Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil: Comprehensive Guide to Differences, Uses & Benefits

Last Update: July 9, 2024

It seems like people are using coconut oil for everything these days, from frying up fresh veggies to making raw food energy bites and even slathering it on as a nighttime moisturizing mask.

Seemingly overnight, coconut oil has become THE pantry staple for vegans, Paleo enthusiasts, and trend-setting fashionistas alike. [1]

When you consider all the new research supporting coconut oil and its health boosting properties, it becomes even clearer why this product is worth looking at.

Much of the adoration for coconut oil stems from its unique makeup of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. This type of fat is rapidly metabolized in the liver and is therefore an immediate energy source; it’s also easier to burn off and harder to store as fat. Some strains of MCTs, such as the lauric acid found in coconut oil, have germ-fighting properties that can eliminate disease-causing microbes and lower inflammation. [2]

Unrefined Coconut Oil Health Benefits: What Sets It Apart

Thanks to this concentration of healthy fats, plus potent antioxidants, and antiviral and antibacterial effects, coconut oil offers health benefits in many forms:

With everyone so enamored with coconut oil, there are now hundreds of choices on the market: Refined, unrefined, pure, virgin, RBD, copra—it can be overwhelming knowing which one to purchase. Refined and unrefined coconut oil have taken up much of the focus; while both provide benefits, what’s the difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil? Let’s take a closer look examining each.

Production Methods: Comparing Refined and Unrefined Coconut Oil

Close up of a jar of Refined Coconut Oil

Understanding Refined Coconut Oil

Refined coconut oil, also known as “RBD coconut oil” and “copra oil,” has been processed through a technique called “dry milling.” First, the coconuts are baked to a dried state, which pulls the oil from the meat. Then the coconut oil is put through a bleaching process which helps kill off any microbes like fungi and bacteria, while also removing any dust particles or insects. It’s important to note the bleaching process is not a chemical process, but rather a filtering process through a bleaching clay.

However, some lesser-quality brands of refined coconut oil can be partially hydrogenated, which means hydrogen has been added to the liquid oil to morph it into solid form. This is dangerous because it produces an extremely unhealthy form of fats called trans fats. When shopping for coconut oil, take a good look at the label to ensure you are getting the purest and highest quality product.

Health Aspects of Refined Coconut Oil

When it comes to their nutritional profiles, refined and unrefined coconut oil are very similar. Both refined and unrefined coconut oil are dairy-free oils that can be used in a wide variety of cooking and baking recipes, and they both provide beneficial fats. But the answer to the question, ‘is refined coconut oil healthy’ all depends on how the refined coconut oil is produced. [5]

Thrive Market Organic Refined Coconut Oil starts with organic, ethically sourced coconuts and is made using a steam refining process that does not require any harsh chemicals like hexane. This expeller-pressing method also does not produce trans fats. In short, refined coconut oil can be healthy, as long as you choose a reputable brand that is transparent about their sourcing and production processes.

Unrefined Coconut Oil jar close-up

Discovering Unrefined Coconut Oil

Unrefined coconut oil, also referred to as “virgin coconut oil” or “pure coconut oil,” is extracted through a process called “wet milling.” In wet milling, the oil is extracted directly from fresh coconuts creating an emulsion of water and oil. The oil is then removed with a centrifuge. Wet milling is a quicker process than dry milling because it does not require bleaching to keep the concentration sanitary. Unrefined coconut oil is also the purest option available.

Pros and Cons: Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil

Advantages of Refined Coconut Oil

Refined coconut oil offers several benefits in the areas of flavor, texture, and beauty applications. When looking at refined vs. unrefined coconut oil, these benefits really stand out in the refined variety’s favor.

Subtle flavor

For those that don’t care for the flavor of coconut, the process of refining coconut oil removes most of the exotic top notes, leaving behind a nearly tasteless and deodorized oil that can be used seamlessly in numerous recipes.

Beauty uses

With a rich concentration of vitamin E, coconut oil is an antioxidant that works to fight free radical damage and prevent early signs of aging. [6] Its saturated fat content also makes it super moisturizing, so it’s ideal for use in beauty routines, such as creating luxurious skin creams and nourishing hair conditioners. However, for these purposes, refined oil is the better choice since it is more hygienic in nature.

Higher smoke point

When you need a cooking oil to flash fry, sauté, or stir-fry, the higher (400 degree) smoke point of refined coconut oil makes it more versatile in the kitchen.

Lower cost

Of the two types of coconut oil, refined and unrefined, refined coconut oil is often the more affordable of the two. It also has a longer shelf life, making it a more prime choice for those on a budget.

Advantages of Unrefined Coconut Oil

While unrefined and refined coconut oil both offer similar benefits in terms of health and wellness, there are a few key areas where the unrefined option can stand out. Here are the biggest benefits to using unrefined vs. refined coconut oil.

