What Is the Difference Between Palm Oil and Coconut Oil?

In some ways coconut and palm oils are very similar. They are unique in that they are vegetable oils that contain a high percentage of saturated fat. Because of this they are highly resistant to oxidation and make excellent cooking oils. Because of their high saturated fat content they both have high melting points and may be solid at room temperature. Both are products of palm trees, hence they are often referred to as the tropical oils. Both oils are good and offer many health benefits. This, however, is where the similarity ends.

Coconut and palm oils are very different from one another in chemical composition, appearance, and character. Even their influence on health is uniquely different. They come from different species of palm and from different parts of the plant. Coconut oil comes from the seed of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Palm oil comes from the fleshy fruit of the oil palm (Elaesis guineensis).

If you see a bottle of virgin palm oil and virgin coconut oil sitting side by side in a store you will quickly notice a distinct difference. In the relatively cool temperature of the store both oils will be in their solid form. The virgin coconut oil will be a pure white. The virgin palm oil, however, will be a deep orange-red. The red color is from carotenes. Carotenes are plant pigments that give fruits and vegetables their red, yellow, and orange colors. When melted, the palm oil takes on a dark red color. For this reason, virgin palm oil is called “red” palm oil.

Red palm oil is the premiere form of palm oil just as virgin coconut oil is the best. Like virgin coconut oil, red palm oil has undergone minimal processing and is considered to be of superior quality to ordinary palm oil.

Unlike coconut oil, palm oil does not have a sharp melting point. Coconut oil melts at temperatures above 76 degrees F (24 C). Palm oil has a much more gradual melting point. So it may be liquid or solid or a bit of both over a range of temperatures. This can give the oil a mottled appearance with a combination of colors ranging from light orange to dark red. You can have two bottles of red palm oil sitting side by side in the same room and one will be mostly liquid and the other mostly solid. They can remain like that for days or even weeks.

The reason for the difference in melting point between coconut oil and palm oil is due to the very different chemical makeup of the oils. Coconut oil consists of 92 percent saturated fatty acids, 6 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, and 2 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids. About 63 percent of the fatty acids are medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA). This high percentage of MCFA is principally responsible for giving coconut oil is sharp melting point.

In contrast, palm oil has 50 percent saturated fatty acids, 40 percent monounsaturated fatty acids, and 10 percent polyunsaturated fatty acids. It contains less than 0.5 percent MCFA. The type of fatty acids in palm oil is more varied so the melting character is less precise.

It is the MCFA in coconut oil that gives it most of its remarkable healing properties and makes it uniquely different from other oils. Palm oil does not have this unique feature. The primary saturated fatty acids in palm oil are palmitic acid (44 percent) and stearic acid (4 percent). These are common saturated fats found in all vegetable oils.

What makes palm oil special, and especially red palm oil, is not so much the fatty acids as it is the nutrient content. Red palm oil contains more phytonutrients than any other dietary oil. Many of these nutrients are powerful antioxidants, which protect the oil from oxidation and make it ideal for cooking. Red palm oil contains a synergistic mix of vitamin E, vitamin K, CoQ10, alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lycopene, and about 20 other carotenes. In addition to ordinary vitamin E, it contains a super powerful form of vitamin E known as tocotrienol. This form of vitamin is 60 times more potent than ordinary vitamin E.

Another oil which is often confused with palm oil is palm kernel oil. Palm oil and palm kernel oil come from the same plant. Palm oil is extracted from the red, fleshy fruit of the oil palm tree. Palm kernel oil comes from the seed or kernel inside the fruit. These two oils are very different from each other.

Palm kernel oil is very similar in composition to coconut oil and has basically the same health benefits. Like coconut oil, it melts at about 76 degrees F (24 C) and is clear when melted and white when solid.

All three tropical oils—coconut, palm, and palm kernel—are healthy oils and are excellent for use in cooking.

Source: Coconut Researtch Center

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