Coconut oil comes in refined and extra virgin coconut oil varieties, just like many other oils. The important question when buying is whether refined coconut oil is as unhealthy as refined vegetable cooking oils, or if there are health benefits associated with certified organic refined coconut oil for body care, high-heat cooking, or as a dietary supplement. Here we have a clear comparison between the different types of coconut oil and what each is best used for.
What Does "Refined" Oil Mean?
Refined oil is an oil that has been processed, stripped of certain natural components, and often deodorized. This is done to extend the shelf life of the oil, to give cooking oil a higher smoke point (meaning it can withstand the high heat used in stir-fry recipes), and to make the oils more stable at room temperature.
However, the refining process can be unhealthy in a lot of ways. First, it takes many of the natural benefits and nutrients in oils away, and second, it involves several unnatural processes, including the following.
- Degumming: Degumming vegetable and seed oils (sunflower, soybean, rapeseed, etc.) reduces their phosphatide content.
- Neutralizing: The deodorizing processes neutralizes the free acid content of oils.
- Bleaching: By filtering the oil through bleaching earth, many of the color pigments in natural oils are removed along with unwanted matter like the proteins and soaps found in oils and fats.
- Deodorizing: The natural odor of oils is reduced by a high-temperature steam refining process known as sparging (which is the injection of steam directly into the liquid oil). This also leaves the oil with a milder, neutral flavor instead of a robust natural flavor and smell.
- Winterizing: In the same way you may need to winterize your vacation home or your vehicle, some oils such as sunflower oil need to be prepared for lower temperatures by having any waxy substances removed that would solidify in cold temperatures.
- Fractionation: In regards specifically to the fat content of oils, partial (or fractional) crystallization is done to separate the liquid (olein) from the solid (stearin) fractions of oil, filtering out those parts more likely to solidify at room temperature so that the oil remains liquid on the shelf.
- Hydrogenation: The hydrogenation process was once commonly used to reduce the organic compounds in oil by saturating them with hydrogen molecules. This process creates unnatural and unhealthy trans fats, so now the majority of oils are only partially hydrogenated (if at all).
- Interesterification: To modify the melting point of oil and slow down its rancidification rate, the fatty acids in oils are modified and moved from one triglyceride molecule to another. The oil is then more suitable for deep-frying and stir-frying, and the resulting interesterified product is then used as a component for margarine that contributes to its taste and low saturated fat content.
As you can see, the refining process is meant to make a cleaner and more stable final product for grocery store shelves, but it nevertheless still means the removal of natural nutrients and sometimes unintended consequences like the creation of dangerous trans fats. Many people feel that unrefined, non-GMO, organic extra virgin oils are the better bet, but let's talk about refined coconut oil specifically.
Virgin vs. Refined Coconut Oil
The practical difference between refined or unrefined coconut oil is that refined coconut oil lasts longer, can withstand higher cook temperatures, and has a more neutral taste than the unrefined option, which has a much deeper coconut flavor. Which type of coconut oil is best for you, and what are the health benefits (if any) of each? Here are those details.
Unrefined Coconut Oil
High-quality organic virgin coconut oil in an unrefined state has, first and foremost, a strong coconut taste. If you're looking for coconut flavor from your coconut oil, this is the type you'd want first, but it won't be able to withstand high-heat cooking the way the refined version does (it's better for sautéing). The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health suggests using coconut oil sparingly in cooking and baking recipes—with a strong enough flavor, you shouldn't need much if you're using the oil principally for taste.
Unrefined coconut oil is also the best coconut oil for skincare, not only due to its aroma but because it still contains all the naturally occurring polyphenols and phytonutrients that the refining process removes. It may also be useful as a natural sunscreen, though the Mayo Clinic points out that it only blocks roughly 20% of damaging UV rays rather than the average 97% found in SPF 30 or above sunscreens. It is far more effective as a moisturizer for skin and hair than as your sole form of sun protection.
Organic coconut oil, much like extra virgin olive oil or avocado oil, can be cold-pressed from fresh coconut meat instead of derived through high-heat refining (if the label specifies the oil has been "expeller pressed" then it was done with a machine and may or may not have been exposed to steam or heat).
There is a "wet" and "dry" way to create unrefined coconut oil: the dry method entails taking dried coconut meat (known as "copra") and pressing the oil out, while the wet method involves pressing while the meat is still moist to extract coconut milk, after which the milk is separated from the oil via a centrifuge machine or fermentation. "Extra virgin" and "unrefined" on labels both mean that the coconut oil has not been through any further refining process after extraction from the coconut itself.
Cold-pressed coconut oil starts out as pure as possible, but depending on the brand you select and their processing practices, even "refined" coconut oil may simply be filtered of certain elements that lead to rancidity. If you want the health benefits of coconut oil in your kitchen, search for related products that reside in that middle ground between virgin and refined, as somewhere there may be a product that perfectly suits your needs.
Refined Coconut Oil
One of the benefits of coconut oil for cooking is that in vegan and health food circles it's quite useful as a replacement for butter. Coconut oil helps raise "good" HDL cholesterol levels, which then help clean up "bad" LDL cholesterol and improve heart and cardiovascular health. However, a little goes a long way, as a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 12 grams of saturated fat and the American Heart Association suggests 13 grams as the daily recommended limit.
Still, refined coconut oil can withstand cooking temperatures up to 450 degrees Fahrenheit, while unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of about 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Partially hydrogenated coconut oil options should be avoided entirely as the hydrogenating process can change good fats into artificial trans fats that have no human health benefit and instead contribute to the risk of cardiovascular disease instead of lessening it.
MCT oil is the ultimate refined coconut oil, made by concentrating the medium-chain triglycerides found in coconut oil using chemical solvents such as hexane. It's a tasteless, odorless oil that's popular among those who practice intermittent fasting or eat a high-fat, low-carb diet like the keto diet. The end result of the refining process leaves an oil that balances between 50% and 80% caprylic acid, and 20% and 80% caproic acid.
The benefit of MCT oil is that it can be used to supplement diets by providing zero-carb energy, and since it's tasteless on its own, it makes an excellent healthy base for homemade salad dressings and condiment alternatives.
A Refined Palate
There are upsides and downsides to each type of coconut oil available at checkout in your local grocery or health food store. That being said, any type of coconut oil is far and above a healthier choice over partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, whether you're cooking with it, moisturizing with it, or supplementing with it. Weigh the pros and cons of each, and make your own choice with confidence.