If you want to buy the very best coconut oil, you’re probably feeling a bit overwhelmed with the practically endless number of brands out there. Just 15 years ago there were less than a handful of coconut oils sold as edible oils in the U.S., but today, there are countless options, so how do you know which to choose? Which is the healthiest, and what do all of those labels like “extra-virgin” and “expeller-pressed” really mean?
In order to make the best decision, you need to understand what those terms, and others, mean, as well as what’s currently on the market and how those oils differ.
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The extraction process
In order to produce an oil, you need to extract or remove the oil of the plant from the roughage. In order to do this, the seed, nut, legume, or grain has to undergo a specific process that separates the roughage from the oily areas. The worst process, without a doubt, is the solvent extraction method which uses hexane, a hazardous chemical. While it is quite effective, recovering about 99% of the oil, the hexane has to be removed by heating the oil to a high temperature, which changes the flavor profile.
The most common methods used for producing coconut oil are either expeller-pressed and cold-pressed. These techniques of extracting the oil from the dry or fresh coconut can be found in both the unrefined and refined varieties.
Expeller pressing is a technique that’s been used since ancient times. It’s a chemical-free process that uses mechanics and expeller pressing in order to squeeze the oily material in a press that operates mechanically. An expeller is basically a large screw that’s tightened until it crushes the nut and causes the oil to run. Mechanical pressing can create high temperatures, especially when squeezing hard nuts, and usually occurs when working with automatic machinery in high volume. The issue with high temperatures, as mentioned, is that they can change the flavor of the oil. As this process yields only 65 to 70% of the oil, many companies try to extract the remainder by using a chemical solvent.
Cold-pressed coconut oil is produced in a heat-controlled environment, and is supposed to be processed at temperatures that don’t exceed 120 degrees, resulting in a high quality oil. By comparison, expeller-pressed coconut oil may be processed at around 210 degrees, whereas refined coconut oils tend to be processed at upwards of 400 degrees, degrading the quality of the oil. There are exceptions to these rules, however, particularly in the U.S. While there are some companies that go to great efforts to ensure temperatures stay under 120 degrees (sometimes even below 90 degrees), the term “cold pressed” isn’t regulated in the U.S. like it is in Europe, so it could technically mean anything under 400 degrees.
Provided the company has kept temperatures under 120 degrees, the result is cold press oils with the greatest amount of flavor, aroma and nutrition.
Refined vs. Unrefined
We touched a bit on refined coconut oil, so you probably already have an idea that it’s not the best type of oil to buy, as it’s processed at upwards of 400 degrees, which degrades the quality of the oil, and is often deodorized and bleached. The oil comes from dried coconut meat, sometimes called “copra.” Copra is a term defined by the industry, generally used in the Philippines to refer to the dried coconut that was removed from the coconut shell, but which by itself is inedible and needs to be further refined to produce coconut oil. Coconut oil that comes from copra needs to be purified with bleaching clays as contaminants rise during the drying process. The high temperatures are then used to deodorize the oil in order to remove its distinct odor and flavor, which is why refined coconut oil is usually both tasteless and odorless. Sodium hydroxide may also be added to prolong the oil’s shelf life. And, in order to obtain the most oil from the coconut meat, some brands use chemical solvents.
As the oil is refined, it can typically withstand slightly higher cooking temperatures before reaching its smoke point. This is why some people choose a refined coconut oil, despite its significantly lessened nutritional benefits. Most coconut oils on the grocery store shelf, unless otherwise labelled, are refined coconut oils, and they may even be partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated, which creates synthetic trans-fats, one of the worst things you can do for your health. Trans fat has been scientifically found to increase LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, while lowering HDL, or “good” cholesterol. It can also cause type 2 diabetes, a higher risk of heart disease and major clogging of the arteries.
If you don’t see the word “unrefined” on the label, just “coconut oil,” it’s likely refined. Many companies have imported copra from the Philippines, refining it into non-edible uses, such as in detergents and cleaning products. As coconut oil has become so popular in recent years, some manufacturers in the U.S. have begun to package this type of oil as an edible oil, as it’s cheaper, but it’s also likely to have been mass produced using solvent extracts and it’s hard to say whether or not there are any remaining solvents in the finished product.
