African Red Palm Oil

Red Palm Oil in a bottle

Red palm oil is not a trendy food to Africans. It is is one of the most popular cooking oil used for cooking across the region. This oil with distinctive taste and colour forms the base of a lot of West African dishes. It is known as “epo pupa” in Yoruba language, “nkwu” in Igbo.

Red palm oil is derived from the fruit of the African oil palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. It has a red/orangey colour and could go from semi-solid to very viscous at room temperature. The palm oil used for African cooking is unrefined, and when added to food, it gives it a yellowish or orange colour.

This oil should not be confused with palm kernel oil. Red palm oil is extracted from the flesh of the orange colour fruits of the oil palm. Palm kernel oil on the other hand is the clear oil extracted from the kernel, which is found inside the fruit. It has totally different characteristics and used in different ways to red palm fruit oil.

Oil palm fruits with some cut open to show the palm kernel

In West African cooking red palm fruit oil is quite versatile and is used in different ways. The simplest is just mixing with salt and pepper to be added directly to ready cooked food, like yam and plantain. It is a stable oil which makes it great for frying and cooking. Sometimes, it is bleached slightly to by heating to develop a more nutty taste.

What Does Red Palm Oil Taste Like?

I have read a few articles where palm oil was described as a bland oil. This would describe refined palm oil, but definitely not unrefined palm fruit oil.

Unrefined palm oil has a rich earthy slightly nutty taste with a distinct aroma. It has an oily mouthfeel. This is more noticeable when the oil has not been cooked; which is also part of its appeal in African cooking.

Is Red Palm Oil Good For You?

The orange-red colour of palm oil is due to the presence of carotenoids. Carotenoids are pigments present in plants, which can be found in orange fruits and vegetables like squashes, carrots etc.  Carotenoids are vitamin A precursors which can be converted to vitamin A in the body. Red palm is an important source of vitamin A in West African communities.

Palm oil is also rich in tocotrienols and tocopherols, as source of vitamin E. It is also a rich source of antioxidants, hence why some people refer to it as a superfood.

Palm oil contains both saturated and mono-unsaturated oils, but no trans fats. The saturated in red palm oil is rich in “good” cholesterol (HDL cholesterol), which are associated with lower rates of heart diseases.

Although red palm oil is a healthy oil, like most oils, it still needs to be eaten in moderation. Nigerian Spiced Corn, Gari Fotor with Sardines and Nigerian Native Jollof Rice were all prepared with this oil.

Red palm oil in a two bowls

Difference Between Refined And Unrefined Palm-Oil

Red palm oil used for cooking is mostly still produced at artisanal levels. The palm fruits are steamed to release the oil then pressed to extract it. The resulting red palm oil is neither bleached nor refined.

The more popular palm oil as generally used worldwide is refined and processed into a clear and odourless oil. This oil can be found in everything, from soaps, creams and conditioners to biscuits, ice cream and ready meals.

The sustainability issues with oil palms that we hear so much about arises from the demand for the refined palm oil. There is so much demand for the product and it used at such large scales that habitats are being destroyed to plant oil palm trees. Our growing consumption for cheaply manufactured goods and processed foods does not help the situation. This article by Yetunde Komolafe sums up the issue clearly.

Unrefined palm oil keeps all its natural properties nutritional content. However, refined oils are stripped of their nutritional contents; and are mainly used for their functional properties.

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