Coconut oil has undergone a dramatic image makeover. Not long ago it was pilloried as a heart-clogging, tropical grease. These days it’s being hailed as a good fat with myriad health benefits. So what’s the truth? Unfortunately the answer is not that simple because, depending on how the oil is extracted, there is vast difference in nutritional quality – and thus health benefits. Which one are you using?
In the article below, Steve Good, a technical consultant with Absolute Organix’s coconut oil pressing partner in Mozambique, outlines the difference between real virgin coconut oil produced by direct micro-expelling (this is the way we make our oil) and coconut oil produced by harsh industrial methods that destroy the nutrients in the oil.
Coconut palms typically grow in “organic” conditions (no fertilisers or pesticides are used), so it’s easy for unscrupulous suppliers to make organic claims about their “healthy” oil when in fact the end-product is a highly-processed sludge. One of the key ways of establishing the truth about the quality of coconut oil is to insist on valid certified organic status by an internationally-approved agency. It is not enough that the coconuts are grown “organically”; they must be processed organically as well without the use of nutrient-destroying chemicals.
Absolute Organix only supplies certified organic virgin coconut oil and I believe that when it comes to buying this health-giving tropical nectar, it really pays to do some homework.
Not all coconut oils are created equal
By Steve Good
Having been involved in researching the potential for virgin coconut oil production, it has become obvious that the generic name “coconut oil” is being used for several different types of oil made from coconut, resulting in a great deal of confusion and conflicting claims from all sides. This problem derives from the fact that each basic type of coconut oil has a different method of production. These different methods have differing effects upon the individual components of the coconut oil and as a result, impact the final quality and potential health benefits of the oil.
There are two general types of coconut oil on the commercial market. The first set of oils are traditionally manufactured from “copra” and results in low quality oils, while the second, “virgin oils” are produced very differently and are high quality oils. While there are specific production differences that affect the final nuances in quality of virgin oils, overall virgin oils are a very different set of products from their “copra” relatives.
Copra. So what is “copra” and why is the oil produced from it of such poor quality? Here is a quotation taken from the web site of Kokonutpacific.org regarding the copra problem. “Conventional coconut oil comes from dried coconut flesh, called copra. Copra is dried in a wood-fuelled kiln, or in the sun, over a period of a few days. It is time-consuming, dirty, lonely, arduous, fuel-intensive and low-paying work. … Copra is bulked up at an export port and shipped to a large industrial oil mill — often in Europe or Asia. Unhygienic drying, humid tropical conditions, bulk shipping and long distances, result in lengthy delays and the growth of molds on the copra. Sometimes this leads to aflatoxin contamination. Copra oil extraction requires large-scale, high-pressure, expensive, energy-intensive equipment. Unhygienic copra means that the resultant oil is normally of low quality with a Free Fatty Acid (FFA) level of 3% or more. (FFA is one measure of rancidity of oil).” The initial oil made from the copra is called Crude Coconut oil and is labeled “not considered fit for human consumption.” (1)
How Absolute Organix makes virgin organic coconut oil …. members of our partner co-op in Maxixe, northern Mozambique cut open fresh coconuts and within an hour or two the fresh coconut is pressed by hand (micro-expelling). No refining, no bleaching, no deodorizing. The entire process is certified organic by BCS Oko in Germany.
Once the oil is pressed from the dried flesh it must be refined with lye, bleached with acid and alkaline clays, and then deodorized at high heat under a vacuum. This is known as refining, bleaching and deodorizing (RBD). The refining process uses lye, hydrochloric acid, solvents and steam to strip out the contamination. Some residual solvents remain in the oil. The process also removes the natural volatiles and anti-oxidants that give pure coconut oil its unique flavor and aroma. The total process from farm to refined oil can take many months. The residual copra-meal is only suitable as animal feed but, even here, care is required because it can be contaminated with carcinogenic aflatoxins.” The net result is that copra based oil, even after refining, has an aftertaste of soap from the high free fatty acid levels and a rancid/putrid odor when heated due to the spoilage (unsavory flavors produced by the molds / bacteria and damage to the chemical structure of the oils) that occurs during the initial drying process.
As an end result, the traditional coconut oil industry produces two primary products. These are known as 76 (F) degree-melt and 92 degree-melt coconut oil. The 76 degree-melt is the unmodified RBD oil, while the 92 degree-melt is RBD coconut oil that has been modified by industrial hydrogenation using high temperature and pressure. This was done to create an oil product that won’t melt at higher working temperatures and is more “like” a soy-based margarine in its working consistency for food processing purposes. These are the oils used historically for medical and food based trials that are then use in “scientific claims” to “prove” that coconut oil as a saturated fat is bad for you. (So with such a highly damaged, poor quality oil, why would these oils be “good” for you?)
