It’s no secret that I am a fan of coconut oil. Not only is it full of the best kinds of saturated fat and metabolism-boosting medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), but it holds up well under the heat of cooking. It’s a versatile, ancient oil that goes well in everything from smoothies to homemade french fries.
But how do you pick the best, most healthy coconut oil? How do you know whether to get a refined or unrefined oil? What do all those labels like “virgin,” “extra-virgin,” and “expeller-pressed” mean? What’s the difference between the cheap coconut oil I see on my grocery store shelf and the high-quality oil I can buy online?
Consider this your definitive guide to how to choose a good coconut oil.
The two most broad categories of coconut oil are refined and unrefined. Once you choose whether or not you want a refined or unrefined coconut oil, you’ll need to choose which method of extraction suits your tastes and purposes.
And finally, always keep in mind the issues in the “things to watch out for” paragraphs below. For example, let’s say you decided you want an expeller-pressed, refined coconut oil. You can find a good quality one that’s been refined using a natural, chemical-free cleaning process and and a relatively low-temperature extraction. Or you can find one that’s been refined from rancid oil byproducts using a chemical cleaning process. Both oils are expeller-pressed and refined, but one is good quality and one is cheap and just plain nasty.
Refined vs. Unrefined
Refined Coconut Oil
A refined coconut oil is usually rather tasteless and odorless. Because it has been refined, it can usually withstand slightly higher cooking temperatures before reaching its smoke point. Refined coconut oils are excellent for cooking foods where you need lots of clean, pure, malleable fat without a dominating coconut flavor. (Think pie crusts or french fries.) Refined coconut oils do not offer the same health benefits of a virgin, completely raw coconut oil, but they are still excellent sources of most of the beneficial fatty acids (like MCTs). As a given, almost all the coconut oils available in your grocery store or vitamin store are refined unless they specifically say otherwise on their label.
Things to watch out for: not all refined coconut oils are alike! Most are refined using a chemical distillation process dependent on lye or other harsh solvents, or they’re made from the rancid oil byproducts leftover from creating dessicated (dry) coconut flakes. Sadly, these are refined, bleached, and deodorized in an effort to create a palatable product that can be sold to consumers. Many coconut oils are even hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated! (Avoid these at all costs as the hydrogenation process creates synthetic trans-fats.) However, there are some quality, non-hydrogenated refined coconut oils available that are refined using a natural, chemical-free cleaning process (usually involving steam and/or diatomaceous earth).
Where to buy a good refined coconut oil: If you think a refined coconut oil is for you, check out these listings for where to buy coconut oil online.
Unrefined Coconut Oil
An unrefined coconut oil is typically labeled “virgin” or “extra-virgin.” To my knowledge, there’s not any consistent difference between virgin and extra-virgin coconut oils across all brands. Each brand tends to have their own definition of these labels. In general, though, virgin and extra-virgin coconut oils are made from the first pressing of fresh, raw coconut without the addition of any chemicals.
Things to watch out for: Depending on how the oil is extracted, the flavor can be very intense or very mild. In general, the more heat the oil was exposed to, the more strong the coconut flavor. (In the past, I’ve bought some extra-virgin, expeller-pressed coconut oil that tasted “toasted” for lack of a better word.) So a truly raw, unrefined, virgin coconut oil will have a very mild coconut flavor and scent.
Where to buy a good, unrefined coconut oil: If you think an unrefined coconut oil is for you, check out these listings for where to buy coconut oil online.
Methods of Extraction
Once you’ve chosen between wanting a refined or unrefined oil, you will need to decide between extraction methods.
Cold-Pressed, Expeller-Pressed, and Centrifuged
These are methods of extracting the oil from the dry or fresh coconut and can be found in both refined and unrefined varieties. Generally speaking, all methods can create a tasty, good, healthy oil.
Things to watch out for: Expeller-pressed and Cold-pressed don’t necessarily mean “raw.” These oils can be heated to rather high temperatures during the extraction process (even up to 200F) sometimes. The temperatures alone aren’t enough to make the oils go rancid, since coconut oil is such a stable fat and can withstand high heat well. But as I mentioned earlier, the more heat used in extracting the oil, the more coconut-y or “toasted” the flavor will become. A centrifuged oil is less likely to be exposed to much heat in the extraction process, so it will taste more mild and delicate.
Where to buy a good, expeller-pressed or centrifuged coconut oil: If you think coconut oil is for you, check out these listings for where to buy coconut oil online.
How To Get A Good Deal On Coconut Oil
In general, the coconut oil available in most stores can get quite pricey. (And, it’s not very likely to be a good product!) The way to really save money on coconut oil is to buy it in bulk. I buy anywhere from a gallon to five gallons at a time. Since the oil is so stable and keeps for at least 6 months or more, I find that buying in large quantities is definitely worth it. Before you commit to a big batch, though, I suggest buying a small amount of the variety/brand you want in order to ensure you like the way it tastes and smells. I also recommend that you find other like-minded friends to place an order with you, as that will greatly reduce shipping costs.
Interested in the environmental impact of coconut products?
You may want to read more about coconut sugar production.
(photo by alex the greek)