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Coconut oil and palm oil are two types of edible tropical oils. They have been used as a source of dietary fat for thousands of years, and recently, they’re enjoying increasing popularity as healthier alternatives to other vegetable oils.
In this guide, we’ll discuss the differences between palm oil and coconut oil, how they’re made, the different types, health benefits and potential risks, and which are their best uses.
Coconut and Palm Oil Production
Coconut oil and palm oil are not the same. The main difference between them is in the raw materials they’re produced from. Coconut oil is made from the fruit of the coconut palms, whereas palm oil is made from the fruit of the oil palm tree.
How Is Coconut Oil Made?
Coconut oil is made using the fruit of coconut trees (Cocos nucifera), a type of palm native to Southeast Asia and widely cultivated in other tropical regions. After harvesting the coconuts, the white flesh is either used fresh, or dried out to produce copra.
There are two methods used to extract coconut oil. The “wet” method uses a machine to press the fresh coconut meat to extract the milk and oil, which are then separated using a combination of enzymes, distillation, or a centrifuge. The “dry” method uses copra, which is pressed or dissolved to extract the oils, which are then refined and heated to remove any smell and taste. Making virgin coconut oil is slightly different, using fresh coconut milk that is cold pressed and unrefined.
How Is Palm Oil Made?
Palm oil is made from the fruit of several species of oil palms, the most common one being the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). The oil is typically extracted from the reddish pulp of the fruit, and it is then processed and refined. The resulting product should not be mistaken with palm kernel oil, which is extracted from kernels rather than pulp, and has different qualities and uses.
After being pressed, palm fruit oil is either refined or not, resulting in either red or white palm oil. Red palm oil is unrefined, and therefore retains the natural reddish color of the palm fruit. White palm oil is refined and bleached, and has a lower nutrient score compared to red palm oil as a result.
Uses for Palm and Coconut Oil
Coconut and palm oils have been used in human consumption for millennia, particularly as a food staple, but also in cosmetic products. Today, the uses for these tropical oils have diversified, and you’ll even find them in the biofuel or biodiesel industries.
Food and Cooking
Palm and coconut oil are both used in food and cooking, but palm oil is decidedly more versatile.
Palm oil has similar uses in cooking as other vegetable oils. It has a noticeable savory and nutty taste, and a smoke point of 450°F/232°C, similar to that of sunflower oil. This makes it a great candidate for deep frying. You’ll also find it in processed foods such as chips, margarine, infant formulas, and a wide variety of sweets, from ice cream to peanut butter and chocolate spread.
Coconut oil is also popular in cooking, especially among vegans and vegetarians. It’s a great substitute for butter or shortening and can be used in baking or sautéing. Refined coconut oil doesn’t actually taste like coconuts, so if you want a flavorful option, go for cold-pressed coconut oil instead. However, refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, which makes it better for frying.
Cosmetics and Hygiene Products
Coconut oil has a long and well-deserved history as a beauty product. You can use it as a moisturizer for dry skin and damaged hair, to help treat blemishes and infections, and improve skin elasticity. The best choice for your skincare is unrefined coconut oil, which contains more phytonutrients and antioxidants.
Palm oil is also used in cosmetics, mainly for its moisturizing, antioxidant, and texturizing properties. You’ll find it in makeup, shampoo, toothpaste, sunscreen, as well as soap and laundry detergent. You can also use red palm oil on your skin as a moisturizer or to soothe light burns.
Both coconut and palm oils contain no proteins and amino acids, no cholesterol, no carbohydrates (including sugar and fiber), and have a low glycemic index. Like all vegetable oils, they contain small amounts of vitamin E and K, although palm oil is significantly richer in both. Coconut oil contains more minerals, especially iron, zinc, and calcium.
Palm and coconut oils are high-calorie foods that are also rich in saturated fats. Coconut oil is almost 100% fat, and its saturated fat content is almost twice as high as that of palm oil. Palm oil has a higher count of monounsaturated fats, as well as polyunsaturated fatty acids.
Health Benefits and Potential Risks
Consumed in moderation and used as part of a balanced diet, coconut and palm oils can be beneficial for your health. Red palm oil and unrefined coconut oil have antioxidant properties, can improve brain function, and help decrease “bad” blood cholesterol levels. Coconut oil, in particular, is the best natural source of lauric acid, which protects against Alzheimer’s disease, and it reputedly regulates body weight.
However, palm and coconut oils can negatively affect human health. True, when you compare them with animal fats or hydrogenated oils, they’re healthier. But all edible oils are essentially fats, and overconsumption of either coconut or palm oil poses an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. So if you’re looking for healthier oils to improve your diet, avocado and virgin olive oil may be better choices.
The palm oil industry has been making headlines for years due to its negative impact on the environment. In tropical areas, palm oil production is associated with deforestation and loss of habitat for endangered species, while the use of pesticides contaminates the soil and water. And as palm oil consumption rises, it raises valid concerns about its long-term sustainability.
Of course, coconut plantations also negatively affect the environment, causing deforestation and impacting local biodiversity in tropical regions. However, coconut palms can grow in a wider range of soils, and harvesting coconuts is less invasive than harvesting palm fruit. This means that coconut oil may stand a better chance of becoming sustainable in the future.
Which Is Better: Palm Oil or Coconut Oil?
Both coconut oil and palm oil have their pros and cons. Palm oil is cheaper, better for frying, and is found in so many processed foods, cosmetics, and household items that you’re already using it without knowing. Coconut oil is a tasty vegan alternative to dairy products, and can also be used as a cruelty-free alternative to some commercial cosmetic products. Also, they both last longer than other types of vegetable oils.
The main downside to both these tropical oils is the way they impact the environment, as well as human health. Both have high fat and calorie count, so use them in moderation to avoid the risk of cardiovascular disease. And if you want to make a difference, try buying products made with sustainable palm oil and Fair Trade certified coconut oil.
Here is a chart of palm oil vs coconut oil comparison chart