In the world of supplements and super foods nothing is as straightforward as it seems. This holds true for something as simple as coconut oil, whose quality and processing is anything but a simple process to understand. Let’s look at some of the coconut oil terms that are most commonly associated with superior quality, especially in the health food industry.
Keep in mind, these are coconut oil terms to look for, but they don’t necessarily guarantee a superior coconut oil product.
Extra Virgin and Virgin
These are interchangeable labels with loose definitions in the coconut oil industry. In the olive oil industry these terms are very specific, well defined, and regulated, but very little standardization exists when it comes to coconut oil.
This is the most common way to produce a virgin coconut oil. If the method for drying the coconut meat before cold pressing is done with care, this can yield an excellent product that retains its quality up to 4 years. A note on filtering – a high-quality, minimally processed coconut oil is not filtered. However, if it is filtered, this does not necessarily mean it is low quality – it may simply be the company’s way of producing a more uniform looking product.
Usually the term raw in the natural foods industry is synonymous with not exposing foods to temperatures above 112-113 in order to preserve their enzymatic activity. We write about enzymes all of the time on this blog and feel they are very important, however, coconut oil does not contain enzymes, so keeping it “raw” does not preserve any health benefits. The term raw in coconut oil processing is used because it is good marketing (raw is better for your health) and because in some cases there are efforts being made to not expose any part of the extraction process, including drying, to high temperatures.
The other reason for preserving the raw qualities of a food or super food is to protect the antioxidants within that food. In coconut oil, there are very few antioxidants present. Although they do exist within the coconut, because of the stability and hardiness of the coconut, preserving them during processing is not the same as in other foods. We also know that some foods have better antioxidant activity and nutrient availability when cooked or heated, like tomatoes, and maca. Antioxidant activity in relationship to coconut oil is how the consumption of the healthy compounds and acids in the oil encourage antioxidant uptake and activity in the body, especially fat-soluble antioxidants like vitamin E and beta-carotenes.
There are a number of fermentation/wet milling/centrifuge extraction processes that separate the milk from the meat, then the oil from the milk. These can also produce high quality oil, however, whenever water is involved, more care must be taken to prevent bacterial growth. Most fermented, processed coconut oils will become a ‘soapy’ consistency after 3 to 9 months. Keep in mind that the more steps that need to be taken to express the oil, the more “industry” needs to get involved to bring to mass market.
Glass vs. Plastic
If you are a purest you will opt for glass containers. The companies that sell in plastic will argue two main points – that light and oxygen are the two biggest threats to oils turning rancid, and that glass jars don’t provide a tight seal for exposure to air, and the clear glass makes the oil susceptible to light. They will also claim that the plastic jars they use do not have harmful chemicals within the plastic nor does the oil leach any said chemicals into the oil over time.
The point to keep in mind here, and throughout this post is, unlike other healthy plant oils, coconut oil is a (healthy) saturated fat. The more saturated fat contained in oil, the less susceptible it is to rancidity. One of the popular features of coconut oil in today’s healthy eating consciousness is that you can cook with coconut oil at high heat and not destroy its nutritional value, or cause oxidation.
As we commercialize and standardize what it means to be fair trade, this term, although still a valid quality marker, may not be as “fair” as you would think. Most companies just do not reveal their sources and/or methods of extraction. Usually they say raw or cold pressed, however, a good quality company should reveal also it’s sourcing. This is important because with any crop, the question on seasonal quality comes up. If a region or an island is impacted with hurricanes, tsunamis, etc., it can be years before it produces nutritionally superior coconuts again.
What do you really know about your coconut oil? Find out more in this post.