Coconut oil is an increasingly popular oil used by health-conscious individuals. It’s commonly used in cooking and treating hair and skin problems. It can also be found listed as a component in many cosmetics and recipes. Keep reading to discover its many benefits.
What is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is an edible oil derived from the meat, milk, and wick of the coconut palm fruit. It’s a white, solid fat that turns into a thin, clear, liquid oil when melted in warmer climates or during the summer months. The unrefined or “virgin” varieties have a distinct coconut smell. Traditionally, it is used as one of the primary sources of fat in many Asian and Pacific countries.
This plant-based fat is mostly made up of saturated fat and contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and lauric acid, which can provide some protection against heart disease and helps burn fats.
Many people prefer this oil for its health benefits, including its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, improved skin and oral health, and weight loss potential.
Refined Coconut Oil vs. Virgin Coconut Oil
In stores, you can find the labels “refined coconut oil” and “virgin coconut oil.” The significant difference between the two is how they were produced, which affects their physical properties, such as smoke point, flavor, and smell. However, refined and unrefined coconut oils have the same nutrient profiles, providing 120 calories of pure fat per tablespoon.
Virgin or unrefined coconut oil can be extracted through a wet or dry method, while refined coconut oil undergoes additional processing steps.
Virgin Coconut Oil
Virgin coconut oil (VCO) is unrefined, pressed from the coconut meat, and has undergone no further processing. Either natural or mechanical processes extract the oil, and it may or may not require heating. Since the oil is raw and untreated, the oil is called “virgin” coconut oil. A machine presses fresh coconut meat to extract both oil and milk. This process is called cold pressing.
The two methods of extracting virgin coconut oil from coconuts include:
- Wet – This technique involves pressing coconut milk and coconut oil out of fresh coconuts and separating them.
- Dry – This technique uses a machine to press coconut oil out of dried coconut flesh.
Most virgin coconut oil is extracted using the wet process. Some may indicate that they are “cold pressed,” meaning no heat was used to extract the product.
At room temperature, virgin coconut oil is solid, and it has a strong coconut scent and flavor. It has a high smoke point of about 350°F. This oil can be used for baking or sautéing, but it may not be appropriate for deep-frying or high-heat cooking.
Refined Coconut Oil
Meanwhile, refined coconut oil undergoes some additional processing to make it more suitable for cooking. The process starts with pressing crude coconut oil from copra. Next, the coconut oil may be processed the same way as the dry extraction of unrefined coconut oil. Then, one of the following steps may come next, depending on the manufacturing process:
- Neutralizing – This process adds sodium hydroxide, or lye, to the oil, forming a soap with free fatty acids in the oil. Then, the oil is washed with water to remove the soap and free fatty acids. This helps prevent the oil from turning rancid, as free fatty acids can be prone to oxidation.
- Degumming – The coconut oil is mixed with a degumming agent to remove gums, which can alter the quality and texture of the oil. The oil is washed in water to separate the gums from the oil.
- Bleaching – The oil is filtered through an activated clay filter to “bleach” it. No actual bleach is used in this process.
- Deodorizing – The oil is deodorized with heat to remove the coconut taste and scent.
The resulting coconut oil after these processes is suitable for high-temperature cooking like deep-frying. Mostly, refined coconut oil is odorless and flavorless.
Health Benefits of Virgin Coconut Oil
Since there is minimal heating or processing involved in the production of virgin coconut oil, it retains most of its nutritional components. It has no cholesterol content and is rich in unsaturated fatty acids.
1. It helps boost skin health.
VCO works amazingly for all skin types. It has almost all the properties of an ideal skin care solution. It has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and wound-healing properties. It’s a nourishing oil that is rich in nutrients and has fatty acids that penetrate and repair the skin. It helps promote skin renewal while restoring lost moisture in the skin. Applying the oil topically can help offer UV protection and improve the skin’s barrier function.
A study revealed that applying virgin coconut oil on the hands and leaving it overnight may be an effective way to prevent dry skin caused by alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
Its anti-inflammatory properties make it possible to reduce the severity of mild to moderate chronic skin disorders like eczema and atopic dermatitis. It can also help prevent the growth of bacteria, reducing acne breakouts.
2. It helps promote healthy hair.
Applying coconut oil to hair can help protect against hair damage and reduce protein loss. Compared to mineral oil and sunflower oil, coconut oil penetrates hair strands better. It makes the hair more flexible and increases in strength to prevent them from breaking under tension. It also helps nourish hair strands and reduces breakage, which strengthens the hair as a whole.
Coconut oil has lauric acid that interacts better with hair proteins, trapping and conserving them. It reduces the formation of split ends, as it can fill the gap between hair cells and protect them from chemical damage.
3. It has antimicrobial properties.
Coconut oil is rich in antimicrobial and antifungal properties because of its MCT content. Lauric acid, the fatty acid that makes up about 50% of the MCTs in coconut oil, has antimicrobial effects against disease-causing microbes such as:
- Streptococcus mutans
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Streptococcus pyogenes
- Escherichia coli
- Helicobacter pylori
When the body digests lauric acid, it develops a substance called monolaurin, which can help eliminate harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Coconut oil can also act as a bacteriocidal agent, destroying some bacteria and inhibiting their growth. It can also be helpful to your plants as it can stop the growth of harmful bacteria that can be damaging to them.
