Have you tried coconut oil? Chances are you’ve received that suggestion before—be it as a remedy for chapped lips and split ends, a must-try addition to your weight loss plan or even as an all-natural, plant-based lube. Yes, this miracle oil has been all the rage for a few years now and for good reason: This healthy saturated fat is loaded with medium-chain triglycerides that are thought to benefit the skin and potentially boost heart and metabolic health. That said, when it comes to reaping the rewards of coconut oil, it helps to know which kind to buy and how to use it. Well, friends, we’ve got the scoop on the refined vs. unrefined coconut oil debate, and it might just be a game changer for your beauty routine and dinner menu...or both.
What is unrefined coconut oil?
Like all coconut oil, unrefined coconut oil is a plant-based fat that has been extracted from the meat of a mature coconut; what makes it unrefined is simply that it has not been processed further once pressed from the meat. For this reason, unrefined coconut oil—sometimes called virgin coconut oil—boasts a bolder coconut aroma and flavor and a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit. (Hint: If you don’t like coconut, unrefined coconut oil is probably not going to be up your alley.) At room temperature, both unrefined and refined coconut oil are solid and white in appearance, so you won’t be able to identify unrefined coconut oil on sight. Instead, read the label—if you see the words “virgin” or cold-pressed, then the coconut oil is unrefined. (Note: Not all unrefined coconut oil is cold-pressed, but all cold-pressed coconut oil is unrefined.)
What is refined coconut oil?
So now that you know what unrefined coconut oil is, what’s the deal with the refined stuff? As you might’ve guessed, the key difference between the two is that refined coconut oil has undergone further processing—and typically quite a bit. The processing steps taken to produce refined coconut oil may include degumming, basically a cold shower for the coconut oil to remove naturally occurring gums; neutralizing, a process by which free fatty acids are removed to prevent the risk of oxidation (i.e., rancid oil); bleaching, which doesn’t actually involve bleach at all, but is accomplished with clay filtering; and finally, deodorizing, which is when the oil is heated to remove any coconut flavor and taste. OK, that’s a lot of information, but what does it all mean? First, not all of those steps are necessarily taken in the refining process, but deodorizing definitely does occur, which brings us to the key functional differences between refined and unrefined coconut oil: Refined coconut oil is pretty close to completely tasteless and odorless, and it boasts a slightly higher smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s also worth noting that, although we typically associate processing with loss of nutritional value, that is not the case with refined coconut oil. The refinement process does not have an impact on the medium-chain triglycerides or the amount of lauric acid and saturated fat in the final product (more on that below). In other words, there’s no reason not to use refined coconut oil, particularly if you’re not wild about the way coconut tastes.
Refined vs. unrefined coconut oil
“When it comes to nutrition, both unrefined and refined coconut oils offer similar benefits,” Sheri Vettel, RD from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, tells us. “Both contain medium-chain triglycerides—a type of fat that may be easier for the gut to digest and absorb—which is a beneficial factor for those with any digestive issues. Lauric acid is one type of medium-chain fatty acid found in coconuts that has antimicrobial benefits, as well as has links to a healthy weight, boosted HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol), and protection against Alzheimer’s disease, although more conclusive research is needed,” she adds. In other words, both unrefined and refined coconut oil have essentially the same nutritional profile. When it comes to cost, the refined stuff is typically cheaper than unrefined coconut oil. So the choice between the two really comes down to personal preference and what you intend to use the oil for.
How to choose which oil to use
Let’s take a look at some of the different ways you can use coconut oil (there are more than you think) and how unrefined and refined oil stack up for each.
As we mentioned, coconut oil is a popular skin and hair moisturizer, but does it matter which kind you use? Not entirely. As a beauty product, unrefined coconut oil is the preferred type to use—namely because the lack of processing means the coconut oil retains all of what nature intended. (Some phytonutrients and polyphenols are lost in the refining process, and although this doesn’t impact nutritional value, those compounds may have some skin benefits.) That said, both refined and unrefined coconut oil have the same moisturizing power so, again, if you don’t like the smell of unrefined coconut oil, it’s perfectly fine to opt for the refined variety instead.
Both unrefined and refined coconut oil are excellent for cooking so which one you choose really depends on what type of dish you’re cooking. A subtle coconut taste can either complement or clash with the other flavors in a dish—something to keep in mind since unrefined coconut oil will impart some of its flavor to your meal. If you’re looking for a neutral cooking oil, refined coconut oil is your best bet. It’s also a better choice for high heat cooking, due to its higher smoke point.
The same considerations come into play with baking as with cooking—namely whether or not a mild coconut taste will work with what you’re making. Unlike with cooking, though, the smoke point is not an important factor when baking: Unrefined coconut oil will not smoke or burn when used as a baking ingredient, even in a hot oven (i.e., above 350 degrees Fahrenheit).
As we previously mentioned, both refined and unrefined coconut oil have the same nutritional profile. If you’re using coconut oil for its dietary benefits, either option will deliver the goods.
The Bottom Line
So, what’s the takeaway? Both refined and unrefined coconut oil have benefits for your body and your skin. The main thing to keep in mind is that unrefined cooking oil has a much stronger coconut flavor than its neutral, refined counterpart, and for stovetop cooking the latter is better because its higher smoke point means it can take the heat.