Palm oil is derived from the fruit of the oil palm tree, which is grown in tropical regions of Asia and Africa. While palm oil producers rely on different techniques to extract this oil, the basic steps involved in palm oil production remain the same. Manufacturers must plant a supply of oil palms, and oversee their care through maturity. The fruit of the tree can then be harvested and processed to release the oil. The final step in palm oil production involves purifying the oil to meet the demands of various users.
The majority of global palm oil production occurs at large plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia. Producers in these countries grow very large oil palm crops, which thrive in the tropical conditions found in this part of the world. Once the fruits of oil palm have matured, crews cut them off the trees in large bunches using machetes or other tools. The fruits are collected, often by hand, and transferred to processing sites located locally and abroad. During this time, it is critical to handle the fruit with care to minimize bruising, which can negatively impact oil production.
Next, the fruits go through a process known as threshing, in which each piece of fruit is separated from the rest of the bunch. Large processing plants place the fruit in rotary drums to complete this process, while small palm oil production facilities perform threshing by hand. After the fruits have been separated from one another, they are steamed, or simply cooked in hot water. This weakens the pulp of the oil palm fruit and helps to break it down so the oil can be extracted more effectively. Cooking or steaming also helps with sterilization and sanitation.
After threshing, the next step in palm oil production involves pressing the fruit to separate the oil from the skin and pulp. Some facilities place the fruit into large rotating drums, which start to break down the fruit and release some of the oil. This is followed by pressing, wherein heavy metal plates are mechanically pressed into the fruit to squeeze out the oil. Pressing machines may use hydraulic or pneumatic power to process large batches at once. The oil is then diluted with water and filtered through a screen to help remove debris and impurities.
At this stage, the oil can be sold as a low-quality palm oil or sent on for further processing. During fractionation, palm oil is heated to separates out the various triglycerides contained within. This helps to separate low-quality oil from higher quality oils, which are rich in essential fatty acids but contain less saturated fat than unpurified palm oil.