Coconut oil has emerged as one of the most popular cooking oils worldwide over the past several years, and it’s traditionally used as one of the primary sources of fat in many Pacific and Asian countries.
This plant-based fat has some properties that other cooking oils don’t. For instance, because it’s mostly made up of saturated fat, it’s solid at room temperature rather than liquid.
It also contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and lauric acid, which may provide fat-burning and heart-protective benefits.
Still, you may be curious about which coconut oil is better for your needs.
This article reviews the differences between unrefined and refined coconut oil and which type should be used in specific instances.
The major difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil is how they’re produced, affecting some physical properties, such as flavor and smoke point.
Unrefined coconut oil
Sometimes called virgin coconut oil, unrefined coconut oil is oil that has been pressed from coconut meat and undergone no further processing.
There are two methods of extracting unrefined coconut oil from coconuts:
- Dry. This method uses a machine to press coconut oil from dried coconut flesh or copra.
- Wet. This technique involves pressing coconut milk and coconut oil out of fresh coconuts and then separating the two.
Most unrefined coconut oil is extracted using the wet process. You may see some unrefined coconut oils labeled “cold pressed,” meaning no heat was used in their extraction.
Unrefined coconut oil is solid at room temperature and has a strong coconut flavor and scent, which it can impart to foods that include it. Its smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke, is 350°F (177°C).
Refined coconut oil
On the other hand, refined coconut oil undergoes some additional processing to make it better suited for cooking.
The process begins with pressing crude coconut oil from copra. At this step, the process may be similar to the dry extraction of unrefined coconut oil. Next, one or more of the following steps may occur, depending on the manufacturing process:
- Degumming. The crude coconut oil is mixed with a degumming agent to remove gums, which can change the texture and quality of the oil. The oil is washed in water to separate these gums from the oil.
- Neutralizing. Sodium hydroxide, or lye, is added to the oil and forms a soap with free fatty acids in the oil. The oil is then washed with water, removing the soap and free fatty acids. This reduces the risk of rancidity, as free fatty acids are prone to oxidation.
- Bleaching. The oil is “bleached” through an activated clay filter. No bleach is used in this process.
- Deodorizing. The oil is heat-deodorized to remove any remaining coconut scent or taste.
While the resulting coconut oil is more highly processed, it has a higher smoke point of 400–450°F (204–232°C), which makes it more suitable for high-temperature cooking. For the most part, it’s also flavorless and odorless.
Additionally, refined and unrefined coconut oils have similar nutrient profiles, providing 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon (14 grams). The two types contain similar MCT ratios, lauric acid and saturated and unsaturated fats.
Summary: Unrefined coconut oil can be extracted using either a dry or a wet method, while refined coconut oil undergoes some additional processing steps. Refined coconut oil is mostly flavorless and has a higher smoke point than unrefined coconut oil.
Choosing which one to use
For the most part, choosing refined or unrefined coconut oil is a personal preference. However, in certain applications, one type may be better suited. Here are some examples.
Because unrefined coconut oil has a strong coconut taste and scent, refined coconut oil may be a better choice for baking. If you use refined coconut oil, the resulting baked good will be free of a coconut taste and smell that could otherwise clash with its flavors.
However, suppose you prefer unrefined coconut oil and don’t mind the flavor. In that case, its lower smoke point is unlikely to affect the quality of baked goods, as the food itself won’t reach such high temperatures, even in an oven set higher than 350°F (177°C).
Regardless, either type of coconut oil is a great vegan alternative to butter in baking applications, as both fats are solid at room temperature.
This makes coconut oil ideal for use in baked goods such as vegan biscuits and pie crusts, in which the use of solid fat helps create a light and flaky product.
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In cooking, the higher smoke point of refined coconut oil makes it a clear winner. It’s ideal for high-heat cooking, such as stir-frying and sauteing.
This allows you to cook at higher temperatures, resulting in a crispy but not burnt product.
You can use unrefined coconut oil for cooking, although you may need to cook at a lower temperature for longer.
Alternatively, avocado oil may be better suited for high-heat cooking applications like deep-frying. It has a smoke point of 488–520°F (253–271°C) and a mild, nutty aroma that’s often a good complement to fried or sauteed foods.
On the other hand, if you’re looking for an oil for salad dressings or drizzle over prepared food, extra-virgin olive oil is the best option because it’s mild-tasting and liquid at room temperature.
Olive oil may also be used for cooking because its smoke point ranges from 350–410°F (175–210 °C).
Skin and hair care
Many people use coconut oil as a natural moisturizer or conditioner on their skin and hair.
You can use refined coconut oil if the unrefined variety’s smell bothers you. However, unrefined coconut oil may be better because it’s less processed and likely gentler on your skin and hair.
Finally, some people use coconut oil because it suits their dietary preferences. For instance, the oil is a popular choice for people on the low-carb, high-fat keto diet because it contains small amounts of potentially fat-burning MCT oil.
For people on keto, either type is generally fine, given their very similar nutrient profiles.
However, some people may be more concerned with diet quality than macronutrient content. For example, unrefined coconut oil would be the better option for people who follow diets consisting of minimally processed foods because it’s less processed.
Summary: Due to its mild flavor and high smoke point, refined coconut oil is a better choice for baking and cooking. However, minimally processed unrefined coconut oil may be better for skin and hair care and certain dietary preferences.
While refined and unrefined coconut oil have identical nutrient profiles, they’re remarkably different.
Suggested read: Is canola oil healthy? Nutrition, downsides, and alternatives
Refined coconut oil has a milder scent and flavor but a higher smoke point, while unrefined coconut oil is minimally processed and has a strong coconut flavor and lower smoke point.
Depending on what you need the oil for, one type may be better suited for you than the other. Regardless, refined and unrefined coconut oils are great healthy fat sources because of their similar nutrient content.