Unrefined coconut oil and refined coconut oil both contain about 120 calories per tablespoon, all of which are from fat (14 grams of fat, to be exact).
The nutritional content and ratio of fatty acids, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), and lauric acid are also the same in both types of coconut oil.
So, which is healthier? What are the differences between refined vs unrefined coconut oil? Keep reading to find out!
In this guide, we will cover:
- What Is the Difference Between Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil?
- What Is Unrefined Coconut Oil?
- What Is Refined Coconut Oil?
- Which Is Healthier: Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil?
Let’s jump in!
What Is the Difference Between Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil?
The main difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil is the amount of processing for each oil or how they are produced.
The different preparation processes for refined vs unrefined coconut oil ultimately affect some of the physical properties of each type, such as flavor, appearance, and smoke point.
What Is Unrefined Coconut Oil?
Unrefined coconut oil is often called virgin coconut oil. The oil is extracted from the coconut meat without undergoing any additional processing.
Unrefined coconut oil is often labeled as “cold-pressed coconut oil” because no heat is used during the extraction process. In this way, unrefined coconut oil is quite pure and unadulterated.
To extract the oil from the coconut meat, the meat is either “dry” pressed or “wet” pressed.
With the dry method, a machine is used to press dried coconut flesh, called copra, to extract the oil.The wet method is more common. This technique uses fresh coconuts and presses out both the coconut milk and coconut oil. Then, the coconut oil is separated from the coconut milk.
Unrefined coconut oil is solid at room temperature, such as fats like butter. It has a distinct coconut aroma and flavor profile. The smoke point is 350°F (177°C). This is the temperature that oil begins to smoke when heated.
What Is Refined Coconut Oil?
The main difference between refined vs unrefined coconut oil is that refined coconut oil is processed further after it is extracted.
To make refined coconut oil, the crude coconut oil is first extracted using a technique like the dry extraction process for unrefined coconut oil.
Copra, or dried coconut meat, is pressed to yield the coconut oil.
Then, any number of additional processing techniques may be used to further refine the oil, such as degumming, neutralizing, bleaching, and/or deodorizing.
In degumming, a degumming agent is mixed in with the crude coconut oil extracted from the copra. This helps remove any gums in the oil to make it smoother. Then the oil is washed in water to remove any excess debris.
The neutralizing process involves adding lye, or sodium hydroxide, to the oil. This forms a soap and separates out free fatty acids in the oil. Then, the mixture is washed in water to remove the soap and free fatty acids.
The purpose of neutralizing the coconut oil in the refined vs unrefined coconut oil state is that free fatty acids are prone to oxidation, so unrefined coconut oil can spoil or become rancid. Essentially, this neutralizing process increases the shelf-life of refined vs unrefined coconut oil.
Refined coconut oil that has been bleached is actually just filtered through activated clay. No bleach is used, but this process does improve the color, appearance, and “purity” of the refined coconut oil, making it more uniformly bright white rather than cloudy or uneven in color and appearance.
To deodorize refined coconut oil, the coconut oil undergoes a heating process that deodorizes the product, removing much of the coconut aroma and flavor.
The additional processing that refined coconut oil undergoes compared with unrefined coconut oil increases the smoke point of the oil significantly.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, depending on exactly which additional processing methods are used, refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400–450°F (204–232°C).
Coupled with the fact that it is relatively flavorless and odorless, this makes refined vs unrefined coconut oil often more suitable for cooking.
Which Is Healthier: Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil?
As is the case with many types of foods and food products, unrefined coconut oil is typically considered to be healthier than refined coconut oil.
Although both unrefined and refined coconut oil have essentially the same nutritional profile, choosing to eat foods in their more natural state is usually considered to be preferable from a health standpoint. The less processing the food has undergone, the fewer potential residual additives and chemicals.
With that said, unlike the difference between whole vs refined grains, for example, wherein the refining process strips away much of the fiber and many of the vitamins and minerals, choosing refined vs unrefined coconut oil is a much less significant difference as the nutritional profile remains essentially the same.
Therefore, whether you should use unrefined coconut oil or refined coconut oil is primarily a matter of personal preference, although there can be certain applications where one type of coconut oil is generally preferable or more suitable than the other.
Both refined and unrefined coconut oil can potentially work well when baking.
Because both types of coconut oil are solid at room temperature, much like butter or shortening, unrefined and refined coconut oil can work really well in baked goods such as pie crusts, pastries, and biscuits because they will impart a flaky texture that results when the solid fat begins to melt, creating air pockets.
You can also use unrefined coconut oil or refined coconut oil in other baked goods in the same way that you would use butter or vegetable oil.
For example, if you are following a recipe that uses butter to make cookies, the butter is typically softened in the microwave or warmed up beforehand so that it can be creamed with sugar.
You can warm coconut oil in a similar manner so that it liquefies or softens, depending on whether you were using it as a butter or liquid vegetable oil substitute.
Ultimately, coconut oil can be a great vegan butter substitute when baking.
Whether you should use refined or unrefined coconut oil when baking depends on your flavor preferences and the baked goods that you are making.
One of the primary differences between unrefined vs refined coconut oil is the flavor profile, with unrefined coconut oil having a much stronger coconut flavor and smell.
This can be pleasant and beneficial for certain baked goods, particularly if you enjoy the taste of coconut.
For example, unrefined coconut oil can work well when baking brownies because the hint of coconut can be quite delicious with the chocolate brownie.
On the other hand, if you are making a pie crust or a savory biscuit and you do not want the flavor of coconut imparted into your baked goods, choosing an unrefined coconut oil can be a better option.
Remember that the smoke temperature of unrefined coconut oil is lower than that of refined coconut oil.
It typically does not affect which oil you choose for baking since most baked goods are cooked at or below the smoke temperature for unrefined coconut oil.
However, if you are baking cookies or something with a higher baking temperature, you should go with unrefined coconut oil to ensure that you will not get a smoky flavor from surpassing the smoke point of unrefined coconut oil.
In almost all cases, with cooking, using refined coconut oil is better than unrefined coconut oil.
Refined coconut oil has a much higher smoke point, so you can heat it to a higher temperature safely without the oil beginning to smoke.
Using unrefined coconut oil can impart an unpleasant smoky taste to your food, and heating the oil past its smoke point can potentially increase free radical production by oxidizing the free fatty acids in the unrefined coconut oil.
If you do want to cook with unrefined coconut oil, keep the temperature below 350° and follow a “lower and slower“ cooking method.
Coconut oil is a rich source of MCT oil, a quick-acting source of energy, because the chemical structure of medium-chain triglycerides bypasses much of the normal digestive steps for fats, allowing you to get a readily-available source of energy.
MCT oil may also promote satiety, helping control appetite and potentially support weight loss.
When consuming coconut oil for these purposes, either option will work fine, but most choose unrefined vs refined coconut oil because it can be a more pleasant experience to have a flavorful oil and because minimally-processed foods are typically preferable to refined and processed foods when you are trying to prioritize diet quality.
If you are interested in improving your eating habits and diet and would like to read more of our interesting and helpful nutrition guides, check out our nutrition guide database!