Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil

by Laura Bench

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By now you probably have heard that coconut oil is healthy for you. But which type of coconut oil should you buy? There’s refined vs unrefined coconut oil. And then there is Virgin, Extra-virgin, cold-pressed and expeller-pressed options. It’s hard to distinguish the difference between all of these and honestly, how is the average person supposed to know? Trust me, I was once in your shoes and was totally clueless when shopping for this healthy oil. And honestly I made mistakes when first buying it, so let me be your guide to explain the different types and benefits of coconut oil, so you don’t make the same mistakes I did.

The main decision you’ll need to make is if you want Refined or Unrefined. And don’t be fooled like I was when first buying coconut oil. As soon as I picked up a jar of “refined” coconut oil I immediately assumed it was highly processed and stripped of all its nutrients and put it back on the shelf. Little did I know, I was wrong…or as I like to say, “misinformed”.  That’s why I want to explain the differences and once you choose between the two, the rest is pretty easy.

Unrefined vs Refined

Unrefined Coconut Oil

Organic unrefined coconut oil is left in its virgin state after pressing, making it safe for consumption without the addition of any chemicals, bleaching or deodorization. It is extracted from fresh coconut meat rather than dried.  It is often labeled “Virgin” or “Extra-Virgin” coconut oil.

But Buyer Beware: There is no difference between “Virgin” and “Extra-Virgin” coconut oil as there is in the olive oil industry. What I learned was that a lot of retailers and manufactures will label their pure coconut oil with “Extra-Virgin” as a marketing gimmick to make it more appealing and help boost sales. But there are no other processes used to make the quality of the oil any greater, so this classification has no added benefits for you. If there is a cost difference between the two, then shame on them! Pick the “virgin” and you’ll get all the same health benefits, plus save some money.

Refined Coconut Oil

Refined coconut oil is extracted from dried coconut meat called “copra”. Because producers frequently dry the meat in open air, it can gather hazardous bacteria and pathogens. This requires the oil extracted from copra to be further purified or “bleached” before it’s safe to consume. The “bleaching” does not involve the bleach we use for laundry! It’s a clay that is used to filter the oil of impurities. Refined coconut oils do not offer the same amount of nutrients as virgin, raw coconut oil, but that doesn’t make it unhealthy. They are still excellent sources of the very beneficial medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs).

But Buyer Beware: Not all refined coconut oils are the same! Some are refined using harsh solvents such as lye, or they’re made from rancid oil byproducts leftover from dried coconut flakes. Avoid these and find one that is a good quality, non-hydrogenated refined coconut oil that was refined using a natural, chemical-free cleaning process. Most likely you can find a safe one from a health food store.


Unrefined coconut oil tends to be rich, robust and ‘true’ in their flavors. It smells and tastes just like coconut because it isn’t exposed to high heat levels during the purification process like refined coconut oil.  So if you like the taste and smell of coconut, then unrefined would be great for you to cook with. A refined coconut oil is usually rather tasteless and odorless, which is perfect for those of you who want the benefits of using the oil, but don’t care for the slight “coconutty” taste.


The downside to unrefined oils is they have a lower smoke point than refined oils. Both types of oil have the same melting point–76 degrees F. However, refined coconut oil has a smoking point of 450 degrees F, whereas the smoking point of unrefined coconut oil is 350 degrees F. Because it can stand a much higher heat, refined coconut oil can be a better option if you are doing some high temperature frying or baking. Refined is also excellent for cooking foods where you need a pure, healthy fat without a dominating coconut flavor. For example, I would not want coconut flavored french fries.


Coconut oil provides a numerous amount of health benefits such as:

  • Encourages your body to use fat for energy rather than storing it
  • Improves your heart health
  • Boosts your thyroid, helping to increase your metabolism
  • Promotes lean body mass
  • Helps control blood sugar
  • Increases digestion
  • Helps absorption of fat-soluble vitamins
  • Supports your immune system
  • Coconut oil even benefits your skin and hair when applied topically and has been found to have anti-aging, regenerative effects.

Look for these important things on the label

Tree of Life Organic Coconut OIlBarlean's coconut oil

  •      Certified Organic by USDA standards
  •      No trans or hydrogenated fat
  •      No chemicals added (Hexane-free)
  •      No harsh bleaching
  •      No deodorization
  •      Non-genetically modified (GMO)

Here is a recap to help you choose wisely:

  • Choose a refined or unrefined oil based on your preference of taste and what you’ll use it for in the kitchen.
  • Choose unrefined oils for fullest flavor and highest nutrient content.
  • Choose refined oils for high heat uses.
  • For refined oils, choose one that’s been refined without chemicals.

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Which type of coconut oil do you use?

How do you include it in your diet?

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