Coconut oil is the sweetheart of the Paleo community – I mean, we use it for just about everything! Literally! As a hair conditioner for dry ends, to moisturize our skin, as a hand cream, as a foot cream, as a supplement; and we eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, AND dessert.
With all this in mind, it seems like it would be pretty important for us to know how to pick the right one – because believe it or not, not all coconut oils are created equal. In fact, in the 1980’s several studies were done on a kind of coconut oil that can actually lead to heart disease and increase inflammation. Unfortunately, because this was the only kind of coconut oil widely available in the United States at the time, coconut oil got a bad rap for a while. But now we know that it’s not the coconut oil that’s the problem, it’s how it’s made.
So with coconut oil back on the menu, which one do we pick for heart health, reduced inflammation, and easy fat burning?
When I first began my search I already knew which kind of coconut oil I use and what I recommend to my clients – but as I began to explore the wide world of coconut oil I realized there’s a lot going on out there! I think the easiest place to begin is with definitions and figuring out exactly what all of these words on the labels mean:
Raw coconut oil is created in a temperature-regulated environment, where the coconut is only exposed to temperatures up to 120ºF. This way of making coconut oil retains the maximum amount of antioxidants.
- Centrifugal extraction – this method uses centrifugal force. Think about what happens when you hold hands with a person and start to spin around in a circle – you begin to create a force that creates pressure (you can feel yourself start to get pulled apart from them!) and uses gravity to separate the coconut oil from the flesh.
- Cold pressed – the term “cold-pressed” is the same as raw, meaning the coconuts have been processed in a temperature-regulated environment that does not exceed 120º.
♥ Virgin/Extra Virgin
There’s no real difference between virgin or extra virgin coconut oil, and this type goes through the least amount of processing.
Virgin coconut oil is either dried and then mechanically pressed to release the oil, or the fresh meat is shredded and mixed with water (and sometimes fermented) before the mixture separates and the oil can be obtained (another example of how raw coconut oil can be made).
♥ Expeller pressed
Expeller pressing is a manual or mechanical way of “refining” coconut oil. Because no chemicals or high temperatures are involved this method of refining is actually safe to consume and retains the beneficial properties of coconut oil we know and love. Expeller pressed coconut oil is mechanically crushed in a way that raises the temperature of the coconut to around 210º, which is still a good temperature for retaining some antioxidants and all of the beneficial compounds in the coconut oil.
“RBD” coconut oil is typically processed at high temperatures (around 400º) and deodorized using chemicals such sodium hydroxide, which act to extend the shelf-life of the oil. This coconut oil is neutral in taste and flavor and can be heated up to 400ºF.
*If you don’t like the taste of coconut oil I recommend choosing a different fat rather than consuming overly processed coconut oil that may have long-term negative effects on your health.
Processed coconut oil can be taken a step further when it is hydrogenated. This means the oil is further processed through the addition of hydrogen molecules (hence the name “hydrogenated”) with the help of another substance (often a metal like nickel) to yield a much higher melting point in the oil (around 97ºF). This processing not only alters the fat and impacts how your body can use it, but it turns some of the naturally occurring beneficial unsaturated fats found in coconut oil into trans fats. This is the type of coconut oil that was studied in the past – it’s no wonder the results were such a bummer!
Based on these understandings, my vote is always for raw or expeller pressed virgin coconut oil. This oil is good for cooking and baking up to 350º and has a light coconutty taste. It’s always best, in my opinion, to reach for the food or ingredient that’s been processed the least – especially if we’re planning on using it in our diet or on our body regularly.
I also want to take a second to point out that “organic” is not a requirement for coconut oil to be high-quality – in fact, many of the coconut oils available are grown under circumstances similar to organic coconuts, but the farmers can’t’ afford the high cost of organic certification so it doesn’t appear on the label. Coconuts are also free from GMO, which is another reason organic isn’t a must.
Here are some options for coconut oil that you can buy online:
Carrington Farms – cold expeller-pressed virgin coconut oil is a great choice when buying bulk.
Dr. Bronner’s – yes, the same guy who makes the soap! This cold-pressed virgin coconut oil is organic and FairTrade certified.
Nutiva – this organic, cold-pressed coconut oil comes in a 2-pack so you can share with a friend!
Avoid coconut oil that you can spray or that stays liquid in your fridge. Even though these often claim to just be “expeller pressed” on the label, they’re not telling us the whole story. You can look at expeller pressed virgin coconut oil in a jar and see that it’s solid at 76ºF+/24ºC+ – this is what natural coconut oil should look like. Coconut oil that stays liquid in the fridge (temperatures of around 40ºF/4.5ºC) has had one of the most beneficial fatty acids (lauric acid) removed. Not only does this yield a more processed product, but you’re losing one of the most beneficial compounds of the coconut oil.