Enhanced Nutrition

Since virgin unrefined coconut oil is minimally processed, it has more nutritional value than refined coconut oil. That’s because the heat from the dry milling and bleaching activities has an effect on the oil’s nutrients, reducing the number of polyphenols and medium-chain fatty acids naturally present—polyphenols hold all the antioxidant properties and medium-chain fatty acids provide the anti-inflammatory benefits. So, when it comes to nutritional healing, unrefined coconut oil is the better option.[7] Refined coconut oil still has these nutrients, but less quantity.

Rich flavor

If you desire a deeper, more interesting flavor, unrefined coconut oil is the preferable option. It’s not deodorized and maintains the fullest taste of coconut, allowing you to infuse foods like curry dishes and coconut cream pies with an extra pop of flavor that’s perfect for your taste buds.

Cooking substitution

Organic unrefined coconut oil makes the perfect healthy alternative to butter or lard in any recipe. It has a similar smoke point (350 degrees) of those two ingredients, but won’t contribute any of the trans fats.

Superior Purity

Since unrefined coconut oil hasn’t gone through the same processes that the refined version has, it is a much purer, more natural result. This means you’re getting the most health benefits with the pure option.

Disadvantages of Refined Coconut Oil

Cons of refined coconut oil

When dealing with refined coconut oil, there are also a few not as glamorous properties you should know as well before making your purchasing decision.

Less Depth of Flavor

Since the refining process removes most of the taste of coconut oil, it will not add the same depth of flavor to dishes. While this is perfectly fine to some people, others may enjoy the additional taste elements brought by unrefined coconut oil, such as when preparing desserts.

Purity Factor

Refined coconut oil is much less pure than unrefined coconut oil, so if you’re looking for a food product closer to what nature intended, go with the unrefined option.

Disadvantages of Unrefined Coconut Oil

However, unrefined coconut oil also has a few downsides you’ll want to consider when making the best purchasing decision.

Higher Cost

Unrefined oil can come with a slightly higher price tag. It’s a small difference, but for those on a budget, it’s one worth paying attention to. There are more cost-effective options like Thrive Market Organic Virgin Coconut Oil that help you save and still get the oil you really want.

Shorter shelf life

Unrefined coconut oil won’t last quite as long on the shelf, either. This may not be a problem if you fall for the product and use it quickly (see: all its various uses), but it’s still worth considering.

Less Recipe Compatibility

In some recipes, the added taste of coconut is amazing. But, there are some instances where you may not want that rich, deep flavor that unrefined coconut oil can bring with it.

Not for Frying

The lower smoke point of unrefined coconut oil (350 degrees) means that it isn’t the best choice for when you want to fry or sauté foods.

Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil: Making the Best Choice for Your Needs

It seems like a simple question: Is refined or unrefined coconut oil better? The answer, however, is a little bit more complex. It depends on many things, including what you plan to use the coconut oil for, your personal preferences, your dietary needs, and of course, the quality of the specific coconut oil you buy.

When weighing the differences between refined or unrefined coconut oil, both options are worth considering in order to find the one that’s perfect for you. It may just come down to a matter of personal preference or cooking applications (if you like a higher smoke point or less flavor, for instance). Or perhaps, buy a jar of each and use them in their best capacities. Either way, you can learn how to make coconut oil candles for any leftover oil you have lying around.

Delicious Recipes with Unrefined Coconut Oil

As you might have already guessed, coconut oil is one of the most versatile items you can stock in your kitchen for your healthy cooking projects. Coconut oil, refined or unrefined, can be easily swapped into nearly any recipe that calls for vegetable oil or olive oil or butter or lard. Here are a few of Thrive Market’s favorite ways to use a jar.

Vegan Cupcakes with Unrefined Coconut Oil

Going vegan isn’t as difficult as it may seem, not with all the versatile substitutes available, such as natural coconut oil that can be inserted in place of butter. Try these double chocolate cupcakes or the coconut-lime version, which also use almond milk, apple cider vinegar, gluten-free flours, and a host of organic seasonings for impeccable flavor. There’s also instructions on how to make vegan sprinkles and an easy, dairy-free vanilla frosting.

Almond Butter Cups Featuring Unrefined Coconut Oil

No need to run to the store for your favorite candy. You can make those tasty peanut butter cups at home—and make them even more healthy! This creative recipe uses almond butter, maple syrup, raw honey, vanilla, sea salt, dark chocolate, and of course some coconut oil to make up for the fat content. One bite and you may never go back.

Salted Dark Chocolate S’mores with Caramelized Bananas and Unrefined Coconut Oil

You don’t have to be a kid to enjoy the everlasting flavor of s’mores. This recipe matures the original with caramelized banana slices, homemade marshmallow fluff, and chocolate-dipped grahams. Coconut oil is used to cook the bananas (as is coconut sugar); you’ll also need some grass-fed gelatin and honey for the marshmallows and a good bar of dark chocolate to whip up this batch.

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