Two factors seem to play a large part in public perceptions about coconut oil. First are the misinterpreted results from scientific studies using copra oil and second, the use of these same results in a fierce PR campaign by the grain oil industry to promote their product and discredit tropical oils and their health benefits, literally called “the tropical grease campaign.” The commercial promotion of “heart healthy” unsaturated grain oils began in the mid 50’s amidst a back drop of high heart attack death rates, industrialization of the American food supply and subsequent financing of research to promote these industrial products. A combination of public awareness events, advertisements, high profile supporters, misguided hypothesis’ and ignoring of any dissenting reports eventually led the American Medical Association, which had initially opposed the substitution of unsaturated oils, to endorse the concept that consuming saturated fats creates risk factors for high cholesterol and coronary heart disease. (2)
Mary Enig, an internationally known expert in the field of lipid biochemistry, points to studies that lead to false conclusions about coconut oil. “The problems for coconut oil started four decades ago when researchers fed animals hydrogenated coconut oil (92 degree-melt) that was purposefully altered to make it completely devoid of any essential fatty acids. The hydrogenated coconut oil was selected instead of hydrogenated cottonseed, corn or soybean oil because it was a soft enough fat for blending into diets due to the presence of the lower melting medium chain saturated fatty acids.“ The resulting diet produced an increase in serum cholesterol levels. However, so do soy, corn and other grain oils when fed to animals under the same conditions. The paper further goes on to say that when coconut oil (76º) was compared directly to other grain oils, the coconut oil demonstrated significant positive differences in resulting health indicators compared to grain oils. (3) (and that was the RBD oil)
Keep in mind that these studies were done prior to 1996 and could not have used virgin coconut oil as the test ingredient, simply because commercial quantities of virgin coconut oil did not exist at that time. This is an important factor as much of the negative reaction that arises when discussing coconut oils comes from misperceptions generated against copra-based and hydrogenated coconut oils. Hence, when people say, “oh, we have heard that coconut oil is bad for you;” first, they are talking about a different product than virgin oils, and second they are talking about studies that misrepresented the scientific results. Thus this idea has become part of “western health fallacy” legend.
Virgin coconut oil (VCO) while derived from the same source, the coconut palm nut kernel is processed completely differently. VCO’s are made from fresh coconuts, not copra. A fresh coconut is the live seed of the coconut tree, completely sterile internally with a fresh, clean, coconut smell and taste. This seed contains the full balance of nutrients (protein, carbohydrates, energy in the form of oil, vitamins, minerals, and liquid) needed for it to “germinate” and produce a young seedling coconut tree.
The Direct micro expelling (DME) process of Kokonutpacific recommends that the VCO process start within ½ hour of opening the coconut. This limits the potential for molds or bacteria to start growing in the kernel and damage the oil compounds. With this process, the fresh coconut is shredded and removed from the shell and placed on a drying stove top until it reaches about 10% moisture. Then it is pressed with a manual press to remove the oil. Under optimal conditions, DME processed oil can be produced within one hour of the coconut being opened. Other virgin oil processes exist and while producing similar results, may not produce an equivalent quality of oil.
The resulting products are 1) a raw oil that is fresh, clear, ready for use and 2) a press cake that is also fresh smelling and white, containing all the protein, carbohydrates and fiber of the coconut. The FFA content of virgin coconut oil should be less than 0.3% and is generally in the 0.1-0.2% range for fresh pressed oil produced by the DME process.
Comparing virgin with copra oils
While many of the basic chemical components of copra oils and virgin oils are the same, based on the common source of their oil, the coconut, there are significant differences between traditional coconut oils and the new virgin oil products.
Organoleptic qualities. It has been noted above that copra oils often have a soapy taste. The soapy taste is caused by “free” (medium chain) fatty acids that have been split off the original oil molecule. This occurs when bacteria or mold start to digest these oils for a source of energy during the copra making process. It can also occur within 30 minutes of opening a fresh coconut used for making virgin coconut oil. The presence of water, oxygen and other nutrients allows bacteria to live and use the oil molecules as a food source. The percentage of free fatty acids in any coconut oil is an indicator of the quality of that oil. The more FFAs present, the more oil degradation has occurred and the poorer overall quality and palatability or acceptance by the consumer. Virgin oils should not have more than 0.3% free fatty acids, where copra oils typically contain 1 – 3% of the same. Some virgin oil processes leave their product exposed to water and or air for sufficient time for higher level of fatty acids to develop.
Harsh odors are also an outcome of the copra process. Molds and bacteria can produce chemical byproducts of their own or can degrade the oils into foul smelling components. When copra is dried over a fire or smoldering combustibles, the copra flesh can absorb the smoky elements of the process. The RDB process is designed to remove as much of this odor as possible, but it can’t remove all of it. These odors are accentuated by heat and use in cooking. Virgin coconut oils should have none of these flavors or odors. If they do, the oil has become seriously degraded and should not be used for food consumption. This should be a rare event, but may occur if oils are old, have not been properly processed or have been exposed to high atmospheric temperature for extended periods of time. Natural virgin oil should have some essence of coconut fragrance to it. If not, it may have been deodorized for commercial reasons as some individuals do not like the coconut essence.
