Refined coconut oil
Made from dried coconut, also known as copra; the standard end product made from dried kernel (meat) is RBD oil, which stands for refined, bleached and deodorised. The reason the oil has to undergo this process is that the dried copra is not fit for consumption and the oil needs to undergo processes to filter out impurities and make it more stable; it’s a pretty common way to mass-produce coconut oil.
Because it’s refined it’s fairly tasteless and doesn’t smell like coconut; it can withstand higher cooking temperatures before it reaches its smoke point; great for deep-frying foods without the flavour of coconut. It’s not as great as the virgin, completely raw coconut oil but still has the same beneficial medium chain fatty acids; it’s very close in its nutritional value to virgin coconut oil so it’s more about the extraction method and what chemicals have been applied.
Most of the coconut oils available in stores are refined unless they specifically state otherwise; not all refined oils are created equally, so try to get good quality one refined using natural, chemical free processes. You’ll also want to make sure that the oil is non-hydrogenated. Refined oil is a good choice if you’re on a budget (as it’s usually cheaper). They’re also good for things which require lots of oil like deep-frying.
Hydrogenated Coconut Oil
This is the one refined coconut oil you want to stay away from as an edible oil. The small portion of unsaturated fatty acids are hydrogenated, creating some trans fats. It also keeps coconut oil solid at higher temperatures. Standard RBD coconut oil remains solid up to 76 degrees F., and the ambient air temperature is higher than that in the tropics most of the time. So to keep coconut oil solid at higher temperatures, they hydrogenate it before putting it into candies or baked goods, or making into margarines.
Liquid Coconut Oil
A new product that appeared in stores as an edible oil in 2013 was “liquid coconut oil” that is promoted as “coconut oil that stays liquid even in your refrigerator”. It may be a new label and a new item in the edible oil section, but the product is not new at all. It is “fractionated coconut oil” that has had lauric acid removed. It is also referred to as “MCT oil“. It has typically been used in the past in skin care products, and more recently as a dietary supplement. It is a refined product that is now marketed as an edible oil. It is actually a by-product from the lauric acid industry.
Lauric acid from coconut oil is a strong antimicrobial component. Because of this, it's often used as a preservative in many commercial applications. Being a saturated fatty acid, and comprising about 50% of coconut oil, once it is removed you are left with a liquid oil with a much lower melting point. So if you see this product online or in a store, just be aware that it is a highly refined product, and that it is missing coconut oil’s star component: lauric acid.
Unrefined coconut oil
If it does use copra as its starting point, it’s not really a true virgin coconut oil, but an industry standard RBD refined coconut oil with a clever label. Usually labelled as ‘virgin’ or ‘extra-virgin’, this coconut oil is made from the first pressing of fresh, raw coconut using mechanical means without the addition of any chemicals; depending on the extraction method, the flavour can be mild to very intense (more heat exposure during extraction, more coconut flavour in the oil).
Good raw, unrefined, virgin coconut oil should have a very mild coconut flavour and scent. Virgin, unrefined oil is superior to refined coconut oil. The difference between ‘virgin’ and ‘extra virgin’ seems to be the word ‘extra’- it’s more of a marketing trick to get you to pay more.
Cold-pressed, expeller-pressed or centrifuged are methods of extracting oil from dry or fresh coconut and can be used for both refined and unrefined varieties. All methods can create a good healthy oil. Expeller-pressed and cold-pressed don’t always mean ‘raw’ as sometimes these oils are heated to rather high temperatures during the extraction process, which is not a problem as coconut oil is a highly stable fat and will not go rancid…it does however mean that the coconut flavour will be stronger. If you want a more mild and delicate coconut oil, look out for a centrifuged oil which is less likely to be exposed to heat during extraction.