Looking to figure out how to choose a good coconut oil? You’re not alone.
While previously vilified in society thanks to policy dictated by politics, profitability, and misleading science, natural saturated fats like coconut oil are making a serious come-back as their many health benefits are coming to light.
As it goes in the free market world, traditional nourishing foods (like healthful fats) typically get “cloned” by the big guys of the food industry, creating an end-product that’s lower quality, cheaper for the consumer, and packs serious profitability. Unfortunately, these new products are sometimes detrimental to your health and lack the nourishing properties of the original product. (Stick of margarine, anyone?)
While most varieties of coconut oil on the market today still contain nourishing properties, knowing how to choose a good coconut oil takes a bit of skill. The good news is, it’s not that complicated, and you’ll be a certified coconut pro (yes, officially) in no time.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is the oil extracted from the edible, fleshy “meat” of a coconut, which is actually the kernel of the coconut. This oil is extracted through a variety of methods, which is why you’ll find different types of coconut oil available for purchase, including refined and unrefined.
At room temperature, coconut oil is typically solid because it’s melting point is 76 degrees F. It’s completely shelf stable, making it a great fat to cook with or use for skin care.
Coconut oil is a saturated medium-chain fatty acid, meaning the fatty acids chains are between 6-12 carbons in length. Almost all other natural unsaturated and saturated fats we consume are long-chain fatty acids. Coconut oil’s unique medium-chain fatty acid composition is what sets it apart as a nutritional powerhouse with properties unlike any other fat we consume.
Research shows medium-chain fatty acids can provide a sustainable boost of energy because they are sent straight to the liver to be to be burned as energy, and aren’t processed or stored like other fats in the body. They’ve also been shown to stimulate metabolism, preserve insulin sensitivity, and some studies suggest they can increase endurance and performance when consumed regularly.
To add to that, one of the medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil, lauric acid, has antimicrobial properties. As a result, coconut oil may reduce inflammation and improve immune function when consumed regularly, and has been shown to be an effective treatment for certain types of acne and skin conditions when applied topically.
And while there’s still much to be discovered, preliminary evidence suggests coconut oil may greatly improve cognitive function for those suffering from memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s.
How to Choose a Good Coconut Oil: The Basics
Coconut oil usually falls under one of two categories: refined and unrefined. As with most food products on the market, not all refined or unrefined coconut oil brands are processed the same, so making yourself familiar with what you’ll see on the label will help you decipher between the good, the bad, and the not-so-lovely.
Refined Coconut Oil
Most refined coconut oil on the market today is made from previously dried coconut meat called copra. The way the copra is dried is not sanitary, so the oil extracted from the copra must be purified (refined.) Once the impurities are removed, the oil is bleached and deodorized in order to increase palatability. Sodium hydroxide can be added to increase shelf-life, and chemical solvents are typically used to get every last drop of the coconut oil from the copra.
Sometimes, refined coconut oil is also hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated which adds trans fatty acids to the oil. This is rare in the US market, and is typically found in tropical climates where ambient temperatures are above coconut oil’s melting point of 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
There are some brands that refine coconut oil using mechanical or physical extraction methods (designated “expeller-pressed” or “pure”) which are not treated with chemical solvents. As a result, these refined coconut oils are a suitable option for consumption.
While this extraction method isn’t as popular, there are some reputable brands like Nutiva, which produce quality refined coconut oil.
Because all of the impurities are removed, mechanically-extracted refined coconut oil typically has a higher smoke point in comparison to unrefined coconut oil. It’s also typically cheaper in price, and doesn’t have a coconut-y flavor, making it a great option for those on a tight budget or who don’t like the flavor of coconut.
Refined coconut oil is a good coconut oil to use on your hair and skin, and for things like Homemade Coconut Oil Toothpaste. But, if you are using coconut oil to wash your face, I recommend choosing unrefined coconut oil because refined coconut oils lack some important key nutrients that don’t make it through the refining, bleaching, and deodorizing processes.
Unrefined Coconut Oil
Unrefined coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat (also known as non-copra), and is not refined, bleached, deodorized, or exposed to any kind of chemical solvents.
To extract the oil, unrefined coconut oil goes through one of two processes: wet milling or quick drying. Quick drying is when the coconut meat is quickly dried and the coconut oil is immediately pressed out. This is the most common method of unrefined processing as it is better for mass production. In wet milling, coconut milk is extracted from fresh meat, and the coconut oil is separated through methods like fermentation, boiling, or refrigeration.
Coconut oil processed this way contains phytonutrients and polyphenols. Unfortunately, these are lost in the refining process, so they are exclusive to unrefined coconut oil. Phytonutrients and polyphenols have antioxidant, antibiotic, cancer-preventative, anti-inflammatory and other tissue-supportive and tissue-protective properties.
Coconut oils that are unrefined are typically designated by the terms “virgin,” “cold pressed,” “raw,” or “extra virgin.” You may be wondering what the heck the difference is between all of these labels. In short, diddly-squat. There is no industry standard that regulates the use of these terms like there is for the olive oil industry.
While most manufacturers will tell you their own extraction methods as superior, in my research, wet milling seems to produce the highest quality coconut oil with the most nutrient-density. This does not make other methods bad, and generally all refined and unrefined coconut oils are a stable cooking source that contain beneficial medium-chain fatty acids.
“Liquid” Coconut Oil
Liquid coconut oil, which is also marketed as “fractionated” coconut oil or MCT oil is manufactured by fractionating coconut oil and removing some of the medium-chain fatty acids. Lauric acid, coconut oil’s most dominant and valuable fatty acid (thanks to its unique antimicrobial properties) is removed because of its higher melting point. What’s left is a combination of two other medium-chain fatty acids with lower melting points.
Because this product is missing the most valuable feature of coconut oil, it’s best to avoid cooking with any products marketed as liquid coconut oil.
How to Choose a Good Coconut Oil: The Brands
Once you’ve chosen the type of coconut oil that works best for you and your needs, the next step knowing how to choose a good coconut oil is finding the right brand. The good news is, there are many high-quality brands that currently exist on the market.
As a general rule of thumb, “certified organic” means pesticides and fertilizers were not used on the coconut palms that produced the coconut oil. While certified organic is generally a good thing, it’s important to remember that the USDA certified organic label is extremely costly, especially for smaller businesses. Some companies offer non-certified pure coconut oil that is still produced without pesticides or fertilizers to keep prices low.
My favorite brands include:
- Nutiva Unrefined Organic Coconut Oil and Nutiva Refined Organic Coconut Oil
- CocoGoods Unrefined Organic Coconut Oil and CocoGoods Refined Coconut Oil
- Dr. Bronner’s Unrefined Coconut Oil
In Review: How to Choose a Good Coconut Oil
- Unrefined (or “virgin”) coconut oil, which can also be designated as “extra virgin”, “raw” or “cold-pressed” will pack a powerful punch of MCTs, nutrients, and antioxidants, giving you the biggest bang for your spoonful. I highly recommend this kind as it’s the best and most nutrient-dense option.
- Refined coconut oil should be mechanically or physically extracted, and will typically have the designation “expeller pressed” or “pure.” Avoid any and all refined coconut oils that are hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated, or use harsh chemical solvents or additives. This is a good option for those who dislike the flavor of coconut or are on a limited budget.
- When possible, buy certified organic
- For household uses, especially cooking, avoid anything marketed as “liquid” coconut oil and stick with the real, complete coconut goodness that contains lauric acid.
I am happy to announce, this officially makes you a certified coconut pro! Congratulations on today’s accomplishment. We need more people like you in our society today.
Questions about how to choose a good coconut oil? Let me know below!