Palm oil in many products. But why? Here we explain uses for palm oil. Companies use palm oil in foods, medicine, self-care and beauty items, cleaning products, and more.
According to The Wall Street Journal, palm oil is the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. Approximately half of packaged products in supermarkets contain palm oil or palm oil derivatives.
Uses for palm oil
Table of Contents
Palm oil is an inexpensive and versatile oil which makes it practical for companies to use. There are hundreds of names for palm oil derivatives; most do not contain the word “palm-” in the ingredients. Print this list to use as a reference.
So, what is palm oil used for? What are the ways companies use palm oil?
Why palm oil is used in food
Here are some of the reasons and ways food manufacturers use it:
Replaces trans fats
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of Partially Hydrogenated Oils (PHOs) in foods. These are known as trans fats.
Before the 2018 ban, food companies used trans fats in baked goods, ice cream, margarine, butter spreads, canned frosting, shortening, frozen products, dough, candy, frozen meals, and more.
Companies turned to palm oil which is virtually free from trans fats. Food manufacturers now use palm oil because it mimics “what’s good about” trans fats.
Makes foods creamy and thickens
Palm oil helps to thicken foods, adding creaminess. Manufacturers use palm oil for this reason in foods such as ice cream, margarine, buttery spreads, frosting, chocolate and hazelnut spread, salad dressing, gravy in jars, chocolate, caramel, whipped topping, etc.
Makes foods easy to stir
You may see palm oil in brands that highlight their “no stir” labeling. Companies use palm oil in peanut butter, canned frosting, ice cream, hazelnut and chocolate spread, buttery spreads and margarine and other foods in which consumers want to be able to spread or stir the product.
Keeps food from drying out; keeps it crispy and crunchy; and extends the shelf-life
Palm oil acts as a preservative. Companies use palm oil and palm oil derivatives so products stay fresher longer on store shelves. They want the crackers and cookies to stay crunchy, the sliced bread to stay fresh, and the cereals and granola bars to stay crispy.
For this reason, palm oil is used in these types of foods: boxed cake mix, snack foods, pre-packaged bakery, canned shoestring potatoes and potato crisps, canned French fried onions, jerky, candy and gum, etc.
Makes foods chewy
Palm oil is used to make foods chewy, gummy, or stretchy. This is especially common in these types of non-chocolate and chocolate candy. It’s also very common in ready-to-eat (RTE) cereals as well as in snack and protein bars.
Keeps foods stable and acts as a moisture barrier in frozen conditions
Palm oil helps in foods stay intact while frozen. You will find it in frozen desserts, including ice cream, sherbet, cake, pie, ice cream novelties, frozen meals, and in frozen pizza.
Companies use palm oil as an emulsifier to stabilize processed foods and prevent them from separating. It’s used for this purpose in margarine, baked goods, packaged frosting and icing, salad oils, whipped cream topping, condensed and evaporated milk, non-dairy creamer, peanut butter, and caramel.
If you read ingredient labels for foods that have a coating or that are meant to coat, you will likely find palm oil or palm kernel oil. Some examples include fondant, almond bark, yogurt-covered and chocolate-covered pretzels, snack and granola bars, chocolate candy, baked goods, ice cream toppings, and chocolate coating on ice cream cones.
Creates shiny appearance
In addition, palm oil is able to create the shiny appearance in foods. You will find palm oil in confectionery, coated snack bars, in yogurt- and chocolate-covered foods, and in bakery.
Replaces cocoa butter, milk fat, dairy in foods
Another application for palm oil is to replace ingredients. Palm oil can be a substitute while still maintaining the integrity of the product — providing stability, mouthfeel, texture, etc.
Manufacturers use palm oil in caramel, butterscotch and many candies, in baking chips, dairy-free and low fat cheese, ice cream and frozen desserts, creamer, condensed and evaporated milk, and more.
- Many gluten free and vegan foods such as crackers, butter, and cheese will use palm oil as replacements.
- A candy or product labeled “chocolate flavored” typically contains palm oil as a less expensive substitute for cocoa butter.
- A carton of “frozen dairy dessert” usually contains palm oil as a cheaper substitute for dairy fat.
Enhances mouthfeel and texture
Even in foods in which companies aren’t eliminating ingredients, one of the big uses for palm oil is to enhance the mouthfeel and texture in foods.
Helps with pre-cook process
Manufacturers use palm oil to pre-cook foods before selling them. Think of foods such as ramen noodles in which the consumer adds hot water before eating.
Palm oil is mac ‘n cheese, noodle soups, and other RTE instant foods.
For anti-caking; keeps foods from sticking together
There are many uses for palm oil derivatives in foods, including Propylene Glycol. This is one of several palm oil derivatives that works well as an anti-caking agent.
