24 avr. 2016

The palm oil tree’s fruit (or the origin of evil)

To understand where palm oil comes from, here is a little note on plant anatomy.

 
Let us begin with the plant itself. This palm tree, called Elaeis guineensis, comes from Africa. It grows in hot and humid zones that are especially found in the tropics. It has an average height of 20 meters (65 feet) and consists of a type of trunk, called stipe, with big, robust, spiny leaves at the end. The male and female flowers are small and cream-coloured. They are produced in big clusters (called inflorescences in scientific jargon) at the base of the leaves and are far from pretty: you really wouldn’t want to add them to a bouquet…

 
 If you look closely at Elaeis guineensis, you will find that the male flowers are separated from the female flowers yet are on the same plant. This is particularly important as both sexes are usually found on the same flower in most plants, or, in some cases, the male flowers, located on a completely different plant, are fully isolated from the female flowers…


Whatever the situation, for all flowering plants, the rest of the story happens more or less like it would for humans, apart from a few details… The Gentleman’s pollen grain will be dropped by the wind or animals onto the Lady’s pistil, and will produce a long rigid tube that will penetrate it (yep…) to reach the ovule and deposit its sperm. Forget the image of a tadpole or of a little moving tail: the sperm here has the aspect of a little sphere. Once this magical fusion has occurred, a little plant embryo will develop. The female flower will then change its appearance…

 
 


Its ovary will grow into a fruit and, inside it, food reserves will be produced to form the nut around the embryo. These stocks will ensure the survival of the little seedling when it germinates, once the fruit frees itself from the parent plant. In the case of the palm oil tree, the seed containing the embryo is white. Each seed is solidly enclosed within a fleshy fruit with a yellow orange colour. And this is exactly what will be collected and ground in order to extract the palm’s fat.
  


The reason why the food industry is so seduced by this little ball of fat is simple: its lipid content (the fat molecules) can reach half of its weight! That makes palm oil the first source of vegetable oil in the world, for all cultures (source: USDA).

Translation: Noriane Simon

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