Unrefined coconut oil
Unrefined coconut oil is often referred to as “virgin” coconut oil. Technically, coconut oil by nature is refined, because oil, of course, doesn’t grow on a tree, coconuts do. All coconut oils need to be extracted from the coconut which means the only truly unrefined coconut oil would come by directly consuming the oil while it’s still in the meat from a coconut that was just picked fresh off the tree.
Still, “unrefined” or virgin coconut oil is a good choice. The oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat rather than dried. The fresh meat undergoes either a quick drying or wet milling process. Quick drying is most commonly used, quickly drying the meat while the oil is mechanically expressed. When wet milling is used, that means the coconut milk is expressed from the fresh meat before being boiled, fermented or separated from the milk by way of enzymes or centrifuge. As it’s such a fast process, the oil that results doesn’t need any additives, or require bleaching. It also isn’t exposed to high heat levels like refined coconut oil is, and it keeps its distinct coconut flavor and odor. The least refined coconut oil is referred to as virgin coconut oil, a term coined in conjunction with the oil when they first became popular some 15 years ago in order to designed coconut oils that were the least refined.
Virgin vs. extra-virgin coconut oil
As mentioned, “virgin” coconut oil is unrefined coconut oil. But what’s the difference between virgin and extra-virgin coconut oil? Virtually nothing. You’re probably familiar with these terms thanks to olive oil, so extra-virgin sounds pretty legit, right? Wrong. Unlike olive oil, where the difference between virgin and extra virgin is the amount of fatty acids, there are no regulations governing the purity of coconut oil. The terms generally mean the same thing, one is not better than the other. The only way to really tell that you’ve got a properly pressed, unrefined oil is to use your nose – if it has a sweet coconut smell as if you’ve just cracked open a fresh coconut, it probably is.
Glass vs. plastic container
Always buy coconut oil that comes in a sealed glass jar. Glass doesn’t transfer that plastic taste into the oil, and it also helps to lock in the nutrients. Oils that are sold in plastic are typically mass-produced and lower quality. While buying your coconut oil in a big plastic jug may be a good idea economically, it’s not so good for your health. Plus, it’s likely to have an odd taste, and the high level of lauric acid that’s in the oil tends to destroy the plastic over time, leeching it into the oil itself.
Organic vs. non-organic
As with all foods, if the oil is labelled certified organic, meaning it has the USDA Organic label, that means the the coconuts used to produce the oil were grown without the use of pesticides. Coconut oil comes from the flesh of the coconut, which means that it’s safely enclosed behind a tough shell. Pesticides that are in the soil where the coconut tree is will be taken up by the roots, but as coconuts are so far from the roots, experts are of the opinion that it’s unlikely these chemicals will reach them. As they grow so high up, they’re never sprayed with pesticides either. There are hundreds of pesticides that can be potentially used on coconuts, depending on the environment they’re grown in, however, one study analyzed samples of coconut water and was unable to detect any of the 11 pesticides that were tested for, despite using two established methods of detection. As coconut water comes from the flesh of the coconut, it provides an idea as to the amount, if any, of pesticides present in non-organic coconut oil. Because there are no genetically modified coconuts, there are no concerns about GMOs in the oil either. Although there is little evidence to suggest that organic coconut oil has more health benefits than the non-organic kind, the simple fact that processing is more gentle and there are no pesticides, chemical or additives in the finished product means that more people choose the organic type.
If you’d rather play it safe when it comes to you and your family’s health, go organic, but keep in mind that there are some brands that claim to use coconuts grown in more remote locations without pesticides, but don’t go through the organic certification process due to the cost and red tape. Organic certification is quite costly, and consumers that limit themselves only to certified organic coconut oils, may be missing out on some of the best coconut oils available that haven’t gone through that pricey organic certification process. This is where reading labels and doing a little research could save you money without compromising your food standards.
Fair Trade certification, while not affecting the quality of the oil, may also be something you want to take into consideration. Remember that the cheapest products are often the result of unfair wages and treatment of those who are on the front lines of production, as well as ruthless processing approaches and environmental degradation. Supporting fair trade coconut products is a great way to become part of the solution, instead of the problem. Unfortunately, there are few Fair Trade certified coconut oil products available, but if you can find one and afford the slightly higher cost, all the better.
