. Pure palm oil is widely available in Africa and Southeast Asia, and sometimes in specialty markets in other places, and products which contain it are also very common.
To extract the oil, the fruit of the palm oil tree is collected and pressed, yielding a rich, dark-red oil that is high in carotene. When it is exposed to heat through processing and cooking, it rapidly loses the carotene, turning a pale creamy color. Producers can sell the pure oil, or use a fractional distillation process to extract various components that have a variety of uses.
Palm oil is high in saturated fat, and it is often very close to solid at room temperature, unless it is specially treated. The high saturated fat also makes it a great cooking oil, because it is able to withstand very high heat, and it will not break down or change when heated. However, this also makes palm oil a less than ideal oil health-wise, because saturated fat is generally believed to be harmful when consumed in large amounts.
Many processed foods contain palm oil, which is viewed as a cheap, efficient, and highly stable oil by food manufacturers. In addition to being used in cooking, it can also be used in a number of industrial processes. Many cosmetics companies use it as a cheap replacement for more expensive natural oils in things like soaps and moisturizers. Palm oil creates the desired texture without the expense, although it also lacks many of the beneficial compounds which make these products good for the skin.
As of 2007, palm oil was the most widely produced vegetable oil in the world. It is made in many parts of Africa and Asia, and in parts of Latin America as well. Many native populations rely on it as a cheap and reliable source of fuel for cooking, heat, and lighting, which has become a problem, due to its rising cost. Increased demand has caused this oil to become much more costly, putting it out of the reach of some of the poorest people in the world.