At the store you're faced with a choice: refined or unrefined coconut oil. But what's the difference? Simply put, refined coconut oil is more processed, resulting in a milder-tasting oil, while unrefined coconut oil endures less processing and has a lower smoke point and deeper coconut flavor.
Nutritional Properties of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil in cooking has become a darling of the health food movement, with many recipes advocating substituting coconut oil for butter. According to Harvard Health, coconut oil is often pushed as heart-healthy because of the suggestion it can raise HDL ("good") cholesterol, and because the type of saturated fats it contains is called "medium chain triglycerides."
But coconut oil, regardless if it's refined oil or unrefined coconut oil, is high in saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains almost 12 grams of saturated fat. The daily limit recommended by the American Heart Association is 13 grams. Additionally, there is still not enough scientific evidence to prove that coconut oil is necessarily healthy.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 10 percent of all calories from saturated fat, and in general replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat. In a June 2017 statement, the American Heart Association said that lowering the intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease.
In other words, because coconut oil's nutritional benefits are still being investigated, it should be used sparingly as part of a healthy diet.
Outside of food use, coconut oil (refined and unrefined) is also touted as a sunscreen. However, the Mayo Clinic notes that coconut oil as a sunscreen blocks only about 20 percent of the sun's damaging rays rather than the recommended 97 percent found in an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. It's also used as a skin moisturizer or hair conditioner.
Refined Coconut Oil
If you're planning to buy coconut oil, you usually have a choice of refined, unrefined or partially hydrogenated. Partially hydrogenated coconut oil is the most processed and transforms some of the unsaturated fats — otherwise known as "good fats" — into trans fats, or "bad fat."
Coconut oil labeled as refined oil takes dried coconut meat, known as copra, and machine presses it to release the oil. The oil is then steamed or heated to deodorize the it, and "bleached" by filtering through clay to remove impurities and any remaining bacteria. Sometimes, chemical solvents such as hexane may be used to extract oil from the copra. The resulting oil is flavorless and odorless.
Refined coconut oil has a high smoke point, making it ideal for stir-frying or in baking. It also has a less-intense coconut flavor, so if you're not a fan of coconut but would still like to incorporate it into cooking, this is the one you'd use.
Unrefined Coconut Oil
Unrefined coconut oil can be made by two different methods. One is a "dry" method, where the fresh coconut meat of mature coconuts is dried quickly with a small amount of heat and then pressed with a machine to remove the oil. The second is a "wet" method, in which a machine presses fresh coconut meat to yield milk and oil. These are separated through fermentation, enzymes or centrifuge machines.
Unrefined coconut oil has a lower smoke point, making it appropriate for quick sauteing or baking and it imparts a stronger coconut flavor.
Virgin or extra virgin are additional terms you may see on jars of unrefined coconut oil, sometimes used in place of "unrefined" (these words just mean the oil has not been refined). Other terms you may find include "expeller pressed," which means that a machine has pressed the oil from the coconut flesh, often with the use of steam or heat. "Cold-pressed" means that the oil has been pressed without heat.
Read more: Which is Better: Coconut Oil or Olive Oil?
Choosing Refined or Unrefined
According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, coconut oil for culinary use is best used sparingly as an occasional alternative to other oils in baking and cooking. If you're determined to replace some of your usual fat with coconut oil, the choice between refined or unrefined coconut oil comes down to personal preference, as any health differences between the two have not yet been substantiated.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "Effects of Medium-Chain Fatty Acids and Oleic Acid on Blood Lipids, Lipoproteins, Glucose, Insulin, and Lipid Transfer Protein Activities"
- HealthySD.gov: "Coconut Oil – Healthy or Unhealthy?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Is Coconut Oil an Effective Sunscreen?"
- American Heart Association: "Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association"
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion: "Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Ask the Doctor: "Coconut Oil and Health"
- NCBI: Journal of American College of Nutrition: "Health Effects of Coconut Oil-A Narrative Review of Current Evidence"
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: "Coconut Oil"
- American Heart Association: "Saturated Fats"
- Ghana Medical Journal: "Coconut Oil and Palm Oil's Role in Nutrition, Health and National Development: A Review"
- Food Quality and Safety, Volume 3, Issue 2, May 2019: "Coconut Oil: What Do We Really Know About It So Far?"
- MedlinePlus: "Facts About Saturated Fats"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Coconut Oil: Heart-Healthy or Just Hype?"
- University of Rochester Medical Center: "Cooking Oils: Which One When, and Why?"