Coconut oil has emerged as one of the most popular cooking oils worldwide over the past several years, and it’s traditionally used as one of the primary sources of fat in many Pacific and Asian countries.
This plant-based fat has some properties that other cooking oils don’t, such as that it comprises mostly saturated fat, making it solid at room temperature rather than liquid.
It also contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and lauric acid, which may provide some fat-burning and heart-protective benefits (1).
Still, you may be curious about what type of coconut oil is best for your needs.
This article reviews the differences between unrefined and refined coconut oil, as well as which type should be used in specific instances.
The major difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil is how they’re produced, which in turn affects some of their physical properties like flavor and smoke point.
Unrefined coconut oil
Sometimes called virgin coconut oil, unrefined coconut oil is oil that has been pressed from coconut meat and undergone no further processing.
There are two methods of extracting unrefined coconut oil from coconuts (2):
- Dry. This method uses a machine to press coconut oil out of dried coconut flesh, or copra.
- Wet. This technique involves pressing both coconut milk and coconut oil out of fresh coconuts and then separating the two.
Most unrefined coconut oil is extracted using the wet process. You may see some unrefined coconut oils labeled “cold pressed,” which means that no heat was involved during its extraction.
Unrefined coconut oil is solid at room temperature and has a strong coconut flavor and scent, which it can impart onto foods that include it. Its smoke point, or the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke, is 350°F (177°C) (4).
Refined coconut oil
On the other hand, refined coconut oil undergoes some additional processing to make it better suited for cooking.
It begins with pressing crude coconut oil from copra. At this step, the process may be similar to that of the dry extraction of unrefined coconut oil. Next, one or more of the following steps may occur, depending on the manufacturing process (5):
- Degumming. The crude coconut oil is mixed with a degumming agent to remove gums, which can alter the texture and quality of the oil. The oil is washed in water to separate these gums from the oil.
- Neutralizing. Next, sodium hydroxide, or lye, is added to the oil, which forms a soap with free fatty acids in the oil. The oil is then washed with water, removing the soap and free fatty acids. This reduces the risk of rancidity, as free fatty acids are prone to oxidation.
- Bleaching. Following neutralization, the oil is “bleached” by filtering it through an activated clay filter. No bleach is used in this process.
- Deodorizing. Finally, the oil is heat-deodorized to remove any remaining coconut scent or taste.
While the resulting coconut oil is more highly processed, it has a higher smoke point of 400–450°F (204–232°C), making it more suitable for high temperature cooking. For the most part, it’s also flavorless and odorless (6).
Additionally, refined and unrefined coconut oils have similar nutrient profiles, providing 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon (14 grams). Each type likewise contains similar ratios of MCTs, lauric acid, and saturated and unsaturated fats (4, 7, 8, 9).
Unrefined coconut oil can be dry or wet extracted, while refined coconut oil undergoes some additional processing steps. Refined coconut oil is mostly flavorless and has a higher smoke point than unrefined coconut oil.
For the most part, choosing refined or unrefined coconut oil is a matter of personal preference. However, there are certain applications for which one type may be better suited than the other. Here are some examples.
Because of unrefined coconut oil’s strong coconut taste and scent, refined coconut oil may be a better choice for baking. If you use refined coconut oil, the result will be free of a coconut taste and smell that could otherwise clash with the product’s flavors.
However, if you prefer unrefined coconut oil and don’t mind the flavor, its lower smoke point is unlikely to affect the quality of baked goods, as the food itself won’t reach such high temperatures, even in an oven set higher than 350°F (177°C).
Regardless, either type of coconut oil is a great vegan alternative to butter in baking applications, as they’re both solid at room temperature.
This makes coconut oil ideal for use in recipes like vegan biscuits or pie crusts, in which the use of solid fat helps create a light and flaky product.
In cooking, the higher smoke point of refined coconut oil makes it a clear winner. It’s ideal for high heat cooking, such as stir-frying and sautéing.
This allows you to cook at higher temperatures, resulting in a product that’s crispy but not burnt.
Still, you can use unrefined coconut oil for cooking, although you may need to cook at a lower temperature for a longer period of time.
Alternatively, avocado oil may be even better suited for high heat cooking applications like deep-frying. It has a smoke point of 488–520°F (253–271°C) and a mild, nutty aroma that’s often a good complement to fried or sautéed foods (10).
On the other hand, if you’re looking for an oil for salad dressings or to drizzle over prepared food, extra virgin olive oil is the best option, as it’s liquid at room temperature and has a much lower smoke point of just 320°F (160°C) (10).
Skin and hair care
Many people use coconut oil on their skin and hair as a natural moisturizer or conditioner.
Although you can use refined coconut oil for this if the smell of the unrefined variety bothers you, unrefined coconut oil may be a better choice, as it’s less processed and therefore likely to be more gentle on your skin and hair.
Finally, some people use coconut oil because it suits their dietary preferences. For instance, the oil is a popular choice for people on the low carb, high fat keto diet, as it contains small amounts of potentially fat-burning MCT oil (1).
However, some people may be more concerned with diet quality than macronutrient content. For example, people on minimally processed diets, such as paleo or clean eating, unrefined coconut oil would be the best option because it’s the least processed.
Due to its mild flavor and high smoke point, refined coconut oil is a better choice for baking and cooking. However, minimally processed unrefined coconut oil may be better for skin and hair care, as well as certain dietary preferences.
While refined and unrefined coconut oil have essentially identical nutrient profiles, they’re otherwise remarkably different.
Refined coconut oil has a milder scent and flavor but a higher smoke point, while unrefined coconut oil is minimally processed with a strong coconut flavor and lower smoke point.
Depending on what you need the oil for, one type may be better suited for you than the other. Regardless, because of their similar nutrient content, both refined and unrefined coconut oils are great sources of healthy fat.