From cold-pressed to unrefined, the lingo used to describe coconut oil can get pretty confusing. Here we breakdown what it all means and how to find the healthiest coconut oil for you.
Unfortunately, reaping the natural benefits of coconut oil proves more difficult than you think. There are different extraction methods used to separate coconut oil from its meat, which affects the quality and nutritional value of the oil. For example, some companies use toxic chemicals to extract coconut oil, while others use all-natural, low-heat methods that preserve all of the coconut oil’s goodness.
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Before we get into how to find the best, healthiest coconut oil, let’s take a look at why you want to be consuming this powerful oil in the first place.
The Benefits of Coconut Oil
Most of the benefits found in this tropical fruit oil are derived from its saturated and medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs). These good fats are easily absorbed through your gut, where they’re metabolized by the liver to produce energy and boost absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K.
However, coconut oil’s MCTs also contain several compounds that give it a host of amazing benefits not seen in other oils!
Antibacterial and Antifungal
Coconut oil contains a fatty acid called lauric acid, which has potent antibacterial and antifungal properties. These properties come from lauric acid’s ability to disrupt the cell membranes of bacteria, which leads to their death. Even in the face of antibiotic-resistant bugs, such as colitis-causing C. difficile, lauric acid has slowed and even stopped proliferation of bacteria in studies (2).
Improves Brain Health
If you compare your brain cells to mini engines, coconut oil’s medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs) are their premium fuel source. These MCTs help keep them running optimally, with one study showing MCTs improve recall and memory problems in aging participants (4).
The antioxidant polyphenols in coconut oil reduce the inflammation that occurs in inflammatory diseases like arthritis. Studies show coconut oil’s anti-inflammatory effects come from its ability to suppress reactive cells, like C-reactive protein, that encourages swelling (5).
Helps Maintain Strong Bones
Coconut oil helps your body absorb calcium and magnesium – two minerals important for maintaining bone health. One study even showed that supplementing with virgin coconut oil helped improve bone volume after the onset of osteoporosis (6).
Promotes Weight Loss
Interestingly, the MCTs in coconut oil also have an appetite-reducing effect. This can help reduce overall calorie consumption, leading to fat loss.
One study showed that men who ate the most MCTs from coconut oil, ate an average of 256 fewer calories per day than normal, while another showed those consuming more coconut oil at breakfast also consumed less calories at lunch (7, 8). Researchers believe this is due to improved insulin sensitivity and fat burning after consuming MCTs.
Ingredients to Avoid
Before you grab the nearest jar of coconut oil, check out the ingredient list so that you can avoid unhealthy toxins that are often added to the oil.
Ingredients to watch out for include added vegetable oils, such as cottonseed and canola oils. These oils are often added to cut down on the fat content of coconut oil (even though this fat is extremely healthy, as we saw from coconut oil’s benefits). The problem with this is that the fats in these oils oxidize quickly, especially under high heat.
When fats are oxidized, free radicals are formed that can harm and damage our DNA, leading to disease, abnormal cell metabolism, and faster aging (9).
As a rule, whether your coconut oil is for eating or for your skin or hair, “coconut oil” should be the only ingredient on the list.
Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil
Refined coconut oil is extracted from dried coconut meat using heat and a chemical solvent called hexane. After the oil is extracted, it is then filtered through a bleaching clay and is deodorized. Most coconut oils you see on the shelves are produced this way, unless stated otherwise on the label.
Unfortunately, this method has several limitations. Extracting coconut oil using heat can destroy the delicate nutrients and living enzymes present in coconut oil. Adding hexane to the process further degrades the oil, as hexane has been shown to cause central nervous system depression, dizziness, nausea, headaches, as well as eye and throat irritations (10).
Unrefined coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconut meats, as opposed to dried. As such, it has not been filtered, bleached, or deodorized. Unrefined coconut oil is made by mechanically pressing out the oil – without adding any harmful chemicals like hexane.
Terms to Look For: The Bad
Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils are produced by adding hydrogen to liquid oil to turn it into a solidified oil, mainly to extend shelf life. However, the side effect of doing this is the creation of trans fats, which have been shown to raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol.
Even the FDA has labeled hydrogenated oils as “generally not recognized as safe” and states that removing these oils from processed foods could, “prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year” (11).
Tip: Always avoid hydrogenated oil.
Terms to Look For: The Average
Expeller-pressed coconut oil is produced using low-temperature and (usually) chemical-free drying methods. An expeller press is a large press that mechanically crushes the coconut meat until the oil runs out.
The reason it’s labeled as an “average” extraction method is because while the expeller press doesn’t apply heat directly to the coconut, high heat can develop due to high pressure and friction in the press. This can potentially damage delicate nutrients and antioxidants, and alter the flavor.
Centrifugal oil extraction uses a high-speed centrifuge that separates the coconut oil from the water. While chemicals aren’t used in this method, excessive heat can be generated due to the friction of the centrifuge spin (12). Of course, some companies may monitor the heat levels while centrifuging, but are unlikely to state this on their labels. Overall, centrifuged coconut oil is a decent option if you’re looking to avoid chemicals and direct heating of your oil.
Terms to Look For: The Good
Virgin coconut oil is oil that has not been hydrogenated or extracted using chemical solvents or high-heat methods. It has also not been bleached or deodorized, allowing it to retain its original taste, texture, and nutrients. Overall, virgin is a term you should always look for when purchasing coconut oil if you’re looking for the best, most pure variety.
PS: There is no difference between “Virgin” and “Extra-Virgin” coconut oil. “Extra Virgin” doesn’t mean much as it is really just a marketing trick to get you to pay more. Yikes!
Another term to look for when you want the most natural coconut oil is “cold-pressed.” You can think of this method as similar to expeller-pressed coconut oil, but with heat levels monitored to not exceed 120 degrees Fahrenheit. This helps preserve the fatty acids, antioxidants, and enzymes.
Plastic VS Glass Jars
Over time, the toxins in plastic can leach into your food and drinks – and coconut oil stored in plastic is no exception. These toxins can be absorbed through skin contact or through the food you eat. So while buying coconut oil in a plastic container may be cheaper, you’re not only likely to get that icky, plastic taste but you’re also putting your health at risk.
(Want to know more about plastic? Read: 9 Worst Dangers of Plastic & 12 Healthier Alternatives)
Organic vs Non-Organic Coconut Oil
Like other crops, organic coconuts are grown using chemical-free, sustainable farming methods. This means synthetic pesticides and fertilizers are not used, making virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil truly pure, all the way from seed to oil.
Of course, purchasing organic coconut oil is your best bet not only to avoid chemical additions, but also to support farming methods that preserve healthy soils and environments.
The Bottom Line
The healthiest coconut oil you can buy is organic, cold-pressed, unrefined virgin coconut oil in a glass jar. By scrutinizing your labels, you avoid all poisonous chemicals and retain all of the beneficial enzymes, antioxidants, and fatty acids that have made coconut oil a medicinal treasure around the globe.