Manufacturers use these anti-caking agents in soup and dip mix, powdered drink mix, grated cheese, pizza dough, candy, spices, cake mix, in addition to many more foods.
Prevents products from sticking to the machines
A candy manufacturer wrote us back to say this about Magnesium Stearate, a palm oil derivative:
Magnesium Stearate is used in candy to help candy not stick to the machinery as they are produced. It’s also used to maintain the shape of the candy.
Palm oil increases volume and fluffiness
Manufacturers and bakers use palm oil to increase volume in biscuits, bread and baked goods. As a result, palm oil gives these products a better appearance. Also, according to Bakerpedia.com, it’s the only vegetable oil with an approximate 50/50 makeup of unsaturated fatty acids and saturated fatty acids. It acts similarly to butter in baked goods.
Absorbs water and retains moisture
Some products need to be able to absorb water and/or to retain moisture. Companies use palm oil for this purpose in extracts, such as vanilla and almond, and some brands of food coloring.
What else is palm oil used in? As a humectant, companies use palm oil in baked goods, prepared foods, drink mixes, fondant, and cake mixes.
Another one of the uses for palm oil is to replace lard. Palm oil works well in this capacity because its saturated – monounsaturated – polyunsaturated ratio is similar to lard.
Palm oil uses include fortification. Companies use palm oil derivatives to supplement milk, RTE cereals and other foods which require fortification.
As an example, if you see a Vitamin A content of 10% or greater, it’s most likely in the form of Vitamin A Palmitate, a palm oil derivative.
You will see Vitamin E in the form of Tocopherols or Tocotrienols (typically from red palm oil) which is in foods, vitamins and more.
Uses for palm oil in medicine and vitamins
Supplements, vitamins, and over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications are products that contain palm oil. Palm oil is used in all forms: capsules, chewables, gel caps, liquid medications, and tablets.
Common palm oil derivatives to look for are Propylene Glycol, Glycerin, Vitamin A Palmitate, Polysorbate 80, Polyethylene Glycol, and Magnesium Stearate. See medicine without palm oil for our experience with a compounding pharmacy.
Manufacturers use palm oil to maintain moisture in supplements, vitamins and medications.
Helps ingredients dissolve in liquid
Glycerin helps the ingredients to dissolve in the formula.
To make capsules, chewables, and tablets
Manufacturers use palm oil derivatives to coat capsules and to maintain the shape of the capsules, etc. As an example, Magnesium Stearate ensures the capsules and tablets don’t stick to the machines.
To preserve medications
Additional uses for palm oil are to help extend the shelf-life of medications. You will find it in liquid formulas especially for this reason.
As a solvent
Companies use palm oil as a solvent in liquid formulas, including many OTC children’s and adult pain relief medications, allergy medications, and fever reducers. As an example, Propylene Glycol is a common vehicle for many drugs. Glycerin is often used as a solvent.
Palm oil uses in self-care and cleaning products
Companies use palm oil and palm oil derivatives in many common self-care products, beauty products, and household cleaning products you use regularly. Here are some of the ways and the products that contain palm oil.
Creates foam and lather
Palm oil is used to create the sudsy attributes consumers associate with cleaning products. This is one of the many palm oil uses for hair.
You will find palm oil derivatives in these types of products: liquid and bar soap, bubble bath, baby wash, mouthwash, shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, dishwashing soap, etc.
It works as an anti-sudsing agent in laundry detergent.
Keeps dirt in suspension
Manufacturers use palm oil to keep dirt in suspension in products such as pod-type laundry and dishwasher detergents.
As a cleaning agent
Palm oil makes for an inexpensive cleansing agent. This is one of the many palm oil uses for skin and household cleaning products. You will see palm oil derivatives used for this purpose in shampoo, 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner, liquid soap, liquid and powder laundry detergent, and toothpaste.
Gives a pearly appearance
If you see products that have a pearlized look, they very well may contain palm oil derivatives. Examples include: shampoo, conditioner, lotion, moisturizer, creams, serum, etc.
Keeps products together
Palm oil helps in hair gel and wax, shaving cream, solid deodorant, soap, liquid foundation, sunscreen, creams, and more. Also, companies use palm oil so products can remain solid at room temperature.
Some examples include lipstick, lip balm, bar soap, deodorant and sunscreens, etc. (It’s also in candles.) Palm oil is tasteless, so it works especially well in lipstick and lip balm. See: Palm oil free makeup
Helps ingredients mix together and combine
Palm oil is used as a processing aid for ingredients to combine. It’s used to combine oil and water. Some examples of products that contain palm oil are pod-type detergents, liquid detergents, sunscreen, cosmetics, and more.
As a humectant to provide moisture
Just like with some food products, companies use palm oil to provide moisture. You will find it in teeth whitening strips, cosmetics, shampoo, conditioner, sunscreen, shaving cream, and other products.