4. It manages fungal infections.
Traditional Chinese medicine prescribes a diet rich in virgin coconut oil to help manage fungal infections. Women can be prone to yeast infections like candidiasis, while men can develop balanitis, a yeast infection that causes the weakening of the immune system.
Studies also showed that coconut oil could kill the causes of fungal infections, such as athlete’s foot, ringworm, or thrush – even killing the bacteria that cause food poisoning, meningitis, and pneumonia.
5. It encourages weight loss.
Usually, oils have long-chain fatty acids that can cause blood cholesterol levels to increase. These fatty acids are hard to break down, and they cannot quickly assimilate into the bloodstream. Using oils with short-chain or medium-chain fatty acids can help prevent high blood cholesterol.
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that are a great source of healthy fatty acids. When consumed in moderate amounts, it encourages weight loss and fat burning by increasing the number of calories your body burns and your energy expenditure. It may also help reduce appetite, which helps in weight loss over the long term. The fats in coconut oil are 65% MCT, which is around the same as pure MCT oil.
The MCTs in coconut oil may help reduce food intake. A proportion of MCTs a person consumes is broken down in a process that produces ketones, which are molecules that reduce appetite. You may have already heard about ketones if you’re familiar with ketogenic diets. People who are taking keto diets don’t eat a lot of carbs, but they often eat lots of fat. For this reason, ketones are used by the body for fuel. Coconut oil is a rich natural MCT source, making it weight loss-friendly.
6. It contains potent antioxidants.
Coconut oil is a great source of antioxidants, which can help neutralize damaging free radicals. This will help ward off many chronic and degenerative diseases caused by free radical damage.
Some of coconut oil’s main types of antioxidants include tocopherols, phytosterols, flavonoids, polyphenols, and tocotrienols. These compounds have potential anti-inflammatory and brain-protective effects.
The phenolic compounds in coconut oil – such as salicylic acid, gallic acid, caffeic acid, and p-coumaric acid – are powerful enough to protect cells from damage. It can also help prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol and decrease the risk of heart disease.
The MCT lauric acid in coconut oil can also help reduce secondary diabetic complications.
7. It may improve oral health.
Virgin coconut oil comes with a broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity. Most bacteria that cause dental caries are susceptible to this oil. Gargling and swishing coconut oil in your mouth like mouthwash can help eliminate plaque and gingivitis. This process is called oil pulling, which can benefit your oral hygiene in a cost-effective way. Evidence even suggests that it may significantly reduce the number of harmful bacteria in the mouth named S. mutans, compared to regular mouthwash. This is believed to be due to the antibacterial properties of lauric acid.
Also, the lauric acid in coconut oil reacts with saliva to create a soap-like substance that helps reduce the buildup of plaque, cavities, and gum inflammation. The antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory activities of lauric acid also add to the mouth-cleaning action. However, there is still limited evidence on this topic, and you must not replace your dental therapy with oil pulling.
8. It helps reduce cholesterol levels.
Virgin coconut oil is rich in fatty acids that can help prevent total cholesterol levels from rising. Studies indicate that virgin coconut oil is more effective than refined, bleached, and deodorized coconut oil in lowering bad cholesterol levels. It can help keep your heart healthy.
9. It may be a quick source of energy.
The MCTs found in coconut oil can offer a quick supply of energy that is not transported to fat tissues. When you eat long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), fats are transported through the blood to muscle and fat tissues. But MCTs go straight to the liver and become an energy source the same way as carbs, which is the body’s preferred energy supply. MCTs have already been used in sports nutrition products for athletes who need an energy source their body can absorb and use quickly.
10. It may help reduce seizures.
People are using ketogenic diets, which are high in fats and low in carbs, to help treat different disorders, including drug-resistant epilepsy. Studies have shown that keto diets can aid in reducing how often seizures happen.
The lack of glucose to fuel the brain cells is a cause for the reduction in seizure frequency in people with epilepsy on keto diets. Reducing carb intake and increasing fat intake can significantly increase ketones, which the brain can use as an energy source instead of glucose.
11. It may help with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The most common cause of dementia is Alzheimer’s disease. This condition reduces the brain’s ability to use glucose for energy. Because of the MCT content in coconut oil, it can help significantly increase blood levels of ketones, which may potentially help with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Researchers believe that ketones can help offset early signs of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease by offering an alternative energy source for brain cells.
12. It may reduce cancer risk.
Consuming virgin coconut oil can be highly beneficial to your overall health, and it can help reduce cancer risk. MCTs are great for individuals who have low or suppressed immunity, and VCO is one of the best sources of these fats. Compared to other types of oils and butters, VCO was found to provide better protection against breast and colon cancers. In rat studies, the administration of coconut oil showed anti-proliferative effects on breast and colon cancers.
How to Use Coconut Oil
There are many ways to incorporate both refined and unrefined coconut oil into your diet or skincare routine. Here are some ways to use it:
- Refined coconut oil is great to use as high-temperature cooking oil since it’s rich in saturated fats. Use it for frying, sautéing, stir-frying, and baking.
- Add coconut oil to sauces, dips, vinaigrette, and salad dressings.
- Add it to coffee by making a bulletproof coffee if you’re on a keto diet or looking for ways to make coffee healthier.
- Use it as oil for cakes, waffles, and other baked goods, as it can make them taste richer and more filling.
- Apply VCO to skin affected with eczema or atopic dermatitis as treatment.
- Apply VCO to dry skin overnight as a hydrating moisturizer.
- Take a spoonful of VCO orally for good health and immunity.