You would think that choosing a coconut oil would be a simple matter. After all, coconut oil is a single ingredient substance, and it’s an all natural product, so how hard could it be? Couldn’t you just pick up whichever brand your local supermarket carries, or sort by price on Amazon and order the cheapest one?
Well you could, but you might be getting a product that isn’t pure coconut oil, you could be buying the wrong kind of coconut oil for the use you had in mind, the coconut oil may have been produced from non organic and non sustainable sources, and you could be simply paying too much for a brand that seduces you with its marketing.
What Is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is the oil obtained from the fruit of the coconut palm. The coconut palm is native to coastal southeast Asia, and today the major producers of coconut oil are the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
The majority of coconut oil on the market is made from copra. Copra is the dried meat of the coconut. This is then pressed to obtain the oil.
Other coconut oil comes from the fresh meat, this is non-copra oil and will usually be identified on the product label as ‘virgin’.
These are the two broad types of coconut oil. Copra coconut oil will always be a more refined product. Virgin coconut oil is less refined and therefore deemed to be better for you.
Terms Commonly Used To Describe Coconut Oil
- Coconut Oil
- Extra Virgin
- Expeller Pressed
- Fair Trade
- Partially Hydrogenated or Hydrogenated
If your product is simply labeled coconut oil, then it will be an RBD product – see below. RBD oils can be used for edible and nonedible purposes.
Virgin Coconut Oil
Virgin coconut oil refers to oils that have undergone the least amount of refining. However, there is no legal definition of virgin coconut oil, nor any regulatory body that policies coconut oil labeling, so anybody can slap a label on their product and call it virgin coconut oil if they want to.
Virgin coconut oil should be pressed from the flesh of fresh coconut, it should be a non copra oil, and neither chemicals or very high levels of heat should be used in its production.
There are two methods which are used to produce virgin coconut oil:
Quick Drying – Minimal heat is used to dry the coconut and then the oil is mechanically pressed from the flesh. This may sometimes be referred to as cold pressed oil.
Wet Milling – This method refers to a process that first extracts coconut milk from the coconut and then separates the fats from the water in that milk. Coconut milk is an oil in water emulsion and is obtained by pressing fresh coconut flesh. The oil is then obtained from the milk using one of the following methods
- Boiling – heats the milk until the water content evaporates.
- Fermentation – is the traditional method that has been used for hundreds of years. The coconut milk is left to ferment for 24 to 36 hours, during which time the oil and the water separate. The recovered oil is then heated to remove any remaining moisture.
- Refrigeration – This causes the milk to separate and the oil to congeal and float on top of the water where it is easily removed.
- Centrifugal separation – the coconut milk is spun at high speeds in a centrifuge and the denser water is flung out to the sides of the centrifuge, while the less dense oil accumulates in the center.
- The use of enzymes
All methods of producing virgin coconut oil yield an oil that smells like coconut and tastes like coconut. If you buy a jar of coconut oil and find upon opening it, that it has neither characteristic, then you should return it for a refund.
Research carried out on wet milled virgin coconut oil has revealed that this form of coconut oil has the ability to lower lipids. Wet milled coconut oil reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, low density lipoprotein (LDL) and very low density lipoprotein (VLDL) cholesterol levels, and increased high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in serum and tissues.
If you’re a hands on type of person and you’re wondering if it is possible to make your own virgin coconut oil at home from fresh coconut flesh, then I’m happy to tell you that you absolutely can.
- Coconuts (3 coconuts makes just over 1/2 cup of oil)
- Screwdriver or drill
- Kitchen towels
- 1 large bowl
- 2 medium sized bowls
- Sharp knife
- Fruit/vegetable peeler
- Blender or food processor
- One cup of distilled or mineral water for each coconut used.
- Cheesecloth or a nut milk bag
- Sterilised oven-proof dish (heat in oven, immerse in boiling water, or run through dishwasher wash and dry cycle.)
- Mesh strainer
- Sterilised glass jar to store finished oil
1) Start by drying out the water from your coconuts. One of the easiest ways is to drill a couple of holes at the top, slightly pointy end. Empty the coconut water into a bowl, and set aside, we will use it later on.
2) After draining the water from all the coconuts, crack open the outer shell. Wrap each of the coconuts in a tea towel in turn. Strike the coconut with a heavy hammer blow. It could take a number of attempts, but eventually the shell will crack, exposing the white coconut flesh. Repeat this for all the coconuts.
3) To separate the meat from the shell you can use the tip of a clean sharp knife to run around the edges of the shell to free the flesh. When all the meat has been collected, peel the brown hard skin away using a vegetable peeler. Discard the peelings, preferably into your compost bin.
