At this point, you're probably at least vaguely aware of the health benefits of coconut oil and the ways in which it's good for you. After all, celebrities seem to douse themselves in all different types of coconut oil all of the time, which means there must be something there. But if you've ever gone to the grocery story to pick up a tub of this magical coconut oil, chances are good that you've been stumped by the labels. Because what, exactly, is the difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil, and which type of coconut oil would Angelina Jolie be more likely to eat with her cereal (because yes, Angelina Jolie eats her cereal with a spoonful of coconut oil)?
Well, we're here to be your guide to coconut oil and help you sort out the different types of coconut oil, once and for all.
All coconut oil is extracted from the meat of the coconut. The big difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil, then, is the way in which the oil is extracted and how it's subsequently processed. So let's start with unrefined coconut oil, which is also often known as pure or virgin coconut oil.
If you're using unrefined or virgin coconut oil, you're using coconut oil extracted from the fresh meat of the coconut, either by either wet processing or dry processing. You can actually make coconut oil at home using the wet processing method. Basically, you grate the white meat of the coconut, and let it soak in water overnight. Then you boil that coconut and water mixture down to extract the oil. It's super time consuming and not necessarily guaranteed to get you the most coconut oil for your meat, so the dry processing, or expeller-pressed, method of making coconut oil is more common. "Quick drying, the most common method used, promptly dries the coconut meat and the oil is mechanically expressed," explains Rose Haney for SF Gate.
Unrefined coconut oil, then, is this pure oil that's the product of either of these relatively low-heat extraction processes. As a result, it's not a totally neutrally flavored oil; it's got a bit of a coconut flavor. So if you're looking for coconut oil that's more neutral in taste, you should go for refined coconut oil.
As the name suggests, refined coconut oil has been refined and processed, which is why it has less of a coconut-y flavor. When you're making refined coconut oil, you're using copra, which is that same white coconut meat but dried, rather than fresh. Copra itself is actually not that sanitary, so it needs to be refined and cleaned of all the copra before humans can consume it.
The result is RBD coconut oil, which stands for "Refined, Bleached, and Deodorized." As Maria Blanco and James Pendleton write in The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Coconut Oil Diet, "In the RBD process, the oil is deodorized under high heat, and afterward it is filtered through clays that serve to bleach the oil and remove any impurities. Finally, sodium hydroxide is used to remove any free fatty acids in the interest of prolonging the oil's shelf life."
There's no one way to refine coconut oil, though. Some brands use a steam refining process with no chemicals; others, according to Blanco and Pendleton, "go a step further by using chemical solvents to extract every bit of the oil from the copra." That's why refined coconut oil generally less expensive than unrefined coconut oil, so it's more common in restaurants and grocery stores.
As far as which type of coconut oil is "healthier"? At the end of the day, coconut oil, no matter how it's produced or refined, is a saturated fat, and according to the World Health Organization, using unsaturated fats like olive oil or corn oil is preferable to cooking with saturated fats because of an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. But as long as you're using it in moderation, you should be OK.