How to Decipher a Coconut Oil Label

CC BY-SA 2.0. "coconut oil" by hallosunnymama

The labels on coconut oil can be confusing. Learn what all the terms mean so you can buy the best product.

Coconut oil can do almost anything, from cooking to cleaning to beautifying. It tastes delicious, is made of medium-chain fatty acids that are easily digestible, and has antibacterial qualities. Supposedly it can boost your immune system and reduce hypertension. Clean your teeth with it, remove stains, condition hair, scrub the shower, and season pots. It’s no wonder that coconut oil has become the new darling of everyone’s home.

But how do you pick the best coconut oil? There are many varieties now available and the options can be overwhelming. Here is your essential guide to decoding coconut oil labels.

Should I buy organic or non-organic?

This term reveals whether or not the coconuts used to make the oil were grown with pesticides. Look for the green USDA Organic logo, but keep in mind that some smaller-scale producers may harvest coconuts from locations that cannot afford to undergo the expensive organic certification process. If in doubt, do some research on a specific company.

What’s the difference between refined and unrefined?

‘Refined’ may sound nice, but stay away from it! Unrefined is always a better option. In the words of Allie White on the Free People Blog:

“The word ‘refined’ basically means the coconut oil you’re holding was made from copra, a.k.a. old, rotten, dried coconuts that have been left to bake in the sun, then [are] refined and deodorized in order to be sold.” It’s a dirty, labor-intensive process and a “rotten product not only for the people who are making it, but also for the planet... not something you want to be consuming or putting on your skin.”

To offer another perspective, however, refined coconut oil can withstand higher temperatures before reaching its smoke point. Food Renegade argues in favor of refined coconut oil, saying that they’re great for cooking when you need lots of “clean, pure, malleable fat without a dominating coconut flavor.” How the oil is refined is what matters, according to Food Renegade:

“Most are refined using a chemical distillation process dependent on lye or other harsh solvents, or they’re made from the rancid oil byproducts leftover from creating dessicated coconut flakes. Sadly, these are refined, bleached, and deodorized in an effort to create a palatable product that can be sold to consumers. Many coconut oils are even hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated! (Avoid these at all costs as the hydrogenation process creates synthetic trans-fats.) However, there are some quality, non-hydrogenated refined coconut oils available that are refined using a natural, chemical-free cleaning process (usually involving steam and/or diatomaceous earth).”

What does raw mean?

This signifies that the coconut oil has been made from fresh, raw coconut meat, and no heat has been used to ‘cook’ it in any way prior to processing. Think of it in terms of vegetables: once you cook a vegetable, it can lose some of the nutrients it had prior to processing.

Should I choose virgin or extra-virgin?

We’ve all gotten used to buying extra-virgin olive oil, but it’s not so important with coconut oil. In fact, the general consensus appears to be that there’s no difference between virgin and extra-virgin coconut oils, nor do these terms mean anything at all; there is no industry standard for determining what falls into these categories.

How is the oil extracted?

There are three main types of extraction.

Cold-pressing is manual extraction to press the oil out of the coconut meat. It results in lower yields than other methods (which use heat to help with extraction), but produces an oil that is fresh, clean, and rich in nutrients. It is never heated above 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit).

Centrifuge extraction uses a machine that spins chopped coconut to separate the oil from the meat. The resulting ‘raw’ oil requires no further refining; it has a mild taste that makes it pleasurable to eat straight off the spoon, and tends to be the priciest oil because it retains all its nutrients.

Expeller processing heats the coconut and crushes it to prepare for oil extraction. “The extractor uses a chemical solvent (hexane) to separate the coconut from the oil [and] further refining is often necessary to cleanse the extract,” according to The Beauty Gypsy.

Chemical extraction is basically the process described above for refinement. It should be avoided if possible, as the product quality is far inferior to these other extraction methods.

What does whole kernel mean?

Whole kernel refers to the entire coconut kernel being used to make oil, including the brown inner skin, as opposed to 'white kernel' oil that removes the brown skin before processing. As a result, the whole kernel oil has a slightly nuttier taste and may look slightly yellower. It's not a significant difference.

Is the coconut oil fair trade?

“It’s not just what you grow, it’s how you grow it,” says personal care products giant Dr. Bronner’s. The company now sells certified ‘Fair for Life’ coconut oil that guarantees fair pay for workers, safe working conditions, a fair trade premium to help with community development projects, education for children, and job stability. In an industry rife with injustices and abuses, spending a few extra dollars for fairly traded coconut oil can go a long way toward supporting some of the world’s poorest and most exploited farmers.

Another great company selling certified Fairtrade coconut oil is Level Ground, based in Victoria, British Columbia. Look at this helpful infographic describing the "9 steps to coconut oil sourcing and production."