How is Coconut Oil Produced?
A typical site on the road in the Philippines: a truck carrying refined coconut oil.
Refined Coconut Oil
Most commercial grade coconut oils are made from copra. Copra is basically the dried kernel (meat) of the coconut. It can be made by: smoke drying, sun drying, or kiln drying , or derivatives or a combination of these three. If standard copra is used as a starting material, the unrefined coconut oil extracted from copra is not suitable for consumption and must be purified, that is refined. This is because the way most copra is dried is not sanitary. The standard end product made from copra is RBD coconut oil. RBD stands for refined, bleached, and deodorized. High heat is used to deodorize the oil, and the oil is typically filtered through (bleaching) clays to remove impurities. Sodium hydroxide is generally used to remove free fatty acids and prolong shelf life. This is the most common way to mass-produce coconut oil. The older way of producing refined coconut oil was through physical/mechanical refining. More modern methods also use chemical solvents to extract all the oil from the copra for higher yields.
RBD oil is also sometimes hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. This happens mostly in tropical climates, since the natural melting point of coconut oil is about 76 degrees F, and already naturally a solid in most colder climates. Since coconut oil is mostly saturated, there is little unsaturated oil left to hydrogenate. Hydrogenated oils contain trans fatty acids.
Virgin Coconut Oil
There is no industry standard definition for "Virgin Coconut Oil" as there is in the olive oil industry for "Virgin" and "Extra Virgin" olive oil. Today, there are many coconut oils on the market that are labeled as "Virgin Coconut Oil." We were the first ones to publish standards for the use of "Virgin Coconut Oil" in terms of edible oils, and here is what we published over eight years ago:
Virgin Coconut Oil can only be achieved by using fresh coconut meat or what is called non-copra. Chemicals and high heating are not used in further refining, since the natural, pure coconut oil is very stable with a shelf life of several years. There are currently two main processes of manufacturing Virgin Coconut Oil:
1. Quick drying of fresh coconut meat which is then used to press out the oil. Using this method, minimal heat is used to quick dry the coconut meat, and the oil is then pressed out via mechanical means.
2. Wet-milling. With this method the oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat without drying first. "Coconut milk" is expressed first by pressing. The oil is then further separated from the water. Methods which can be used to separate the oil from the water include boiling, fermentation, refrigeration, enzymes and mechanical centrifuge.
The method we use at Mt. Banahaw Health Products Corp. in the Philippines is fermentation. The coconut milk expressed from the freshly harvested coconuts is fermented for 24-36 hours. During this time, the water separates from the oil. The oil is then slightly heated for a short time to remove moisture, and filtered. The result is a clear coconut oil that retains the distinct scent and taste of coconuts. This is a traditional method of coconut oil extraction that has been used in the Philippines for hundreds of years. Laboratory tests show that this is a very high quality coconut oil, with the lauric acid content being 50 to 55%. This oil is not mass produced, but made by hand just as it has been done for hundreds of years. Since we live in the community where the coconuts grow, we personally guarantee that the best organic coconuts available are used in producing this Virgin Coconut Oil, and that no chemicals whatsoever are used in the growing or processing of the coconuts. Our coconuts are also certified organic according to strict USDA standards. In addition, all of our coconuts are hand-picked within 24 hours of harvest. Only those nuts that produce the highest quality coconut oil are chosen, while the rest of the crop is sold to copra dealers. Almost all other virgin coconut oils on the market are mass-produced. Our organic Virgin Coconut Oil is marketed in the US exclusively under the brand name "Tropical Traditions."
Delivering Virgin Coconut Oil to the Mt. Banahaw warehouse in 5-gallon pails. Many of our producers live in rural areas in coconut-producing communities where no roads exist, and draft animals like the water buffalo are used.
Bringing in young coconuts from the farm and loaded onto a jeepney to be transported to the market.
One of the main differences between Virgin Coconut oil and refined coconut oils is the scent and taste. All Virgin Coconut Oils retain the fresh scent and taste of coconuts, whereas the copra-based refined coconut oils have a bland taste due to the refining process. Some grades of refined copra-based oils are also now sold that have a coconut flavor, but are usually bitter and have a burnt taste to it. They are a form of "crude coconut oil" that has not undergone all of the deodorizing process, and they have a shorter shelf-life.
A recent study done in India comparing refined coconut oil (CO) with Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) found that VCO obtained by wet process has a beneficial effect in lowering lipid components compared to CO. It reduced total cholesterol, triglycerides, phospholipids, LDL, and VLDL cholesterol levels and increased HDL cholesterol in serum and tissues. The results demonstrated the potential beneficiary effect of virgin coconut oil in lowering lipid levels in serum and tissues and LDL oxidation by physiological oxidants. This property of VCO may be attributed to the biologically active polyphenol components present in the oil.
What is "Extra Virgin Coconut Oil?"
Some retailers and manufacturers of Virgin Coconut Oils, referring to one of the processes mentioned above, call their coconut oil "Extra Virgin Coconut Oil." But there are no other processes used to make coconut oil other than the ones mentioned above, so this classification is simply arbitrary. There is no official classification or difference between "virgin" and "extra virgin" as there is in the olive oil industry, since the two oils are completely different in fatty acid composition, harvesting procedures, and terminology.
Coconut Oil: The Healthy Oil
Numerous studies now show that the high lauric acid content of coconut oil is very beneficial in attacking viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens, and that it builds the body's immune system just as human mother's milk does, which also contains lauric acid. Promising studies have been done on patients suffering from immune deficiency diseases, such as AIDS. With polyunsaturated seed oils now largely replacing coconut oil in the American diet, there is a huge deficiency of lauric acid in the American diet that was present prior to World War II. The need for quality coconut oil is greater than ever!