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Updated on 6 May 2024 by: Yeo Yu Teng

Where does palm oil come from | Palm oil history | How is palm oil made | Oil palm growing years | Oil palm harvesting | Palm oil production wastes | Products containing palm oil | Sustainability


Have you ever glanced at the ingredients on your favorite chocolate bar and noticed the term “Palm Oil”? This versatile ingredient is a staple in over 50% of the products lining supermarket shelves, from baked goods and cosmetics to home care items. But do you know what palm oil is and where it comes from? In this article, we’ll take you on a journey from how oil palm is harvested to how palm oil is made.

Musim Mas oil palm plantation

Where Does Palm Oil Come From

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil that comes from the fruitlets of oil palm plants (Elaeis guineensis). In fact, the oil palm produces two kinds of oil – Crude Palm Oil (CPO) and Crude Palm Kernel Oil (CPKO). When the flesh of the fruitlet, or mesocarp, is pressed, we get CPO. On the other hand, CPKO is obtained when the fruitlet’s seed is crushed.

Oil palm fruitlets cross section showing mesocarp and kernel

Oil palms thrive in tropical climates, which is why they’re found in countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, Colombia, and Nigeria. Today, around 85% of the global palm oil comes from Malaysia and Indonesia, which are the largest producers of the commodity.

The History of Palm Oil

Let’s take a step back and rewind. Oil palm originated in West Africa. Discovered in Egyptian tombs, evidence of oil palm use dates back 5,000 years [1]. Palm oil was highly esteemed, so much so that people were laid to rest with casks of this precious substance. As we ventured into the 20th century, the global expansion of palm oil gained momentum, becoming a vital cost-effective ingredient in candle making, industrial lubricants, and nourishment for sailors embarking on lengthy sea voyages.

After significant expansion of oil palm plantations throughout Africa, the plant was exported to Southeast Asia, where it was first planted as an ornamental crop. The first commercial-scale plantation started in Indonesia in 1911 [2]. One of the first palm oil plantations in Indonesia can be found on Sumatra’s east coast [3]. Oil palm later began to take on a commercial role with plantations across Malaysia and Indonesia. This marked the beginning of palm oil’s journey to becoming a commercial powerhouse, efficiently meeting a substantial portion of the world’s vegetable oil demand.

How Is Palm Oil Made: From Seed to Harvest

The palm oil production process begins with nurturing oil palm seeds in nurseries. These seeds grow into seedlings and undergo months of growth. Oil palm seedlings are grown under full sunlight to acclimatize them for planting in the field.

Musim Mas seedlings in nursery

After around 12 months, these young seedlings are transplanted to the plantations just before the rainy season begins. They’re arranged in a triangular pattern with a 9-meter spacing between each plant [4].

How is Palm Oil Made: From Seed to Harvest

This pattern reduces the competition for sunlight between palms and ensures each plant receives maximum light for optimal growth. The palms also receive the necessary care to ward off pests and are provided with proper nutrition.

How Many Years Does an Oil Palm Take to Grow?

Oil palms typically bear fruits 2.5 to 3 years after planting in the field. These ripe fruit bunches are called Fresh Fruit Bunches (FFBs) and can weigh 5 to 20 kilograms or more. Farmers usually harvest oil palms when they reach three years of age.

The plants continue to be productive even after 25 years. However, they’re generally replanted after 25 years because the palms would have grown too tall by then. If the FFBs are too high up the palm, it becomes more challenging for farmers to harvest them.

Oil palm yields are remarkably responsive to environmental conditions and the age of the plant. Mature oil palms in Indonesia and Malaysia can yield an average of 18 to 30 tons of FFB per hectare per year.

Key numbers for growing oil palms

How Is Oil Palm Harvested?

When the FFBs on the oil palm turn bright orange, it indicates that they’re ripe and ready to be harvested. Sometimes, it can be tricky for farmers to check the FFBs visually, so the workers will count the number of detached fruitlets that fell onto the ground naturally. They usually will look for 1 to 12 fruitlets, with the number depending on the individual practices of different companies.

During the harvesting process, plantation workers use a chisel for shorter palms or a long sickle for taller palms to cut the FFB from the main body of the oil palm. If older leaves or fronds block the FFBs, they’re also carefully pruned to facilitate harvesting.

After the FFBs fall to the ground, workers use hooks to load them onto wheelbarrows, collecting any loose fruitlets that may have dislodged in the process. They’re transported from the plantation to the mills within 24 hours for processing via trucks or boats. This marks the first step in the long palm oil transportation journey from the plantations to supermarket shelves.

How are oil palm bunches harvested


What Happens to Waste From the Palm Oil Production Process?

The palm oil production process generates various solid, liquid, and gaseous by-products, often considered waste. However, the palm oil mills at Musim Mas are dedicated to the concept of no-waste palm oil operation. We recover, reuse, and recycle these by-products into the palm oil production process, minimizing environmental impact.

Types of by-products What happens to the by-products
Empty fruit bunches
Palm kernel shells
Palm fibre
Used to fuel the boilers in mills to generate steam and electricity.
Dried decanter solids
Boiler ash
Used as organic fertilizer at plantations.
Palm oil mill effluent (POME) Treated in large ponds, then used as fertilizer.
Methane gas A methane capture facility installed at palm oil mills harnesses methane gas from POME treatment. The methane gas is then used to power mills, estates, and workers’ housing.

Products That Use Palm Oil

Palm oil reigns as the most widely consumed vegetable oil globally, making its way into nearly 50% of packaged products on supermarket shelves. While it’s commonly associated with cooking oil, palm oil, and its derivatives play essential roles in various applications such as food, personal care, and household products:

  • Bread
  • Cake
  • Pizza
  • Ice cream
  • Milkshake
  • Chocolate
  • Toothpaste
  • Shampoo
  • Detergent
  • Makeup

Beyond everyday consumer products, this versatile ingredient finds its way into animal feed, biodiesel, pharmaceuticals, and more. The various applications of palm oil are truly astounding!

Use Sustainable Palm Oil From the Right Sources

With the world’s population projected to exceed 10 billion by 2050, the demand for food and ingredients is rising [5]. Yet, the need to preserve forests and mitigate climate change restricts the availability of sustainable land for agriculture.

Sustainably farmed palm oil emerges as a potential solution to global food security thanks to its remarkable efficiency. Oil palms outshine temperate oilseeds like rapeseed and sunflower, producing oil 6-10 times more efficiently per hectare. Over the last hundred years, much research and development has gone into improving oil palm yields. For example, the Musim Mas GS Series of seeds boasts impressive potential yields exceeding 8 tons of CPO per hectare. This remarkable achievement, nearly 2.5 times higher than the industry standard of 3.25 tons of CPO per hectare, results from 10 years of dedicated non-GMO genetic research.

At Musim Mas, we’re an integrated palm oil corporation with a global presence in 13 countries. Our plantations are meticulously managed by experienced teams dedicated to industry best practices in agronomic management, as advocated by the RSPO Principles & Criteria. Beyond our plantations, we source responsibly sorced palm oil from third-party suppliers, transforming them into various palm oil derivatives for an extensive range of products.


[1] https://doi:10.1017/S0021859604274196