Coconut oil has a long-standing reputation of being a widely-used edible oil. It is generally used for cooking, but it is also known for other purposes. Aside from being a household staple, this tropically-abundant commodity is also known for its industrial uses, such as an alternative biofuel. The virgin coconut oil variety, with its several potential health benefits, is seen to be a driver of growth in the coconut industry.

The world’s top three producers of coconut are Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. The harvested coconuts from these countries are turned into valuable coconut products. Among these products, coconut oil is one of the most versatile and widely used by people of all ages.

Expert tip

Fat, a macronutrient (like carbohydrates and protein), is made up of chains of smaller molecules called fatty acids. These fatty acids can either be saturated or unsaturated in nature. Coconut oil is made up of 100% fat and, of this fat content, 80-90% is attributed to fatty acids of the saturated variety. Lauric acid is the predominant saturated fatty acid component of coconut oils. You might be familiar with its medicinal use due to its anti-viral and anti-microbial properties. Other saturated fatty acid contents of coconut oil include capric, caproic, caprylic, stearic, myristic, and palmitic acids.

Sam Hart

How is Coconut Oil Made?

Coconut oil production takes on various stages. From fresh or dry coconut meat, coconut oil is produced and extracted by means of pressing. Depending on the coconut meat used, you can either produce virgin coconut oil or its refined counterpart (refined coconut oil). Virgin coconut oil comes from fresh coconut meat, while refined coconut oil is extracted from copra (previously dried coconut meat or coconut kernel).

The “wet” method is the one that involves the use of fresh coconut meat. A machine is used to press fresh coconut meat which yields milk and oil. The milk and oil can be separated using fermentation, enzymes, or centrifuge machines, ultimately producing coconut oil.

The “dry” method requires fully drying the fresh coconut meat of a mature coconut different. A small amount of heat is applied in this process of drying, then, using another machine, the coconut oil is removed and extracted by means of pressing.

Types of Coconut Oil

There are various types of coconut oil you may come across. The type of coconut oil is usually indicated in the label of the container it comes in. To help you understand each terminology much better, here’s a rundown of the different types of coconut oil and some of their distinct features:

Virgin or Extra Virgin Coconut Oil

Unlike olive oils where there is a difference between virgin and extra virgin varieties, there is no actual distinction between virgin coconut oil (VCO) and an extra virgin one. In fact, the two terms can be used interchangeably. For olive oils, the virgin and extra virgin line is drawn based on free fatty acid contents. But for coconut oils, virgin and extra virgin types are one and the same.

This doesn’t stop manufacturers from labeling coconut oil as either virgin or extra virgin. Technically, these two coconut oils do not have any difference; they both refer to the same grade of coconut oil which is unrefined. Unrefined coconut oil means that the oil has undergone the least amount of processing. This unrefined state makes it more nutrient-rich as opposed to its refined and heavily-processed counterpart.

Cold-Pressed Coconut Oil

A method used to preserve nutrient content, cold-pressing involves the production of coconut oil in heat-controlled environments and without the use of chemicals. The oil is processed in temperatures not exceeding 120° F (48° C). By using a heat-controlled process, high-quality coconut oil with abundant phenolic compounds is produced. These preserved substances act as antioxidants that rid the body of free radicals. Also, in addition to affecting nutrient quality, the low temperature involved in the process imparts a milder and almost neutral flavor to the cold-pressed coconut oil.

Expeller-Pressed Coconut Oil

In contrast to cold-pressed coconut oils, expeller-pressed varieties undergo higher temperature processing (210° F/99° C). The heat involved in the process toasts the produced coconut oil and gives it a nuttier and more characteristic taste.

Hydrogenated Coconut Oil

Hydrogenated is a term used to describe coconut oils that have undergone the process of hydrogenation. Hydrogenation means that, in high heat, hydrogen atoms are added to the coconut oil to turn its unsaturated fat components into saturated fats. This results in a more solid form and longer shelf life as it prevents quick spoilage. It also increases the melting point of the coconut oil from 77° Fahrenheit (25° C) to 86-97° Fahrenheit (30-36° C).

Hydrogenated coconut oils are cheaper in comparison to virgin coconut oil (VCO) and tend to mix better with other industrial ingredients. There are two types of hydrogenated coconut oils: partially hydrogenated and fully hydrogenated ones.

