Coconut oil seems like it can be used for everything! From beauty products like moisturizer and toothpaste, to recipes used in baking and cooking. But, with countless options lining the shelves of your favorite store, purchasing coconut oil can be a bit overwhelming. Get the full scoop here so you know what to look for, and what to avoid next time you're buying coconut oil. You will be the next coconut oil guru in no time!
Where Does Coconut Oil Come From?
So, it all starts when one coconut meets another coconut and they fall in love....just kidding!
Coconuts are the fruit of the Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera). The kernel, or "meat", of the coconut is where 60-65% of the plant's oil lives, and where the oil is harvested from. The kernel can be dried, or left in it's wet state before extraction.
To get the final coconut oil product, coconuts go through multiple processing steps:
- Refining (optional)
What is Copra?
In a nutshell (pun 100% intended!), copra is coconut kernel that is dried before the oil is extracted. Copra is associated with low quality, industrial grade oil. And, it requires the use of heavy chemicals to be suitable for human use. This is an amazing article that gives a more in-depth description of copra. I highly suggest avoiding any product made from copra for these reasons.Unfortunately, avoiding copra isn't as simple as seeing it listed as an ingredient. You will have to do some minor investigations first. The extraction method should be listed on the label, and this will help to know what quality of kernel was used. Also, any additional processing steps listed give hints to what kind of product was used. Below is an overview of extraction methods to look for or avoid, as well as some descriptions of other labeling terms you may see.
Extraction Methods To Look For:
- basically a large-scale mortar and pestle powered by livestock
- mechanical Ghani extraction systems are also available
- considered a cold-pressed method
- refers to multiple pressing techniques
- temperatures MUST remain below 120°F to maintain beneficial constituents of oil
- more labor intensive than other techniques, with lower yield of oil (makes prices higher)
- less adulterated and more natural end product
- process formally developed in the 90's in Australia
- can produce cold-pressed virgin oil within 1 hour from time coconuts are harvested!
- humane working conditions, often involving families working together
- very sustainable (only occurs where coconuts naturally grow, shells used for fuel, leftover pulp used as animal feed for local farms)
- no harsh chemicals used
- considered by some as the purest coconut oil available
Extraction Methods To Avoid:
- similar to cold-pressed, but without temperature control
- temperatures rise well above 120°F and destroy beneficial properties of oil
- copra is often used as the source for oil
- needs refined before it is safe for human use
- most effective method in expelling coconut oil
- copra is source for oil
- copra is ground to paste then bathed in Hexane (solvent) that releases oil from kernel
- must be refined
- beneficial properties of oil are lost
Fun Fact: Did you know that the Coconut Palm is so useful that many call it the "Tree of Life"?
Now that we understand the different extraction methods, it's time to move on to some different types of coconut oil you may see.
Virgin Coconut Oil:
First off, it's important to know that coconut oil labeled as "virgin" or "extra-virgin" are the same thing. There are no regulations in the US to differentiate between these two labeling claims. However, it is understood that Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) never uses copra as it's starting product. It is made from fresh coconut kernel, or kernel that has been quickly dried. Also, virgin coconut oil should always be unrefined.
Although virgin oil is a great choice, the extraction method also matters. Make sure the oil you are buying has been cold-pressed so that it retains all of it's goodies! Virgin coconut oil should have a distinct coconut smell and taste, and not feel overly "oily". It is white in color when solid, and clear when melted. You may even notice little bits of coconut within the oil.
Refining is the process of "purifying" the oil, and is usually made up of 3 steps (refining, bleaching, and deodorizing). Refining becomes necessary when the oil comes from copra, because the copra is often rotten by the time it's processed. You may see oil that has been refined listed as "RBD Oil".
I avoid refined oil because of it's reliance on chemicals, as well as the fact that copra is most often used as the starting product.
- acid (often citric acid) is added to oil to neutralize free fatty acids and other compounds that lead to rancidity
- Clay (either natural, or with acid added) is mixed with heated oil to remove compounds that cause oil to have color
- Also removes beneficial compounds
- Oil is then filtered or centrifuged to remove remaining particles, sediment, and clay
- Steam is used to distill oil and remove all odor causing substances
- Leaves the oil flavorless and odorless
Fractionated coconut oil is liquid at room temperature. It has an extremely long shelf life, and is useful in a lot of different applications.
To understand what fractionated coconut oil is, we have to get a little scientific for a minute. So, let's put on our lab coats and get down to the nitty gritty!
Triglycerides:Triglycerides are a type of fat created when any 3 fatty acids attach themselves to a glycerol molecule:
Glycerol + 3 fatty acids = Triglyceride
These fatty acids come in different "lengths": short-chain, medium-chain, or long-chain. This "chain length" is dependent upon how many carbons the fatty acid has in it's structure.
- short chain= less than 6 carbons
- medium chain= 6-12 carbons
- long chain= more than 12 carbons
Fractionated coconut oil is basically a "fraction" of the original oil because it is made up of only the medium-chain fatty acids.So far, so good? Next we will go through what happens when the oil gets "fractionated" (aka separated).
Coconut oil contains both medium and long-chain fatty acids.
First, these fatty acids are separated from their glycerol molecule. Then, the oil is heated until it's completely melted. Each chain-length has a different melting point, so as the oil cools, the long-chain fatty acids solidify first. This allows the fatty acids to be separated from each other. The medium-chain fatty acids are collected, then recombined with glycerol to form the final product (a medium-chain triglyceride), known as fractionated coconut oil.
Unfortunately, lauric acid (a medium-chain fatty acid with tons of benefits) gets caught in the crossfire and is removed when the fatty acids are separated from each other.
Even without lauric acid, fractionated coconut oil still has a lot of skin and health benefits. So, if you find that you prefer the qualities of this oil over the others, I say, go for it! Just check out the extraction method used to make sure it doesn't originate from copra.
The options for coconut oil seem endless, but understanding what each option provides is important. As always, check the labels so you know what your are spending your hard-earned dollars on! Personally, I avoid all of the oils made from copra, and that's what I would suggest to my friends and family. If you do the same, it will cut the options down to a more manageable selection. This selection will be healthier for you, the planet, and the farmers. I hope this helps you to find what oil suits your purpose!