Unrefined vs Refined Coconut Oil
Today I want to talk to you about a long pending aspect of one of my favourite cooking oils-coconut oil! A year or so ago I had written about the benefits of cooking with coconut oil as well as the ways of adding coconut oil into your diet. You can read about it here so that you can get a clearer understanding as to why and how to add coconut oil to your everyday diet.
Currently in the UK coconut oil is considered an important addition to a healthy diet and is used not only for cooking but for external use on the skin as well. Whether I am in a super market or a speciality food store or even on Instagram I am constantly bombarded with products like organic coconut oil, virgin coconut oil and cold pressed coconut oil. Brands and bloggers all seem to believe that refined coconut oil is akin to poison and unrefined coconut oil is the way to go. For me the biggest factor when purchasing is in the flavour, virgin coconut oil had a strong coconut flavour and refined is flavourless. However virgin coconut oil or raw coconut oil is much more expensive and hence has become like another healthy extravagance. Traditionally in India there is no such differentiation, except where some products which are perfumed are meant for only external use. Further coconut oil has never been considered as expensive in India, in fact due to its abundance it is very affordable. Hence I decided to research about these two types of coconut oil and whether there is any health benefits from choosing one over the other.
The reason why coconut oil is considered healthy even though it is a saturated fat is because of its medium chain fatty acids (MCTs) which include lauric acid. These MCTs get easily metabolised into energy by the liver instead of being stored as fat around the internal organs. Lauric acid is not only immunity boosting it is also an anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal. Hence coconut oil has great benefits for cooking and adding to food as well as for using for external purposes on the skin. Another important factor is that coconut oil is very heat stable. This means even up to 200C of heat, there is no break down of the MCTs bond and structure.
These factors for me logically point out, that ‘health wise’ there is not much of a difference between refined coconut oil and unrefined coconut oil. The only main difference is the taste and flavour. Due to the method of extraction, unrefined coconut oil tends to have a strong coconut flavour which can be overpowering when cooked and hence can be a difficult choice when cooking with coconut oil. Refined coconut oil however does not have a smell because it of the method in which it has been processed. Hence frankly these various taglines to coconut oil makes it more expensive than anything else.
What is Cold Pressed Coconut Oil?
Virgin coconut oil is made either from the dried fresh coconut or from coconut milk. The version made from dried fresh coconut which is cold pressed is considered as ‘raw’ coconut oil and touted as the healthiest. Some are also expeller pressed, and these oils may be less expensive as it is easier to do in bulk. The version made from fermented coconut milk is actually the healthiest. Even though it is heated to extract the coconut oil, studies have found that the quality of of its enzymes increase than with the cold pressed method. This coconut oil may not be commercially found but goes to prove that ‘raw’ and ‘cold pressed’ do not necessarily mean better or healthier. Coconut oil is not like olive oil and hence cold pressing does not give a leap of nutritional benefits. There is also no difference between virgin and extra-virgin coconut oil. It is all mainly a marketing gimmick or ploy which only makes using coconut oil difficult as it becomes so expensive!
What does Refined Coconut Oil mean?
Refined coconut oil does not automatically mean that it is hydrogenated and has trans fats or that chemicals are added to remove any flavour. With coconut oil, the method of bleaching is not a chemical method but a filtering method to remove any impurities done using a clay filter. Further deodorising takes place by steaming it to remove any smells and not by any chemical additions. Hence neither is there any high chemical addition to clean or refine these oils nor very high temperatures. As this wonderful article states, all coconut oil has to undergo some refining unless you get it directly from biting into the flesh of a fresh coconut!
The refining process does strip away some of the nutrients and enzymes from the coconut oil but this does NOT make it an unhealthy oil. The heat from this process does not break down the MCTs of coconut oil because as mentioned before coconut oil is very heat stable unlike other plant based oils like sunflower oil and you still get the benefits of lauric acid. Few enzymes maybe lost unlike virgin coconut oil, but you must remember that if these enzymes were so intolerant to heat, they wouldn’t last as soon as you start cooking with them! Hence for cooking purposes raw or refined coconut oil makes no difference at all.
The Best Types of Coconut Oil…
However when buying refined oil, it is important to keep in mind that if it is very cheap or if its method of refining has not been mentioned on the label then it may not be so trustworthy. Good quality refined coconut oil is made expeller pressed in a clean and uncontaminated space. Cleanliness and hygiene is more important. Further they would not add any chemicals to speed the refining process or to remove any signs of contamination, which may be the case if done in parts of the world where there is no rules or regulations for the same. Make sure the label clearly states that there it is no trans fat or it is partially hydrogenated. Hence rule of thumb is to avoid extremely cheap, unlabelled coconut oils and ideally contact the suppliers when in doubt.
My final take is that quality refined coconut oil is perfect to use for cooking because not only is it cheaper, it does not possess an overpowering flavour or taste and it is also more heat stable than virgin coconut oil. If you are focussing on a raw diet or you are using it for your skin and external purposes than virgin coconut oil can be a better alternative. For everything else, refined coconut oil is as good and not be discredited! Virgin or raw forms of coconut oil does not automatically trump over refined coconut oil as better for health.
Organic Coconut Oil
A final note to consider the purchasing coconut oil is whether an organic status is important. There are no GMO coconut trees and naturally due to its height, coconuts do not get sprayed with pesticides. Further more an organic certification can be very expensive for the producer and hence blindly choosing an organic coconut oil over one without such a status may not also be a healthier option and can be limiting. Personally I prefer a fair trade sign over an organic sign for coconut oil as that is something I prefer to pay extra for.
I would love to hear your comments and thoughts on this. Which is your favourite coconut oil brand and do you prefer refined coconut oil over unrefined coconut oil? Share your thoughts in the comments below! If you liked this article, then please do share it with your friends and family as well!