The Benefits of Coconut Oil: How to Pick a Good Source & What to Avoid

By Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD
August 18, 2020

coconut-oil.jpgIf you’ve hung around our blog or our offices for any length of time, you’ll know that we are huge fans of coconut oil. Chances are you probably have a jar at home too, whether you use it for cooking or baking, or as a skin moisturizer.

There’s a lot to love about coconut oil. Good quality coconut oil (more specifics on that in a minute!) has been shown to be anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, helpful for improving cardiovascular disease markers,  and may be a helpful adjunct tool in combating Alzheimer’s disease Despite that amazing list, coconut oil tends to get a bad rap in the media every few months. Usually these media stories are associated with the high saturated fat content of coconut oil and the out of date, misguided notion that saturated fat causes heart disease. (Read these past blog posts, Heart-Healthy Fats and Why People Are So Confused About What to Eat to better understand how this myth got debunked.) In short, saturated fat does not increase your cholesterol or make you fat! Healthy fats like coconut oil are vital because they keep our blood sugar stable, help us feel satiated (feeling full) after a meal, and keep our skin, hair, and nails hydrated, along with keeping our brain working in tip-top shape.

Refined vs. Unrefined Coconut Oil

If you’ve ever stood in the baking and oils aisle staring at the wall of choices and wondering which the best choice is, you’re not alone. How do you know what a QUALITY coconut oil is? Unrefined, refined, virgin, extra virgin, organic, raw, vegan, pure … it can get overwhelming. Here’s a breakdown of your options:

  • Refined coconut oil – After separating the oil from the coconut meat via a gentle drying method (called “dry milling”), the oil is filtered through a bleaching clay to kill off microbes and remove other unwanted particles. The oil may also be heated again to deodorize it, and then sodium hydroxide is added to remove additional impurities and prolong shelf life. You may also see the terms “RBD coconut oil” or “copra oil”. RBD stands for refined, bleached, deodorized. Refined coconut oil lacks the coconut flavor and has a neutral taste. It has a smoke point of around 400 degrees.
  • Unrefined coconut oil – The coconut oil is extracted directly from the coconut meat along with water (called “wet milling”), and then the water and oil are separated by centrifuge or cold-pressing. That’s it. You may also see this labeled as “virgin coconut oil” or “pure coconut oil.” For the record, there is no legal definition of “extra virgin” coconut oil, so this term is often just a marketing ploy. Unrefined coconut oil will have the characteristic, slightly-sweet coconut flavor to it. It also has a smoke point of around 350 degrees.
  • Organic – Organic coconut oil will be made from coconuts not grown with chemical fertilizers or pesticides and will be free from any chemical residue from processing. Some refined coconut oils are organic, and most unrefined coconut oils will be organic.

So that’s coconut oil in a nutshell – pun intended! We recommend choosing organic, unrefined coconut oil since it goes through the fewest steps from farm to cupboard. If the coconut taste bothers you, or you need oil that can go higher in temperature (for uses such as frying or baking above 400 degrees), we suggest avocado oil, which has a neutral flavor and a smoke point of 520 degrees.

Coconut Products to Choose From

Many of our recipes (see my favorites below!) use coconut products like coconut milk and coconut flakes or shredded coconut. These are all good sources of healthy fats in a dish or recipes, but how are these different from coconut oil?

  • Canned coconut milk (usually found in the Asian foods section of the grocery store) is made by extracting the fat-rich meat from the coconut, blending it, and mixing it with water. Depending on the brand, there may be gums, thickeners, emulsifiers, or stabilizers added. A little guar gum is usually not an issue for most people, but if the ingredients list exceeds 2-3 items, put it back and look for another brand. Note that canned coconut milk is different from the coconut milk in the carton. Canned coconut milk is creamy and a wonderful source of healthy fat, while carton coconut milk contains much more water and will have fortified nutrients added to make it somewhat similar to cow’s milk. Also, if you ever come across a recipe that calls for coconut cream, that is simply the thick material at the top of a coconut milk can (some brands sell coconut cream in separate cans). 
  • Coconut flakes, coconut chip, and shredded coconut are all “desiccated coconut” products. The coconut meat itself is flaked or shredded, then oven-dried to get all the moisture out. Go for organic, flakes or shreds to ensure no preservatives have been added during processing, and choose unsweetened versions to avoid added sugars.
  • Coconut water is the made from the clear liquid inside  a young, green coconut. You’ll often see this marketed toward athletes as a refreshing beverage, high in electrolytes. While pure coconut water is a good source of potassium and contains a few other minerals, you also get a dose of naturally-occurring sugar (about 15g per 8-12oz). If you are exercising intensely or working in a hot environment for long periods of time, then a cup of coconut water may be helpful to replace lost fluids and provide a bump in energy. However, for those looking to keep sugar intake low, plain water is still your best hydrator and option.  
  • Coconut flour is made by grinding the dried pulp of the coconut (the pulp is a by-product from the canned coconut milk-producing process). It is a great gluten-free flour substitute that can be used in cooking or baking. Note that you usually cannot sub coconut flour for wheat flour in a 1:1 ratio. Coconut flour has high fiber content, so it requires a lot more liquid, and may require more eggs. Most baking recipes will combine coconut flour with other flours, such as almond flour, to achieve the desired texture. If you are new to using coconut flour in baking or cooking, I suggest sticking with established recipes until you get a sense for how coconut flour reacts in a recipe

Favorite Recipes with Coconut Products

Indian-Curry.jpgIf you want to get more of the healthy fat found in coconut products into your routine, try these fail-proof recipes.

To wrap things up, coconut oil is a wonderful, tasty healthy fat that deserves a place in your kitchen. I recommend about 1 Tablespoon (14g) of healthy fat per meal and snack to all my clients to help them achieve stable blood sugar, boost their metabolism, and keep them satiated for several hours. I also recommend a variety of healthy fat sources throughout the day to increase nutrient variety, and coconut oil certainly fits into this picture. Happy cooking!


About the author

Leah is a licensed dietitian with Nutritional Weight & Wellness. Leah’s natural inclination toward health began to falter in college as she fell victim to the low-fat, high-carbohydrate, low-calorie dogma of the time. It didn’t take long for her body to start showing signs of rebellion. When Leah found Nutritional Weight & Wellness and began eating the Weight & Wellness Way of real food, in balance, her body swiftly reacted. Leah continues to be amazed each and every day at the positive impact that nutrition has had on her own health. Knowing how wonderful that feels, she is passionate about helping as many people as she can find their own relief. Leah is a licensed dietician through the Minnesota Board of Nutrition and Dietetics. She received her bachelor’s degree in Exercise Science from the University of Minnesota, Duluth. Most recently she completed her M.S. in Nutrition from the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.

View all posts by Leah Kleinschrodt, MS, RD, LD

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