4) Rinse the coconut with purified water. Add the coconut flesh and coconut water to the blender and blend together, on the highest speed, until the coconut pieces are of a very fine texture.
5) Take the coconut out of the blender and put into the large bowl. Add the distilled or mineral water to the bowl as well. Using your hands, squeeze the coconut and water together until the mixture looks very white and creamy. Continue this process of mixing and squeezing about 30 times. Leave the bowl and contents to stand at room temperature for at least 3 hours.
6) After 3 hours, the cream will have visibly risen to the top. We need the two bowls, cheesecloth, and sieve. Put the sieve on the larger bowl and then place the cheesecloth on top. Ladle the coconut mixture into the cheesecloth, and squeeze very hard, extracting the liquid from the coconut. Empty the coconut flakes into your other bowl when the liquid has been extracted. Repeat until all the coconut is in one bowl and the liquid is in the other.
7) You can use the coconut flakes to make coconut flour or coconut macaroons, or simply add to your compost heap.
8) Place the liquid extracted from the coconut flakes. in a shallow oven-proof container, and cover with some cling film.
9) If your environment is cool, for example where your normal room temperature is below about 70F or 21C, leave the mixture to stand for 48 hours, then put it in the fridge for at least 3 hours or overnight to solidify.
10) If you live in a warmer climate leave the dish to stand at room temperature for 24 hours, and then place it in the fridge for another 24 hours.
11) After being refrigerated, there will be a solid layer of creamy white substance at the top. This is the oil.
12) Carefully extract this from the remaining liquid by using a mesh strainer to separate the solid oil and the liquid.
13) Discard the liquid.
13) Now you have some of your very own virgin cold pressed coconut oil. Use whenever you need to just like you would use store bought Virgin Coconut Oil.
Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
This is a marketing term that has no meaning. Coconut oil is either virgin as described in the processes above, or it is derived from copra. The only difference between extra virgin coconut oil and virgin coconut oil is the price.
RBD Coconut Oil
RBD stands for refined, bleached, and deodorized.
RBD coconut oil is made from copra (dried coconut meat), and the coconut meat is dried in a number of ways.
- Smoke drying
- Sun drying
- Kiln drying
- A combination of the above three methods.
When standard copra is used, the unrefined coconut oil produced is not suitable for human consumption and must be refined. This is because most copra has not been dried under sanitary conditions.
The coconuts can be stored out in the open for weeks or months before they are broken open for drying. The halved coconuts are then left to fully dry for a week, and are exposed to dirt and dust, bacteria, viruses, fungal spores, and animal droppings. The copra doesn’t undergo any cleaning before it is pressed for oil.
A major concern with copra that has been dried improperly is contamination with Aflatoxin which is a carcinogen. A careful refining process removes this contaminant.
High temperatures are used to deodorize the oil.
The oil is filtered through clays to remove impurities. This process is referred to as bleaching even though no bleach is used. During the clay filtering process, the oil becomes a whiter color because the clays remove pigment, hence the term bleaching. The clays used are the same types that are used to filter and purify water.
Both heat and clay bleaching are physical refining processes and are considered far better than chemical refining involving solvents.
Once coconut oil has been refined, it is safe to eat or to use for skincare. RBD oils don’t retain any coconut flavor or aroma.
RBD oil is sometimes hydrogenated. Hydrogenated oils are best avoided if you want to consume healthy oils because they are a source of harmful trans fatty acids.
Expeller Pressed Coconut Oil
Expeller pressing is a physical method of extracting the oil from copra. Expeller pressed oils are usually RBD oils and have a higher smoke point than other coconut oils which makes them more suitable for higher temperature cooking methods like frying.
Virgin coconut oils will have a smoke point of around 350F which is fine for baking but not high enough for frying. RBD expeller pressed oils have a smoke point of between 400F and 450F.
Coconut oil is a healthier choice than any other vegetable oil used for frying.
Refined Coconut Oil
This can refer to any type of coconut oil since all coconut oil is refined in some way. Generally though this will refer to an RBD oil that has been produced using the methods already described, or a copra derived oil that has been subjected to solvent extraction.
When solvents like hexane are used to extract the oil, the oil goes through additional filtration processes to remove the solvent. However, complete removal of the solvent cannot be guaranteed.
To be safe, solvent extracted oils should be used for non edible purposes.
Liquid Coconut Oil
Also known as fractionated coconut oil, this type of coconut oil remains liquid at room temperature, whereas other forms of coconut oil are solid. The main beneficial component of coconut oil is lauric acid, and this is removed to make fractionated oil.
