Vegetable oil, particularly palm oil, plays a crucial role in food security and nutrition in many developing countries. The importance of these oils can be understood through several key dimensions.

Vegetable Oils and Developing Countries

The increasing consumption and high-calorie content of vegetable oil products have significantly contributed to the rise in overall food consumption (measured in kcal/person/day) in developing countries.

This trend marks a notable advancement in food security over the past decades. For instance, in the mid-1970s, the consumption of vegetable oil products was only 5.3 kg per person per year, providing just 144 kcal per person per day. This accounted for 6.7% of the total average calorie availability of 2152 kcal in these countries.

By the period 1997/99, per capita consumption had increased to 9.9 kg, contributing 262 kcal per day to total food supplies, which represented 9.8% of the total average calorie availability that had risen to 2680 kcal. Essentially, more than 20% of the additional calories consumed in developing countries during this period came from vegetable oil products.

Vegetable oils are expected to continue, and even enhance, their role as significant contributors to increased food consumption in developing countries. Predictions from the FAO suggest that 44% of every 100 additional calories consumed by 2030 could come from these products.

Fats provide 25–30% of daily energy in high income settings and are an affordable food for undernourished people who need increased energy intake. Vegetable oils play a significant role in that calorific intake in these environments.

Affordability and Trade

Palm oil is often more affordable than other vegetable oils due to its high yield per hectare and lower production costs. On average, oil palm produces nearly 4 tonnes of oil per hectare, which is roughly five times, eight times, and ten times higher than rapeseed, sunflower, and soybean yields, respectively.

Palm oil is the world’s most traded vegetable oil. It supplies around 30 to 40 percent of the world’s vegetable oil demand. It therefore plays an outsize role in its contribution to caloric intake in developing countries, as noted above. 

It plays a significant role in major developing economies such as China and India.

China’s total consumption of vegetable oil was estimated to be around 35 million metric tons. Palm oil constitutes around 20 per cent of this consumption. In 2020, China imported approximately 6 million metric tons of palm oil, making it one of the largest importers of palm oil in the world.

India imports over 70% of its edible oil requirements, with palm oil constituting around 59% of these imports.

Nutritional Value

Palm oil is a source of essential fatty acids and fat-soluble vitamins, like Vitamin E. While it is high in saturated fats, it remains a key dietary component in many regions where other fat sources might be scarce or expensive. In regions with limited access to diverse fat sources, palm oil remains a key dietary component contributing significantly to calorific intake.

Cooking and Food Preparation

In many developing countries, palm oil is a staple for cooking and food preparation. Its high smoking point makes it suitable for frying, and its unique flavor and texture are preferred for certain traditional dishes. There is a preference for palm oil in countries such as India, where its properties are preferred for traditional snacks. 

Palm oil is widely used in processed foods due to its versatility and stability. It is a common ingredient in many packaged foods, contributing to calorie intake and energy provision in diets.

Food Security for Farmers

Palm also plays a role in food security for palm farmers. The increased incomes of oil palm farmers in Indonesia leads to a more diversified food consumption in the home, which means less dependence on a single crop for subsistence nutrition.