Appearance of copra oil is light brown or yellow. This is a carry over from the black, yellow, orange and brown molds that grow on the poor quality copra. Some copra oil producers get a whiter product by using only higher quality “white” copra, but it is still copra. The more refining copra oil undergoes, the clearer it becomes. If you see copra oil in a solid state, it may have a generally white appearance to it. However when melted and in larger containers, the color is more evident. Liquid virgin coconut oil is generally crystal clear. Depending on the processing system and subsequent clarification, one may observe some coconut particulate in the oil. While this is all “natural,” consumers may or may not find it appealing. Allowing the particulate to settle out of the oil prior to bottling is a simple solution.
The two different physical phases of coconut oil can be unsettling to first time users of coconut oil. Both copra and virgin oils respond similarly. When coconut oil is kept at or below 25-26º C (76-78º F), it is a white semi-solid, similar to lard. If it is kept at or above these temperatures, it is a complete liquid. If the temperature is changing and crossing the melting point, the oil may be a combination of solid and liquid. This causes some people to be concerned as to the quality of the oil. However, there is no more cause for concern than if an ice cube melted in your glass and you wanted to drink the water. Just because water has solidified as ice or melted into a liquid does not change its essential qualities, only the physical state. Using virgin coconut oil takes a bit more thinking ahead as you may need to alter the phase to get it to mix or perform like the product you are substituting. Mixing it with hot or cold ingredients may also alter the phase in ways that are less desirable like melting or clumping
One interesting misperception of some consumers is that since coconut oil is solid at lower room temperatures, then it can become solid inside the human body. To disprove this idea, one only needs to hold a small amount of solid coconut oil in your hand or between the finger tips to see how quickly it melts. Given the melting point of coconut oil (25º C) and the temperature of the mammalian body 37º C), it is impossible for virgin coconut oil to solidify inside a living mammal.
Chemical differences. The biggest chemical difference between copra and virgin oils is the presence or absence of free fatty acids (FFA’s). Copra oils are high in FFA’s and each molecule represents a degraded parent molecule. The exact impact on the health characteristics and complete chemical profile are difficult to determine. However, the more significant issues are discussed below.
Microbial or fungal toxins may also be present in copra oils. These toxins are created by mold and bacteria during their growth on the wet copra. Just as moldy corn or peanuts carry an aflatoxin risk and need to be tested, so should copra based oils. These toxins can seriously affect mammalian health, causing illness, reactions, and suppressing the immune system. Virgin coconut oil should be devoid of these risks as bacteria and molds never have the chance to develop during the processing of the oil. Once the oil is pressed out of the dry kernel, there is not enough protein, carbohydrate or oxygen to support microbial life in the oil.
Nutritional factors. Coconuts are high in nutritional qualities such as natural nutritional components and anti-oxidants. Copra oils are mostly stripped of these qualities by the RBD process even if any remained after reaching the semi dry copra state. Virgin oils should not have been treated harshly or exposed to degrading microbial action and thus retain much more in the way of vitamins, minerals and fully intact healthy oils. As a result, the overall “health” qualities of virgin coconut oil far exceeds that of any other culinary oil available on the commercial market.
One of the most nutritional components of coconut oil is the medium chain fatty acid called lauric acid. Outside of a human mother’s breast milk, coconut oil is nature’s most abundant source of lauric acid and medium chain fatty acids.(4) The presence of this ingredient boosts energy, immune systems, mineral absorption, is the active ingredient countering lipid enveloped viruses, molds and gram positive bacteria in both lab and human studies. (5) Positive health impacts from using VCO’s on a regular basis include a range from reduction of hypothyroidism, improving positive balance of HDL/LDL cholesterol levels, weight loss, protection against cancer causing agents, improving insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose, helps protect against osteoporosis, functions as an antioxidant, supports natural chemical balance of the skin, and the list goes on. (6)
In conclusion, virgin coconut oil is so different from its traditional cousin copra oil that it seems unfair to even compare them directly, much less call them by the same generic name. Doing so seems akin to calling juice made with fresh apples to juice made with rotten apples by the same name (or in some cultures, fresh milk and sour milk) and expecting consumers to remain unconfused while heartily embracing the products.
2. The Oiling of America, Mary G. Enig and Sally Fallon, Nexus Magazine, December 1998
3. A New Look at Coconut Oil, By Mary G. Enig, Ph.D. Health and Nutritional Benefits from Coconut Oil: An Important Functional Food for the 21st Century, Presented at the AVOC Lauric Oils Symposium, Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam, 25 April 1996
4. The Health benefits of Virgin Coconut Oil, Brian and Marjanita Shilhavy, (source?)
5. Coconut Oil In Health And Disease: Its And Monolaurin’s Potential As Cure For HIV/AIDS, Dr. Conrado S. Dayrit
6. The Tree of Life, Cocos nucifera, The Coconut Research Center, 2005