Palmkernel and Coconut (Lauric) Oils

Most vegetable oils contain varying proportions of palmitic (16:0), oleic (18:1), and linoleic (18:2) acid as major constituent fatty acids. These are generally accompanied by low levels of stearic acid (18:0) and sometimes by linolenic acid (18:3). Less commonly, there are vegetable oils with much of these acids replaced by short- and medium-chain fatty acids (8:0 caprylic, 10:0 capric, 12:0 lauric, and 14:0 myristic acid). Lauric acid is dominant among these and oils of this type are called lauric oils. Two commodity oils fall into this category – palmkernel and coconut – and both are tropical tree products. Typical fatty acid composition is given in Table 1. Both have high levels of lauric acid but the two oils differ from one another in that the combined level of C8 and C10 acids is higher in coconut oil balanced by a lower level of oleic acid. Other oils are known with high levels of caprylic, capric, and myristic acids, but these are not readily available in the market place.

Table 1. Fatty acid composition (wt %) of the two commodity lauric oils
  Palmkernel 3 4 45 18 9 3 15 2
  Coconut 8 7 48 16 9 2 7 2


Table 2 below provides figures for production, trade, and consumption of palmkernel oil and of coconut oil for the period 2006/07 to 2011/12. Readers will be able to derive information for themselves but here are some comments.

  • The combined production of these two oils has risen from 7.7 to 9.6 million tonnes in the last six years with increase coming almost entirely from palmkernel oil, which is now the major lauric oil. This is linked to the increasing area under oil palm cultivation leading to more palm oil and more palmkernel oil.

  • For palmkernel oil, the main sources are Malaysia and Indonesia, and for coconut oil it is Philippines, Indonesia, and India. Exports of these two oils come mainly from Malaysia, Indonesia, and Philippines, and the major importers are EU-27 and USA. There is very little trade in copra and in palmkernels.

  • Over the last ten years or so there has been considerable development of the oleochemical industry in South East Asia, particularly in Malaysia, with the result that increasing quantities of the lauric oils are used in the country of origin.

The lauric oils are used extensively for both food and nonfood purposes (probably close to a 1:1 ratio) and the range of uses is extended by hydrogenation, fractionation and by interesterification. The last is often carried out with a blend of lauric and nonlauric oils, and is catalysed by chemical reagents or by appropriate lipases. Nonfood uses are mainly linked with the useful surfactant properties of C12 and C14 chains. Major food uses include spreads, (shallow) frying oils, filling creams for biscuits and cakes, ice cream, nondairy whipping creams, coffee whiteners, and medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).

Table 2. Production, trade, and consumption (food and nonfood) of coconut and palmkernel oils (million tonnes, taken from previous Lipid Library report and USDA 2013 for 2010/11 and 2011/12 figures)
    Production 5.37 5.72 5.88 5.88 6.02 5.54
    Exports 0.13 0.13 0.11 0.12 0.12 0.11
    Crush 5.16 5.66 5.81 5.81 6.09 5.51
  Coconut oil
    Production 3.22 3.53 3.63 3.62 3.83 3.56
    Exports 1.74 1.93 1.52 2.91 1.71 1.85
    Consumption 3.28 3.46 3.46 3.88 3.81 3.73
    Production 10.18 11.10 11.74 12.22 12.55 13.31
    Exports 0.15 0.10 0.15 0.02 0.02 0.02
    Crush 10.04 11.01 11.57 12.29 12.42 13.23
Palmkernel oil
    Production 4.48 4.90 5.14 5.50 5.55 5.91
    Exports 2.12 2.49 2.58 2.91 2.81 2.53
    Consumption 4.54 4.49 4.83 4.92 5.25 5.68
*Copra is dried coconut flesh and is extracted to give coconut oil.

Updated: March, 2013