Hydrates the mouth
Some examples of the ways companies use palm oil to hydrate the mouth are in mouthwash and toothpaste.
As an emollient to soften
Palm oil derivatives enable products to spread on the skin easily. Because of this, uses for palm oil are common in lotions, moisturizers, shaving cream, serums, foundations, and creams.
Helps clean in hard water
Products that contain palm oil for this purpose include laundry boosters, liquid laundry detergent, powder laundry and dishwasher detergents, etc.
As a surfactant
Companies use palm oil as a surfactant in liquid and powder laundry detergents, flushable wipes, shampoo, solid deodorant, and more.
As an emulsifier
You will find palm oil in products such as flushable wipes, solid deodorant, and sunscreen. It’s also in cosmetics, including eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, powder, and foundation as well as in other beauty products.
Helps products glide over skin
It’s in tissue with lotion. According to a large manufacturer’s website, it enables tissue to glide over skin.
Keeps products absorbent
Products that contain palm oil include wet floor cleaning cloths, tissue with lotion, teeth whitening strips, and more.
Manufacturers use palm oil in lotions and in face and body polish and scrubs to exfoliate the skin.
To replace oils
According to worldwildlife.org, palm oil is in shampoo to help restore natural oils that shampoos strip away.
Body wash and soap manufacturers use palm oil in their products to help stabilize the lather.
Avoiding palm oil for health reasons
Products that contain palm oil
Most people use many products with palm oil ingredients every day. In addition to all of the above products, you can also find palm oil in candles, bio-fuel, industrial lubricants, waxes, polishes and more.
Why is palm oil in everything?
Above we explained some of the uses for palm oil in foods, vitamins and medicine, self-care products, beauty products, and cleaning products. When you account for the hundreds of palm oil derivatives, you can see how it is able to take on many forms for many different types of applications.
Some consumers avoid it for environmental reasons. Learn about the problems with unsustainable palm oil.
Palm oil doesn’t contain trans fats
Palm oil and palm kernel oil do not contain trans fats. Because the FDA banned companies from using artificial trans fats, food manufacturers had to find replacement ingredients. They are now using palm oil. See why is palm oil in so many foods now.
Palm oil has unique characteristics
Frequently, palm oil and palm oil derivatives work to serve more than one purpose in a product, making it that much more valuable.
Some of palm oil’s characteristics:
- Odorless and tasteless
- Has a low melting point
- Can remain solid or semi-solid at room temperature
- Enhances texture
- Remains stable under high cooking temperatures
- Has a good shelf-life
- Extends shelf-life in foods
- Helps keep foods crispy and crunchy
- Has a good mouthfeel
- Is free from trans fats
- Adds creaminess to foods
- Enables foods to be fluffy
- Has good oxidative stability
- Is non-GMO
- Is rich in heart-healthy and brain-healthy vitamin E tocotrienols- when it’s not processed
Palm oil is inexpensive
In addition to being a versatile oil with many applications, palm oil is inexpensive. According to industry experts, oil palm produces 4 – 10 times more oil than soy, sunflower and rapeseed. It’s a very productive crop with the highest yield of any oil crop.
It has the most oil produced per hectare per year. As a result, palm oil is the cheapest vegetable oil to produce and refine.
Palm oil products list
If you’ve read this far — thank you! — you have learned about palm oil uses in the following:
- Processed foods
- Hygiene, self-care / personal care products
- Cosmetics and beauty products
- Detergents for dishes and clothing
- Cleaners for floors, sinks, windows, counters, bathrooms, kitchens, furniture, cars and more
There are many companies who promote their healthy, green, eco-friendly, and/or plant-derived ingredients. Read labels as oftentimes, these products contain palm oil derivatives.
To summarize, there are many applications for:
- Using palm oil in foods
- Using it for beauty
- Palm oil uses for skin
- Palm oil uses for hair
- In cosmetics
- Palm oil in hygiene products
- Oral care
- Palm oil uses for body care
- Using palm oil in cleaning
- House cleaning in all types and forms: powder, liquid, spray, wax, polish
- Detergents for carpets, clothing, dishes
- Candles and room fresheners and sprays
Even products consumers consider to be “good” contain palm oil. As an example:
Most castile soap brands contain palm oil and/or palm oil derivatives.”
See ultimate list of palm oil free products.
Uses for palm oil
Because palm oil is trans fat free, has many unique characteristics, is a versatile oil, and is cheaper than other oils, global demand for palm oil has nearly tripled since 2000. There are numerous uses for palm oil in foods, cleaning products, medicines, self-care products, and cosmetics.
Many chemicals in everyday products are made from palm oil. Companies have found many ways to use palm oil. It’s a versatile oil with unique properties.