Coconut oil has caused quite a buzz in the natural health community, and for good reason. The fragrant tropical oil that can send your senses directly to the beach is a highly saturated fat, but it comes with several health benefits. However, not all coconut oil is the same. Understanding the differences between the types of coconut oil on the market will keep you from spending your hard-earned cash on a product that is less than the best.
Words like "virgin," "expellar-pressed" and "refined" on coconut oil jars can be confusing. One of the major differences between regular coconut oil and virgin coconut oil is the method of extraction. Regular coconut oil is made from copra, which is dried coconut kernel. The copra is pressed and then the extracted oil is refined, bleached and deodorized to make it suitable for consumption. Virgin coconut oil is extracted from the fresh milk of the coconut and is left unrefined.
Regular and virgin coconut oil look almost identical. Refined coconut oil may have a little bit more color, but on the shelf in the grocery store, it may be impossible to tell them apart. Read the fine print on the labels to differentiate the two. Regular coconut oil will likely state that it is refined, whereas virgin coconut oil will be labeled "virgin" or "extra-virgin." Extra-virgin oil provides no additional benefits over virgin coconut oil.
The energy content of regular and virgin coconut oils is the same. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories and 13.6 grams of fat, 11.8 of which are saturated. A large portion of the fats in coconut oil are medium-chain triglycerides, which your body readily uses as energy. Medium-chain triglycerides do not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Both regular and virgin coconut oils contain medium-chain triglycerides, but some refined oils are hydrogenated and may contain trans fat.
Virgin coconut oil generally packs a greater antioxidant punch than regular coconut oil and may also have a stronger coconut taste. Virgin coconut oil has also not been exposed to any chemicals or bleach that are necessary in the refining process of regular coconut oil. Though virgin is the preferable choice for its health benefits, it will usually make a bigger dent in your wallet.
Becky Bell is a registered dietitian with experience in the areas of diabetes, chronic kidney disease and general nutrition. Bell holds a Bachelor of Science in dietetics from Olivet Nazarene University and a Master of Science in human nutrition from the University of Alabama.