Understanding food labels gets more complicated by the day, with new chemical additives and multisyllabic ingredients only adding to the confusion. The term “fractionated palm oil” confounds many consumers, but it merely refers to an oil processing method that divides, or fractions, the oil into different fat components.
Palm oil comes from the fruit of the oil palm species E. Guineensis, which grows throughout western Africa and Malaysia. In its natural state, palm oil possesses a bright orange color because it contains large amounts of carotene. Because it contains nearly 50 percent saturated fat, palm oil maintains a semi-solid state at room temperature.
The palm oil fractioning process involves two main steps: crystallization and filtration. During crystallization, the palm oil’s triglycerides melt at different temperatures, fractioning the oil into liquid and solid components. The character of the crystals produced depends on the temperature, time and agitation used during the process. The fractioned palm oil then passes through a filtration process, dividing the oil into liquid palm olein and solid palm stearin components.
Since the liquid has been filtered out, fractionated palm oil has a thicker texture than normal palm oil. A higher percentage of saturated fat accounts for this additional thickness. According to the American Palm Oil Council, fractionated palm stearin contains roughly 60 percent saturated fat and 40 percent unsaturated fat, and it’s this solid fractionated portion of the oil that finds its way into many food products.
Food manufacturers favor fractionated palm oil due to its stability and high melting temperature. Since it’s more solid and resistant to melting, fractionated palm oil coats many chocolate products and other food items that could be compromised due to heat. Many supposed health foods and energy bars will use fractionated palm oil to help maintain consistency.
Fractionated palm oil contains a higher percentage of saturated fat than normal palm oil. Due to processing methods, fractionated palm oil may contain varying levels of saturated fat, making it difficult for consumers to know exactly what they’re eating. According to the American Heart Association, saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels, in turn increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Fractionated palm oil should not be confused with hydrogenated oils. The fractioning process only increases the percentage of saturated fat. In contrast, hydrogenation actually hardens the oil and soft fats, destroying healthy unsaturated fats and forming unhealthy trans fats.