How to Choose A Coconut Oil?

Our understanding of fats and oils, what is healthy and what isn’t has been greatly changing over the past few years and decades. One of the products that has generated a lot of questions and interest is coconut oil. Today, it has become one of the most popular superfoods and recommended oils for raw and cooked consumption. With this product’s increased popularity came many brands with wide-ranging quality. It seems everyone wants a piece of this market’s share, but not all are equally optimal for our health or our wallet. In this essay, I will share with you how to pick the best coconut oil, what brands are recommended and not recommended, and address commonly asked questions about coconut oil.

Our health shouldn’t have to depend on the swinging pendulums of nutritional bureaucracy, so what is one to do in the midst of the questionable claims and expert contradictions? Here is what I can tell you for sure when it comes to nourishing your body for optimal health. My perspective on this matter comes as a whole-food, plant-based nutrition and holistic health expert.

Nature has provided for us perfectly packaged foods in the form of whole, natural plant foods. There is a rhyme and reason for every one of these in terms of its macro and micro-nutrient compositions, health, and medicinal properties. When we take these foods and process them in some way, we are moving away from this packaged perfection. The more we process foods and isolate nutrients, the more controversial, problematic, and unpredictable the food becomes. Therefore, I will be the first to tell you about the health benefits of the coconut in its whole glory, but I cannot in good faith or certainty tell you the same about coconut oil. We have to understand that all oils are extracts of the original food, providing isolated fat — something that does not exist anywhere in nature, just like isolated sugar, and something our bodies had no experience with until we adopted oil extraction practices. We have finally come to understand the problems associated with isolated sugar and cannot dismiss similar concerns as they apply to isolated fats via oils.

«  The scientific community may have demonstrated that coconut oil is not as unhealthy as we once believed, but that conclusion is still a big leap from demonstrating that it is healthy. » - Severine Kirchner, Ph.D. The Coconut Wars

Having shared the above does not mean that coconut products, like coconut oil, hold no value. We just have to be smart about how we use them. For example, virgin coconut oil is an outstanding moisturizer and skin nourisher. Many people use it in various ways as part of their regular skin, hair, and even oral care routines, in the form of oil pulling. Being mostly composed of saturated fat, coconut oil is also one of the few oils that is stable in the presence of some heat, which makes it a viable option for those who use any oil for cooking (not frying), as opposed to unsaturated oils.

What is not okay, or a smart way to go, when it comes to coconut oil is consuming excessive amounts of it as part of one’s daily diet, which has become very popular amongst many low-carb dieters. We have to remember that about a tablespoon of oil is equivalent to about 120 calories and for many people several tablespoons of this a day adds up to hundreds of extra calories of pure fat! Regardless of how coconut oil is metabolized or the kinds of saturated fats that it contains, excess calories are excess calories and saturated fat is not ideal for us in large amounts. Not to mention, high-fat diets can be hard on our major organs and precipitate all sorts of health and weight problems.

In the midst of the many seductive, yet questionable claims, we have to understand that coconut oil in no way gets the “all-you-can-eat” green light. So aside from using coconut oil topically (skin, hair, teeth) or as part of some medically-sound therapy, if you choose to consume any coconut oil, it is essential to use it sparingly. This is not only a smart way to approach this food for your health, but also for our planet’s health and ecological sustainability. To get more wholesome health benefits of the coconut, consider consuming it fresh when available, or dried (unsweetened, unsulfured), or as coconut butter, which is made by pureeing the whole coconut.

How to Choose the Best Coconut Oil

1. Virgin vs. Refined

There are two main kinds of coconut oil: refined and unrefined. Refined oils are cheaper and possess no coconut flavor or aroma. They are produced from dried copra, not fresh coconuts, and the oil typically undergoes various levels of processing, including being deodorized and bleached. Unrefined coconut oil is normally considered virgin (incorrectly labelled extra virgin in the past) and it possesses a light coconut taste and aroma, that will vary from brand to brand. This mostly depends on the freshness of the coconut used and type of processing it was subjected to. Virgin oil is typically made from fresh coconuts, but processing techniques will still vary in determining the product’s quality. As a result , the less processing that is done to our food, the more nutritionally sound and beneficial it is.

2. Processing Methods

The nature of all oils is such that it involves processing; oils are not whole, natural foods and do not naturally exist in nature, as shared above. Coconut oil is most commonly processed using expeller-pressed or cold-pressed methods. Expeller-pressed is a mechanical process that extracts oil from seeds and nuts, at high pressure and heat, and is usually used for refined oils. Cold-pressed coconut oils are expeller-pressed in a heat-controlled environment to keep temperatures below 49ºC or 120ºF degrees. Unfortunately, labeling laws are weak in this area and producers may not be adhering to proper cold-pressed standards. This is where it is helpful to learn more about how the brand in question fully processed its oils.

Many high quality companies today are paying attention to using fresh coconuts, having a quick turnaround time from picking the coconut to bottling, keeping heat so low that it can be classified as a RAW product, and transparently describing their process. Even though coconut oil is one of the few oils that does not get easily destroyed in the presence of heat, the less heat applied to our food and the less harsh the processing, the better for maximum nutritional integrity.

Other factors to be considered by serious coconut oil connoisseurs include: whether the coconut oil was dry or wet-processed, fermented, or centrifuge-processed, as well as the freshness of the coconut and quality of the copra used.

A select few oils on the market use the DME method of extraction: Direct Micro Expelling. This process brings the processing to the coconuts, rather than the coconuts to the processing, by-passing the common copra-based coconut industry. Coconuts are prepared, typically right where they grow, by local families for manual pressing. This process tends to ensure the freshest coconut oil and provides the least invasive processing methods possible. It is also the most eco-friendly and supportive of native people’s livelihoods.

In certain tropical parts of the world, coconut oil may be hydrogenated or fractionated. These oils are even more refined and should not be used for optimal health.

3. Organic versus Conventional

Although the coconut is not a high-risk food when it comes to pesticides, nor is it genetically-modified, it is still best to opt for organic options whenever possible. Whether it is the type of fertilizer used or the post-harvesting applications, there are many reasons why organic is a better way to go for both our personal health and the health of our planet.

I will mention here also about the importance of Fair Trade certification when it comes to coconut products, like coconut oil. Our mentality to get the most product for the least amount of money is unfortunately one of the most harmful attitudes when it comes to social justice and environmental sustainability issues. It is time we start to look past our own interests and consider the bigger picture and what is at stake. Cheap final products and trying to drive down prices is normally reflected in more ruthless processing approaches, environmental degradation, and unfair wages and treatment of people who are on the front lines of production. In the context of coconut oil, this is especially applicable to native coconut farmers. We can become part of solution and embody the change we wish to see by supporting fair trade coconut products.

4. Glass vs. Plastic Jars

Food and plastic do not mix for optimal health. This is not yet a popular stance in our society, but one that cannot be avoided. Plastics are an environmental disaster all on their own, and given the majority of the plastic comes from refined petroleum products, not something that will ever get the safe stamp of approval. Will one product in a plastic jar harm you? Most likely not, but you have to think of the bigger picture today. It is never about one product and our bodies simply have too many chemicals all around thrown at them. So why not minimize where we can?

Every few months or years, we learn about some new toxicity issues related to plastic and its potential to leach various harmful compounds into the food or drink being housed in it. It becomes an even bigger problem when we mix heat and plastic. Seeing that most coconut oils are heated and then bottled, we can hopefully appreciate why glass jars are a big incentive.