The so-called Babassu palm (Attalea speciosa), also known as Cusi palm, is a species of palm tree native to South America. The plant is a single-stemmed palm of the genus Attalea. It grows up to 200 years old and reaches a height of about 30 meters. Its trunk diameter ranges from 20 to 50 centimeters, depending on the size of the Babassu palm.
Typical for the palm is a crown consisting of 12 to 20 leaves. These leaves protrude outward at an acute angle and reach a length of six to nine meters. The petiole alone makes up about 1.5 to 2 meters. Each leaf of the Babassu palm has 150 leaflets about 30 to 70 centimeters long. The inflorescences, which are either all-male, all-female or androgynous, are surrounded by a woody bract during the budding stage.
The fruit, from whose oily seeds babassu oil is later extracted, belongs to the drupe family. It is about 4 to 10 centimeters wide and 6 to 15 centimeters long, weighing about 80 to 250 grams.
Originally, the Babassu palm comes from the southern part of the Amazon basin. There it is at home between Guyana and Suriname and from the Atlantic coast into Bolivia. The largest populations, with up to 10,000 Babassu palms per hectare, are found in the so-called Babassu zone in the southeast of the Amazon region.
There it finds optimal growing conditions with approx. 1,500 to 2,500 millimeters of precipitation per year. It is particularly widespread in the Brazilian states of Maranhão, Tocantins and Piauí. The flowering period of the Babassu palm extends from January to April. The fruits, from whose so-called almonds the babassu oil is pressed, become ripe for harvesting between August and December.
Even today, the fruits of the palm are harvested in the traditional communities of the "collectors of the babassu fruit" (Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu). The separation of the oily fruit from the hard shell is still mostly done by hand.
Each babaçu palm bears between 100 and 600 fruits on its fruit stalks. The fruit of the Babassu palm first reached Europe in 1867, although the true value of the plants was not recognized in England at that time. It was not until the beginning of the last century that the Brazilian oil fruit also came into focus in this country.
The basis for the production of babassu oil is the nut with its oil content of 60-70%. Several steps are carried out during the production process. In addition to skimming and boiling, the particularly gentle cold-pressing process has proven to be particularly suitable for high-quality babassu oil.
The result of this production step is a tallowy base oil characterized by a nutty odor and a white to yellowish color. In a final refining step, the babassu oil is refined. This gives it its pure, white color and makes it odorless. Unrefined babassu oil also undergoes a final production step.
By decanting and filtering through an ultra-fine filter system, it is thus freed from all remaining dirt particles and suspended matter. The result is an oil that closely resembles coconut oil in its fatty acid composition. While it has a rather solid consistency at temperatures below 22 degrees Celsius, it begins to melt at skin temperature.
Babassu oil is characterized by a wide range of applications. Due to its typical melting behavior at low temperatures, it has established itself primarily in the cosmetics sector. There it is used in numerous skin care products. When the fat comes into contact with the skin, it melts almost immediately, is absorbed very quickly and thus gives the skin a silky feel.
Furthermore, the high content of lauric acid, which gives babassu oil an antimicrobial effect, is particularly interesting. Accordingly, the oil is not only suitable for products used for dry skin. It is also used in creams and ointments for inflammatory impurities. The oil's slightly cooling effect also makes babassu oil popular in products for neurodermitic and itchy skin.
In addition, babassu oil is also suitable as a massage oil. Industry also relies on the high-quality oil from the Amazon region to produce surfactants or, more generally, to replace oils and fats of animal origin. The results include soaps, detergents and lubricants. In the meantime, the fat is also used as a basis for fragrance oils and occasionally as a food fat through the addition of essential oils.
Compared to other palms used for oil production, the babassu palm is hardly cultivated in the form of huge plantations. For the production of babassu oil, natural stocks of the plant are predominantly used in the countries of origin. In order to achieve the best possible yield, the population is thinned out at an early stage. By harvesting hearts of palm, both very old and male babassu palms are weeded out of the population.
In the areas of origin, people also use other parts of the plant after harvesting. In northern Brazil, for example, the sugary sap of the inflorescence stem is fermented to produce an alcoholic liquid, or the stumps are used to make palm wine.
Interestingly, thanks to its unique properties, babassu oil can be used not only in cooking but also in cosmetics. As early as 2008, the airline Virgin Atlantic Aiways successfully used a mixture of babassu oil and coconut oil as an alternative fuel for a Boeing 747.