Partially Hydrogenated Coconut Oil

Partially hydrogenated oil (PHOs) is semi-solid in form. It is regarded as the more dangerous type and is advised by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to be eliminated in food ingredients. The process of partial hydrogenation creates trans-fats which is associated with heart disease, weight gain, obesity, and stroke.

Fully Hydrogenated Coconut Oil

Fully hydrogenated coconut oil, on the other hand, is solidified and have undergone complete hydrogenation process. Although fully hydrogenated coconut oil is slightly better than the partially hydrogenated one because it is free from harmful trans-fats, this doesn’t mean that it is good for you. Because of the hydrogenation process, fully hydrogenated coconut oil still contains saturated fats which are also associated with heart disease.

Expert tip

The process of hydrogenation is done to other vegetable oils as well. Some oils are partially hydrogenated, while others are fully hydrogenated. The difference lies in whether or not the carbon-carbon double bonds in the oil are completely reduced or not. Vegetable shortening, fast food products, bakery goodies like cookies, and many others make use of partially-hydrogenated oil.

Sam Hart

Non-Hydrogenated Coconut Oil

Non-hydrogenated coconut oil is coconut oil that has not undergone the hydrogenation process. The unsaturated content of the oil remains intact and unmodified. This type of oil is better than hydrogenated ones.

Refined Coconut Oil

Also called refined, bleached, and deodorized (RBD), refined coconut oil is highly-processed, which is why it is clear and has mild (to almost no) taste. RBD coconut oil comes from dry milled coconuts that have been machine-pressed to release the oil content. The coconuts are baked in high heat before the oil is extracted from them. The high heat deodorizes the coconut oil and then bleaching follows. The oil is filtered and passed through a bleaching clay to rid it of impurities (such as insects, dust, and even microbes). Some commercially-available refined coconut oil also undergoes partial hydrogenation to increase their shelf-life. The higher smoke points and cheaper store price make refined coconut oil a popular cooking staple.

Which Type of Coconut Oil to Buy?

If you want to buy the best possible type of coconut oil, you need to look for a few terms in the label. First, find a coconut oil bottle with the words “certified organic” on the label. This ensures that the oil you are about to purchase has not been exposed to harsh pesticides.

Second, choose unrefined coconut oil over refined and cheaper ones. The refined variety, with its extraction, bleaching, and deodorizing process, has been stripped-off of its nutrients.

Finally, avoid hydrogenated coconut oil and stick to non-hydrogenated ones. This helps you avoid the risk of introducing trans-fat to your food if you use coconut oil for cooking.

One more thing to consider when buying coconut oil is its container. Always go for coconut oil in a glass container than those in plastic ones. Toxins in plastic can leach over time, compromising the quality of the coconut oil.

Best Uses of Coconut Oil

There is a wide range of benefits and applications for coconut oil. For every type, there is a suitable use.

  • For beauty and healing: virgin coconut oil (VCO). With its nourishing and moisturizing properties, virgin coconut oil restores damaged hair and dry skin. It also works best when applied to areas with acne and skin irritation. Others even use it as a non-toxic insect repellent, while some use it to treat dandruff and to stimulate hair growth. It can also be used as a makeup remover and as an added ingredient for a tinted lip gloss. Combined with antibacterial soap, you can also use this type of coconut oil to clean your makeup brushes. The antifungal, antibacterial, and anti-inflammatory properties of virgin coconut oil also make it a potent source of healing from certain diseases and infections. Aside from using it for cooking and baking, one to two teaspoons of coconut oil may also be consumed daily to enjoy many of its health benefits.
  • For cooking: organic, unrefined coconut oil. Carrying with it a natural aroma, unrefined coconut oil is simply great for cooking. If you want to maximize the health benefits of coconut oil, use organic, cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil for cooking.
  • For household use: refined coconut oil. Although refined coconut oil may still be used for cooking, it is not the best one. This doesn’t mean that you won’t have any use for it. You may use it as a stain remover, furniture polish, lubricant, or laundry detergent.

With a wide variety of coconut oil types available commercially, it may be confusing and overwhelming to choose the best one for your needs. Having a handy guide to check which ones are essentially useful and which ones are devoid of nutritive value can help you discern the type of coconut oil that can give you your money’s worth.