Sustainable Palm Oil vs. Coconut Oil: What You Need to Know

Once sidelined as an unhealthy option for people and planet, sustainable palm is making a comeback as new research and practices prove old ways of thinking wrong.

Sustainable palm oil and coconut have certain similarities. For example, they are both produced primarily in tropical regions and are semisolid at room temperature. That makes them a good replacement for foods like butter and margarine, and they are also widely used plant-based ingredients in other foods. In addition, they have a natural resistance to oxidation, which helps prevent them from going rancid and gives them a longer shelf life than some other edible oils.

Both palm oil and coconut oil also have a high energy content. One tablespoon of palm oil has approximately 120 calories, and the same amount of palm oil has 117 calories.  However, while they are similar in many ways, there are significant differences between palm oil and coconut oil.

Palm Oil and Coconut Oil Production

One way that palm oil and coconut oil differ is in appearance. Crude (unrefined) palm oil is reddish in color as a result of its abundance of pigments called carotenoids. Coconut oil, on the other hand, is nearly colorless.

Palm oil and coconut oil also differ in how they are produced. Palm oil is made from the flesh and kernel of the fruit of the oil palm tree (also referred to as the African palm tree), whereas coconut oil is obtained from the white meat (called copra) of the mature coconut fruit. (Note: A third related oil, called palm kernel oil, is made from the seeds of the oil palm tree.)

Another difference between the two oils is that sustainable palm oil yields are much higher than those of coconut and other edible oils.

Palm Oil and Coconut Oil Uses in Foods

Both palm oil and coconut oil have many uses, particularly in food, but they tend to be present in different food products. For instance, palm oil is commonly used in things like baked goods, ice cream, margarine, chocolate coatings, and baby formula. It also is frequently used for frying potato chips, donuts and noodles.

Coconut oil typically is blended with other oils, giving them a hint of coconut flavor. It is widely used in foods like popcorn, crackers, hash browns, candies, whipped toppings and non-dairy creamer.

Vitamin E in Palm Oil and Coconut Oil

Palm oil is an excellent source of vitamin E. Vitamin E is a fat-soluble antioxidant that helps protect red blood cells, adipose tissue and other vitamins from damage. One tablespoon of palm oil contains more than 2 milligrams of a type of vitamin E called alpha-tocopherol—a nutrient that supports the immune system, helps prevent blood clots and is being studied for its effectiveness in helping to prevent and treat some types of cancer. Coconut oil, by comparison, has just 0.01 milligrams of vitamin E.

Sustainable Palm Oil, Coconut Oil and Animal Fat

Both palm oil and coconut oil are high in saturated fats. And while health experts advise people to limit their saturated fat intake, research into tropical oils is changing the way they are viewed. Specifically, it seems that palm oil and coconut oil are better for you than animal-based fats and can be a useful addition to a varied diet.

Other Uses of Palm Oil and Coconut Oil

In addition to their uses in plant-based ingredients in food products and recipes, palm oil and coconut oil are used to manufacture other products. Palm oil is commonly used in personal care products like shampoo and cosmetics, as well as in cleaning products and even fuel such as biodiesel.

Coconut oil is used in soaps and as a medium in paints and varnishes. It is also an ingredient in detergents and pesticides.

Palm Oil and Sustainability

An area where palm oil stands out from coconut and other oils is in the sustainable palm oil industry’s leadership in adopting more sustainable growing and harvesting practices. While not all palm oil companies are on board, producers like Daabon have been using sustainable palm oil processes for some time and continue to enhance their operations to minimize their impact on the environment.