Coconut oil’s versatility is what makes it such a sought-after product. Whether you want to fry your next meal in it or use it to bring out a nice healthy gloss in your hair, one small tub of coconut oil can go a long way. However, unfortunately for the people who love coconut oil, there can be a real lack of clarity online regarding how its many different types are produced, and what each method means for you. If you really want to get the best from your oil, you want to make sure that you are buying the right kind for the job. Do not fear, though, this guide will help you become the coconut oil connoisseur that you never knew you could be.
To get coconut oil out of a coconut, the coconut must be broken up, and the flesh and the milk must be isolated. This is pretty much where the process of making different coconut oils diverges…
When reading about coconut oil online, you’ll reliably come across different articles comparing refined coconut oil with unrefined, virgin, extra virgin and a whole host of other names. However, in reality, virgin, unrefined and extra virgin coconut oils are the same thing. Unlike olive oil, which must meet strict compositional tests by industry regulators to be marketed as virgin or extra virgin, no such system exists for coconut oil. Many producers, in good faith, describe coconut oil as virgin so that you know that it is unrefined, and hasn’t been exposed to any industrial chemicals. However, remember that virgin and unrefined are interchangeable, and do not pay too much attention to any other labels being thrown about.
So, what makes coconut oil unrefined? Unrefined coconut oil must be obtained directly from fresh coconut meat (kernel) or milk. This means that the oil can be produced from a fresh coconut in just a few hours.
Wet milling (centrifuged) and Quick Drying:
To get coconut oil from fresh coconut meat, you need to get the coconut milk out of the kernel. This is achieved by shelling the coconut and centrifuging it. Centrifuging basically means spinning the mixture very, very fast so that the heavy water and bits of shell are pushed to one end of the container, and the lighter oil sits on top. The oil can then be skimmed off the top. Quick drying is when the flesh is dried, quickly and the oil is pressed mechanically, very heavily, out of the flesh of the coconut.
Unrefined – Cold pressing and Expeller pressing:
Both refined and unrefined coconut oil can be Cold Pressed or Expeller pressed, although the latter is a method more commonly used in making unrefined coconut oil.
Another way of getting coconut oil out of the copra (the meat of the coconut) is via cold pressing or expeller pressing. This essentially means that the coconut meat is put into a small screw-like device and subjected to very high pressure. This will press the oil out. The main difference is that the expeller pressing method does not control the temperature well, and the temperature in the vessel can rise to about 100°C. This has an impact on the quality of coconut oil. Some nutrients are denatured by the heat and thus lost in the heat-treated oil.
The cold pressing process is very similar, but the temperature is well controlled and does not rise above 60°C in the vessel. This means that less of the nutritional content is lost during this process. Although it’s hard to make a quantitative estimate about the different nutritional value, cold pressing does retain more of the desirable nutrients. However, the cold pressing method is slightly more expensive, so it is up to you whether you consider the extra nutritional content to be worth the price.
From a consumer perspective, the key factor in unrefined coconut oil is that it contains more of what is actually in the coconut. This doesn’t make a huge amount of difference if you’re using coconut oil as a skin product, or in your hair, but it does from a dietary perspective. As many of the original nutrients in the coconut are retained, including molecules such as phytonutrients and polyphenols. There is some promising evidence for these molecules playing a role in long-term health and being a valuable part of a healthy diet. Although much of the science regarding the impact of consumption of coconut oil on the different types of cholesterol in the body is sketchy, it’s far too soon to advise anyone to make it a daily dietary staple! However, in terms of promising health benefits brought by polynutrients and polyphenols, unrefined coconut oil wins out every time.
Another result of retaining more of the original content of the coconut itself is in the flavour. Unrefined coconut oil has a strong coconutty taste, which is fantastic in curries, or anything you want to have a distinct flavour, but this also means that relying on unrefined coconut oil as your main cooking oil is slightly impractical (unless you’re very keen for everything to taste like bounty bars.)
From a hair and skin care perspective, unrefined coconut oil is generally preferred, some beauty therapists go so far as to say that only unrefined should be used. However, there’s no strong evidence that unrefined is actually better for either job.
Unfortunately, unrefined coconut oil will not usually last long before it goes off, and this is a major downside, especially if you’re keeping it as a hair or skin product.
Refined coconut oil:
Refined coconut oil goes through a slightly different process. The coconut meat is usually pre-dried and transported somewhere else for processing. There is more than one way that coconut oil can be refined. As the copra has been handled and transported in a fashion that is not particularly hygienic, the copra itself is not particularly clean and not suitable for consumption. This means that to be sold, it must be refined. Therefore, chemical solvents are used to bring out the oil and are separated from the rest of the waste. The oil will also be heated and bleached and deodorised.
Although this process is fairly unpopular amongst many of those who are interested in coconut oil and value organic foods, unless your oil has been hydrogenated, and contains hydrogenated fat, there’s no good evidence that this refinement process leaves anything harmful in the oil. Controversially, though, it does take some good stuff out. Both the heating and the treatment cause a lot of the nutrients that make coconut oil so popular to be lost in this process. Still, one upside is that refined coconut oil is usually a bit cheaper.
As one of the most useful features of coconut oil is our ability to cook with it, any relevant cooking properties that have to do matter. If you’re looking to replace your frying oil with coconut oil, then you should probably make sure that you’re using the refined product. Refined coconut oil is particularly nifty because it lacks that distinct coconut flavour that the unrefined version has, and has a much higher flash point. This not only means that you can cook at a much higher temperature, but that, if you don’t fancy a strong whiff of coconut with your eggs in the morning, then this is the oil for you. Refined coconut oil also has a much longer shelf life, which is worth considering if you’re investing in a good value, multipurpose beauty product.
Liquid coconut oil:
Liquid coconut oil is isolated by fractionation of the original mixture, which essentially means heating it until the oil comes off as a gas, and collecting the vapour. Coconut oil itself has a relatively low melting point and will boil off far before many of the nutrients, and thus the coconut oil achieved here is particularly low in nutritional content.
Organic vs non-organic:
The definition of organic vs non-organic is the same for coconut oil as for any other food stuff. Organic food is typically food that has not had synthetic pesticides, fertilisers or GMOs used in the farming process. There is no good evidence that organic farming has any health benefits, so really, the only way that you can tell is by checking the label. Organic products will usually cost you more, but there isn’t much reason to make this investment.
In summary, there is actually very little to get your head around so that you can be ready to buy coconut oil with confidence. Decide whether you want nutritional value, taste, or whether you need a long shelf life. If you’re looking for a beauty product, you may have to experiment a little with refined and unrefined before you find what works for you. Happy coconut oil-hunting!