Other long chain fatty acids are also removed leaving behind only the medium chain fatty acids, capric acid and caprylic acid.
These are both very healthy fats, but with lauric acid removed, fractionated coconut oil doesn’t have the same health benefits as non fractionated coconut oils.
Fractionated oil is produced by heating the coconut oil above its melting point and then allowing it to cool to the point where the lauric acid and long chain acids solidify. These solids can then be removed, while the medium chain fatty acids remain liquid.
Fractionated coconut oil can be eaten, but it is usually used to make liquid soaps, lotions, creams, massage oils, shampoos and conditioners, and as a carrier oil for perfume oils.
Organic Coconut Oil
The term ‘organic’ on a product label doesn’t always denote a superior product. Organic certification is a costly and time consuming business, and producers unwilling or unable to undergo certification may be producing their coconut oil in a wholly organic way, they just don’t have the legal right to use the term on their labelling.
Additionally, unlike most food crops where pesticide use (and other chemical spraying) is a real concern, coconuts themselves are not sprayed. That’s not to say that pesticides are never used. They may be added to the soil or injected into the trunk of the tree.
If pesticides are used, it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that the coconuts would contain any pesticide residue.
That said, if a product is certified organic, then you can be certain that it is pesticide free. Organic oils usually command a higher price.
Fair Trade Coconut Oil
The Fair Trade scheme tries to ensure that small producers receive a fair price for their products.
Most small coconut farmers earn about one dollar per day. In the Philippines, one of the world’s leading coconut oil producers, an estimated 60% of small-scale coconut farmers live in poverty.
Fair trade also helps to ensure that products are sourced sustainably.
As coconut trees age, they become less productive. In order to maintain their income, coconut farmers are motivated to plant more coconut trees. To do this, they have to clear land of other native plants and trees, which reduces biodiversity and impacts all of the animal life that relied on that natural habitat for its survival.
Increased planting of coconut trees also puts a strain on the soil which has to produce the nutrients that the trees need to grow. This tends to lead to the use of chemical fertilizers which pollute local water sources.
By ensuring that coconut farmers actually receive a fair price for their product, Fair Trade enables farmers to make a living from smaller areas of coconut planting.
Fair Trade products generally cost more (though not always) and are worth seeking out because everyone deserves fair compensation for their work and products, and the local environment, water sources and wildlife deserve protection too.
Partially Hydrogenated or Hydrogenated
Hydrogenated coconut oil shouldn’t be a problem if you live in the US, but if you live in the tropics where ambient air temperature is usually higher than 76F, the oil available to you may be hydrogenated to keep it solid.
Hydrogenation creates trans fatty acids which are harmful to your health.
So Which Type Of Coconut Oil Is Best?
Based on research, it appears that antioxidant levels in virgin coconut oil produced using a wet milling processes are higher than in RBD oils.
Of the various wet milling processes, fermentation is the preferred method for ensuring the highest levels of antioxidants. Once the oil has been separated from the water in coconut milk, it is heated to remove any remaining water, and it is this heating process which increases the level of antioxidants in the oil.
A 2013 study ascertained the antioxidant levels in cold extracted virgin coconut oil, hot extracted virgin coconut oil and standard refined coconut oil.
For cold extracted coconut oil the antioxidant levels were 65 – 70%, hot extracted coconut oil contained 80 – 87%, and for standard coconut oil the antioxidant level was 35 – 45%.
So as far as the research is concerned, virgin coconut oils produced using wet milling and heat are overall healthier products than those classed as ‘raw’ or ‘cold pressed’.
The fatty acid composition of virgin coconut oils and RBD oils are the same regardless of how the oil is produced.
So if you want the highest antioxidant levels in the coconut oil that you eat off the spoon, add to smoothies, bake or saute with, spread on bread, etc, then you should look for a wet milled fermented oil. But as you can see from the figures, other forms of virgin coconut oil still have really good antioxidant levels.
For high heat cooking, you will be best served by an RBD, expeller pressed oil. This type of oil will also be preferable if you don’t like the flavor of coconut oil but still want to benefit from its healthy fatty acids. An expeller pressed oil is the better choice for any dishes where coconut flavor would spoil the dish.
For skin or hair care use you have a wider range of oils to choose from although fractionated (liquid oil) is missing the most beneficial component, lauric acid.
One last thing to be aware of, some coconut oils will be cut with cheaper oils. These products may say coconut oil on the front label, but when you check the ingredient panel on the back, you will see other oils listed. So always read your labels.
To find out if the brand of coconut oil that you are considering buying is suitable for your needs, look at the brand website, where you can usually find the relevant information. If you can’t find the details that you need, then drop the company a quick email and ask.