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Coconut oil has been lauded as a superfood. Most of coconut oil’s saturated fat content is in the form of medium chain triglycerides, which the body prefers to use as energy rather than store fat. It also contains antimicrobial fatty acids, caprylic acid and lauric acid, and helps the body produce ketones, which is an energy source for the brain.
But while coconut oil is a healthy fat and a mainstay in the kitchen, there is a lot of confusion around its labeling. For example, what’s the difference between refined and unrefined varieties? Or, how do they make those liquid varieties that never solidify, no matter how cold they get?
To get some clarity around these coconut oil questions, we reached out to NOW®, a company known for its extensive line of coconut oil products as well as a commitment to transparency around ingredients. We drilled down on the details with Senior Nutrition Education Manager Neil Edward Levin, CCN, DANLA and some of his answers might actually surprise you (Spoiler alert: extra-virgin coconut oil isn’t a thing!).
Read on to find out exactly what you need to know next time you buy or use coconut oil.
The basics: refined versus unrefined coconut oil
Many of the terms we’ve come to associate with coconut oil actually originate from olive oil classifications, but the flaw in using these terms is that coconut oil is manufactured very differently than olive oil.
When manufacturing unrefined coconut oil, according to Levin, the fresh coconut “meat” is heated with hot air to remove water that can cause spoilage, then it’s mechanically pressed to remove the oil without solvents. The refined variety, on the other hand, is made from coconut meat that’s dried in the sun, smoked or using high heat (the dried flesh is also known as copra). Then the oil is mechanically pressed, refined with caustic soda, bleached and deodorized.
There is definitely a difference in the process of making refined oils as much of the scent as well as the gritty texture is removed. However, some of the other terms associated with coconut oil may not be as meaningful.
You might be paying more for that jar of cold-pressed – for no good reason
Because cold-pressed olive oil is considered superior, it’s only natural to think that the same goes for coconut oil – but not so fast.
Coconut oils are generally all derived from heated coconut meat, even if subsequently cold pressed, according to Levin. So even if it’s mechanically pressed, it will likely be using coconut meat that’s previously been heated.
While coconut oils will be made using preheated coconut meat, there is some variation to the degree of heating that each producer will use to dry the coconut meat. While some producers might dry their coconut at a lower temperature of 114℉, another producer might process their coconut meat at 428℉. According to Levin, the closest to raw you can get would be from a source that guarantees they process their coconut meat at a controlled lower temperature.
So, while an oil might be cold pressed, it isn’t as impactful once you understand that it may have been heated at an earlier stage in the process.
The misnomer of extra-virgin coconut oil
We know that unrefined and refined are distinct varieties, but what about virgin? According to Levin, virgin is simply a synonym for unrefined coconut oil.
But if virgin coconut oil is a pure, unrefined variety then you might be led to believe that extra-virgin is even better. But that’s a misnomer, according to Levin. “The term ‘extra virgin’ has also been used, but has no real definition and seems to be an inappropriate copy of the rating for olive oils,” he says.
The always-liquid varieties
Coconut oil contains saturated fatty acids, and like other items that contain saturated fats (such as butter), it tends to solidify at room temperature. So how do they make those varieties that are clear and liquid and never get solid?
To manufacture liquid varieties, according to Levin, producers will cool the oil to separate fractions that solidify at distinct temperatures as the temperature of the oil drops. This creates something called fractionated coconut oil, which means that the liquid version can be made as such because it doesn’t contain the same range of fatty acids as the whole coconut oil.
Smoke points matter
While unrefined oils are made without the use of solvents, there are times when you are better to go with a refined coconut oil – it all depends on the temperature you are cooking at. That’s because unrefined coconut oils tend to smoke less due to the removal of impurities such as particulates, according to Levin.
An unrefined variety will start to smoke at about 350℉, while the refined version smokes at about 400℉. Either variety can be used for baking but just keep an eye on the temperature and use unrefined in your baked goods at 350℉ or less. If you’re doing any high-temperature baking or deep frying with coconut oil, use a refined variety.
Coconut oil in your beauty cabinet
You might be surprised to learn that it’s actually the refined variety that is most often used in beauty products. According to Levin, this is because the unrefined varieties may overwhelm the aroma of the product, so the refined oils can provide the same benefit without the scent. Plus, the particulates that can still be found in unrefined oils can sometimes be irritating to the skin.
And food for thought: topical coconut oil is often food grade, as well, according to Levin, but since the FDA doesn’t allow companies to label the same product as being safe for topical and internal use, in practice you’ll never see that on the label.
Should you refrigerate it?
Unlike other types of saturated fats like butter, coconut oil doesn’t need to be refrigerated. “Coconut oil can solidify between 74℉ and 81℉, typically given as 78℉,” explains Levin, “but that actually varies with the purity of the oil since solid particles serve as seeds for crystallization and certain fatty acids tend to solidify as the temperature of the oil drops.”
He says you can refrigerate the liquid varieties, but it may start to separate and solidify at such cold temperatures so that’s personal preference.
So now that you have clarity around when to use which variety, is there anything else to know? What about fair trade and quality assurance? We posed that question to Levin.
“Fair trade is desirable, but more important are the protection of rainforests and habitat, and the avoidance of using monkeys to harvest,” explains Levin. “[Also] a trusted brand is always a sign of quality. Responsible companies like NOW review Gas Chromatography test results showing fatty acid profiles of each incoming lot of oil to confirm the identity and purity of that oil, as well as testing for oxidation to assure freshness.”