When you head over to Tropical Traditions to buy some coconut oil for the first time, you may be overwhelmed (I know I was). I had no idea there were so many choices! Here's a little breakdown from their site that I found very helpful.
What Kind of Coconut Oil Should You Buy?
Coconut oil has been around for thousands of years in the tropics where coconut palm trees grow. Recently, coconut oil has seen a resurgence in popularity in the U.S. and consumers are beginning to look at buying coconut oil again. So what kind of coconut oil should you buy?
Coconut oils can be classified into two general categories: virgin coconut oils and refined coconut oils. Both categories refer to pure coconut oil with nothing else added, and the main difference is in the production and refining process to make coconut oil.
Virgin Coconut Oil
Virgin coconut oils are the least processed, and they should retain some scent and flavor, as they are not steam deodorized. There are two main types of Virgin Coconut Oils found in the market today: handcrafted traditional virgin coconut oil, and mass produced machine-made coconut oil.
Traditionally made virgin coconut oils are more difficult to make and are more labor intensive. Recent studies have shown that these types of oils, which have been made by families in the tropics for hundreds if not thousands of years using very little technology, have the highest levels of antioxidants (see one study here.) These traditionally made virgin coconut oils are made from fresh coconuts, using the wet-milling process by grating the fresh coconut oil meat shortly after harvest, and then making coconut milk from the fresh coconut, which is then used to separate the oil from the fresh coconut milk.
Mass produced machine-made virgin coconut oils are generally made using an expeller press to extract the oil from desiccated coconut oil. These virgin coconut oils are generally made by the desiccated coconut plants. Another less common method of producing machine-made virgin coconut oil is by using a centrifuge machine to separate the coconut oil from the coconut milk. This requires a special machine (centrifuge) and is a more modern method recently developed to mass produce virgin coconut oil from fresh coconuts.
Unfortunately, there is no standard industry definition for "virgin" coconut oil as there is in the olive oil industry. Therefore, it is not uncommon to find refined coconut oils, as described below, labeled as "virgin" coconut oils. Some brands also use the term "extra virgin" coconut oil, even though there is nothing "extra" that can be done to produce coconut oil other than the ways described above, and the term "extra virgin" is therefore simply a marketing term. Learn more about buying virgin coconut oil here.
Refined Coconut Oil
Refined coconut oils start out with "copra", which is a dried form of the coconut meat used to sell to coconut oil producers for further processing. In many places the coconut meat is separated from the shell of the coconut, and then the shells of the coconut are burned as fuel to dry the coconut meat, usually in the open air. The coconut absorbs the smoke from the burning coconut shells, and can be contaminated from sitting in the open air before and during transport to large coconut oil production plants. Once the coconut meat reaches the coconut oil factory, it is further refined to make it suitable for selling as an edible coconut oil. The entire process is called RBD - refined, bleached, and deodorized. The bleaching process is actually a filtering through clay, and not necessarily a chemical process. Steam is used to deodorize the coconut oil, and these coconut oils have a bland taste.
Some refined coconut oils are also produced by the use of chemical solvents to increase the amount of oil that can be extracted from the coconut, as opposed to the older mechanical extraction method. If the coconut oil is not cleaned properly, there is a chance small amounts of these chemical solvents could remain in the finished product.
Characteristics of All Coconut Oils
Coconut oil is primarily a saturated fat. The predominant fatty acids found in coconut oil that make coconut oil unique are medium chain fatty acids. The largest percentage of these medium chain fatty acids is lauric acid. Coconut oil is nature's richest source of lauric acid, outside of human breast milk. All coconut oils, whether virgin or refined, will be composed of these very beneficial fatty acids.
One of the most common misconceptions found on the Internet these days is that only virgin coconut oil is beneficial, and that refined coconut oils are harmful. This is generally not true, unless the refined coconut oil has been hydrogenated and contains trans fats. It is almost impossible to buy consumer packaged coconut oil that has been hydrogenated. Refined coconut oils may lack some nutrients and will more than likely not have the antioxidants that the traditionally-made virgin coconut oils contain, but they are certainly not harmful. They still contain the beneficial medium chain fatty acids, and as a saturated fat they are shelf stable and not prone to oxidation like polyunsaturated oils.