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A number of palms are major sources of edible oils that are refined into cooking oil, margarine, and shortening. Palm oils are also used in the manufacture of candles, soaps, lubricating greases, and stabilizers in plastic and rubber compounds. The African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) is the single most important oil-producing palm, having recently surpassed the coconut. The African oil palm is a sun-loving species that grows naturally in a 155 mi (250 km) wide strip along the coast of western Africa from Senegal to Angola, but is now planted throughout much of the tropics. The fruits of the oil palm are 23% oil by weight and most of the oil is in the outer husk, which surrounds the inner stone. The yields from plantations are enormous with one hectare yielding as much as 5 tons of crude palm oil per year. The oil is collected by digesting the fruit to a pulp that is then centrifuged or pressed to separate the oil. The American oil palm (E. oleifera) is native to Central America and northern South America where it is extensively utilized. The American oil palm is better adapted to wet habitats than the African oil palm and the two species have been interbred to improve plantation stock.

The coconut palm is thought to be native to Polynesia, but it has been propagated and cultivated throughout the tropics for so long that its origin is uncertain. Coconut palms were until recently the major source of palm oil. The majority of the annual coconut harvest goes toward the production of oil. Coconut oil is derived from copra, which is the white flesh inside the seed (coconuts bought in a grocery store have had their large outer husk removed). One coconut tree may yield 198 lb (90 kg) of copra a year and 9-11 gal (35-40 l) of oil. Coconut oil is especially suited for the manufacture of fast-lathering soaps and is also used as a hardening agent in a number of seemingly unrelated products such as cosmetics, margarine and rubber. Coconut meat is of course widely used in baking, cooking, and candy making.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Overdamped to PeatPalms - Distribution, Structure, Food, Oil, Fiber, Ornamentals - Economic uses