Coconut Oil 101: What You Need to Know

November 9th, 2015

By now, we’ve all been trained to carefully check nutrition labels and scour ingredient lists. But even so, packaging can sometimes still be confusing. There’s no better example than oh-so-trendy, very versatile coconut oil.

Pick up any jar of the stuff, and you’ll likely find a barrage of adjectives: virgin, extra-virgin, refined, pure, raw, fair-trade, organic…the list goes on. Get rid of confusion and read up on what these terms mean—it’s as simple as following this handy guide!

First off, what does virgin coconut oil mean, anyway? Simply put, this is the good stuff. Virgin coconut oil comes from fresh coconut meat. Producers extract the oil two ways: by quick-drying the meat and pressing out the oil, or by making the meat into milk and extracting the oil.

You might also see coconut oils labeled “extra-virgin“. Unlike olive oil, experts say there really isn’t a big difference between virgin and extra-virgin when it comes to coconut oil. You’ll often also see unrefined on coconut oil labels. This means the exact same thing as virgin. This type of oil is best for smoothies, dressings, baking, and cooking at low temperatures.

When you think about it, all coconut oil has been refined at least a little bit—manufacturers have to extract the oil from the coconut, after all. Refined coconut oil, however, refers to coconut oil that has been made from dried coconut meat known as copra. As the process of drying the copra introduces some impurities and contaminants, it then needs to be bleached and deodorized, often by heating it to high temperatures. Some brands use additional chemicals to extract the oil and extend its shelf-life—not great qualities if you’re looking for the purest raw form of coconut oil.

There is one benefit of refined coconut oil, however— it does have a higher smoke point of 450 degrees, making it more suitable for high-heat cooking. Refined coconut oil is best for cooking at high heats, such as sauteeing and frying.

Cold-pressed is another one of the buzzwords you’ll often notice. When coconut oil is cold-pressed, it simply means that at no time in the manufacturing process did the oil exceed 120 degrees. Coconut oil produced this way typically has a more mild flavor and higher nutrient content than expeller-pressed or refined coconut oil. Cold-pressed coconut oil is best for raw desserts and DIY beauty treatments.

Many of the coconut oils you’ll find on grocery store shelves also tout their fair-trade status. Fair-trade is a wide designation—given to everything from chocolate to tea—that essentially means that crops are grown in a sustainable way that supports the environment and farm workers are paid fair wages. Choose this variety of coconut oil as often as possible to support a sustainable food system.

Another important designation to consider? Organic. Like all organic crops, coconut oil bearing this label can’t come from coconuts that have been genetically modified or treated with pesticides.

Photo credit: Alicia Cho

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This article is related to: Coconut Oil Recipes, Diet, Fair-Trade, Non-GMO, Nutrition, Organic

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Annalise MantzAnnalise is a foodie, Brussels sprouts lover, grammar nerd, and political pet aficionado.

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