Now we know what to look for when buying coconut oil, which brands can be trusted?
Which Brand Of Coconut Oil Is Best?
There really isn’t just one particular brand of coconut oil you should look for. The main thing is to look for virgin or extra virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil that’s contained in a glass jar.
These brands all meet this criteria and then some:
Dr. Bronner’s Fair Trade & Organic Fresh Pressed White Kernel Virgin Coconut Oil
Dr. Bronner’s Fair Trade & Organic Fresh Pressed White Kernel Virgin Coconut Oil is cold-pressed from fresh dried coconut kernels with brown inner skins that were left on, for a more aromatic, nuttier-tasting oil. It has a fresh scent and fabulous aroma and is very versatile. You can use it for stir-frying and baking as well as for body care. In addition to being certified organic and including the USDA National Organic Program seal, it’s certified Vegan and Fair Trade certified, ensuring fair treatment of native coconut farmers and other workers.
This product has also received rave reviews on Amazon, with a 5-star average. A 14-ounce jar can be purchased on the site from this page.
Aunt Patty’s Fair Trade, Unrefined Virgin Coconut Oil
When you buy Aunt Patty’s Fair Trade Virgin Coconut Oil, you’re helping assure fair wages for coconut farmers in in the surrounding villages and towns of Butuan City in Northern Philippines.
Aunt Patty’s, based in the Pacific Northwest, is a brand under GloryBee Foods that was named after Pat Turanski, co-founder of GloryBee foods. “Cooking and baking with natural ingredients has always been one of Pat’s passions,” the company notes, “and all products were carefully selected for their flavor as well as their beneficial health properties.”
The oil is made from dried, ground coconut meat, then cold-pressed to produce a rich, aromatic oil for use in stir-fries, baking as well as for moisturizing hair and skin. This Non-GMO Project Verified oil and is highly rated on Amazon for both consumption and beauty use. A 12-ounce jar is available from this page on Amazon.
Spectrum Organic Coconut Oil, Unrefined
Spectrum’s organic, unrefined coconut oil has a great, fresh coconut smell and can be used for body care as well as baking and sauteing at medium heat when you want to take full advantage of the coconut flavor. Although it isn’t Fair Trade, it is USDA certified organic, unrefined, cold-pressed and is sold in a glass jar. A 14-ounce jar is currently available from this page on Amazon.
Nutiva Organic Virgin Coconut Oil
Nutiva Coconut Oil has been a top-selling coconut oil in many countries over the last decade, as it’s certified organic, non-GMO, Kosher, cold-pressed, non-hydrogenated and unrefined. It also comes in a glass jar. Many feel that this brand isn’t as powerfully coconut flavored, so if you’re looking for a more subtle coconut taste, it may be your best choice. You can purchase a 23-ounce jar from this page on Amazon currently.
Coconut Country Living Organic Coconut Oil Extra Virgin, Unrefined Cold-Pressed
This coconut oil by Coconut Country Living is organic, cold-pressed, virgin, non-GMO certified and comes in a glass jar. As such you can be sure that there are no traces of pesticides in it, nor hexane, bleach, BPA or trans fats. While it isn’t Fair Trade certified, the company states that it believes in fair trade principles and personally sources its coconuts from Sri Lanka, where they discovered the “freshest, tastiest coconut” they could find anywhere in the world.
Coconut Country Living coconut oil can be used as both a cooking and baking oil, or personal care product to benefit your hair and skin. A 16.91-ounce jar sells on this page on Amazon, and it even comes with a free ebook: Coconut Oil Secrets for Health & Beauty.
Anjou Coconut Oil, Organic Extra Virgin, Cold Pressed Unrefined
Anjou Naturals offers this USDA certified organic, cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil, for use in cooking and for the hair and skin. The oil is produced from Sri Lanka coconuts which Anjou explains: “Sri Lanka produce the best coconut: Old-fashioned, non-crossbred trees planted in nutrient-rich coastal soil under hot tropical weather produce the most delicious coconuts with a high content of MCT.”
A 32-ounce jar of the oil can currently be purchased on Amazon from this page.
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