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.
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.
Thanks to this concentration of healthy fats, plus potent antioxidants, and antiviral and antibacterial effects, coconut oil offers health benefits in many forms:
- Promotes heart health by increasing stores of good HDL cholesterol and reducing bad LDL cholesterol
- Supports ketone production in the brain, which can help Alzheimer’s patients
- Reduces triglycerides that helps to protect the liver from damage
- Has anti-inflammatory properties that can reduce the symptoms of arthritis and the risk for developing chronic diseases
- Increases bone volume, which could fight against developing osteoporosis
- May reduce tumor growth and improve the quality of life for cancer patients
- Supports weight loss and fights obesity by reducing C-reactive proteins
- Eliminates the bacteria in saliva, which is key in fighting plaque and gingivitis
- Can help clear up infections
- Boosts the immune system for optimal health
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, there are some key differences to each type.
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 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.
Pros of refined coconut oil
Refined coconut oil offers several benefits in the areas of flavor, texture, and beauty applications that make it stand out as a premium choice.
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 oil that can be used seamlessly in numerous recipes.
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. 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.
Refined coconut oil makes the perfect healthy alternative to butter or lard in any recipe. It has the same 350 degree smoke point of those two ingredients, but won’t contribute any of the trans fats.
Of the two types of coconut oil, refined and unrefined, refined 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.
Cons of refined coconut oil
When dealing with refined coconut oil, there are also a few not as glamorous things 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.
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.
Not for frying
Finally, the lower smoke point of refined coconut oil means that it isn’t the best choice for when you want to fry or sauté foods.
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.” Wet milling extracts the oil 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 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.
Since 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 reduces 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. Refined coconut oil still has these nutrients, but less quantity.
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.
Higher smoke point
When you need a cooking oil to flash fry, sauté, or stir-fry, the higher 400 degree smoke point of unrefined coconut oil makes it more versatile in the kitchen.
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. too.
Cons of unrefined coconut oil
However, unrefined coconut oil also has a few downsides you’ll want to consider when making the best purchasing decision.
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 oil can bring with it.
Final word on refined and unrefined coconut oil
All in all, 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 bottle of each and use them in their best capacities.
Recipes featuring coconut oil
As you might have already guessed, coconut oil is one of the most versatile items you can stock in your kitchen. It 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.
Going vegan isn’t as difficult as it may seem, not with all the versatile substitutes available, such as 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 seasonings for impeccable flavor. There’s also instructions on how to make vegan sprinkles and an easy, dairy-free vanilla frosting.
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.
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.