What is Virgin Coconut Oil?
What is Virgin Coconut Oil?
How is Coconut Oil Produced?
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 (see Tropical Traditions Expeller Pressed Coconut Oil.) 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.
You are unlikely to find hydrogenated coconut oil as an edible oil in the market today. It would only exist as an ingredient in tropical cultures, in such things as candy bars where they do not want the coconut oil melting. Hydrogenated coconut oil is virtually non-existent in the US market, since the FDA started requiring trans fats to be listed on labels several years ago.
Liquid Coconut Oil, MCT Oil, and Fractionated Coconut Oil
Fractionated coconut oil, sometimes referred to as "MCT Oil" and more recently marketed as "Liquid Coconut Oil," is a refined product derived from coconut oil. The primary component, and the most valueable part of coconut oil, is lauric acid. In fractionated coconut oil, lauric acid has been removed by fractionation, which makes this coconut oil derived product liquid at a higher temperature. Read more about "Liquid Coconut Oil" here.
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." Tropical Traditions was the first company to publish standards for the use of "Virgin Coconut Oil" in terms of edible oils, and here is what we published over ten 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, the coconut meat is quick dried, and the oil is then pressed out via mechanical means. This is the most common type of "Virgin" or "Extra Virgin" (see below) coconut oil sold in the market today that you will find in stores. It is mass-produced. (see our Green Label Virgin Coconut Oil)
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. (see our Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil)
Traditionally-made Virgin Coconut Oils
There has been an abundance of research in recent years in coconut oil producing countries looking at the various methods of producing "virgin coconut oil." What has been discovered is that the traditional wet-milling methods of producing coconut oil using very simple technology, much as has been used for thousands of years, actually produces a very high quality coconut oil. The most quantifiable characteristic that can be tested in a laboratory test is the amount of antioxidants in the coconut oil. Traditionally-made coconut oils actually test the highest in antioxidants. Traditionally-made coconut oils all use the wet-milling method described above, which would include boiling and fermentation. Enzyme extraction and mechanical centrifuge are modern methods requiring a more sophisticated technology, and not traditional.
The Gold Label® Standard
The method used by Mt. Banahaw Health Products Corp. in the Philippines, whose oil is marketed exclusively by Tropical Traditions as their Gold Label standard, is the traditional wet-milling method called "fermentation." "Fermentation" here is defined as the natural separation of the coconut oil from water using gravity. No machine or other substances are used in the extraction. First, coconut milk is expressed from the freshly harvested coconuts by using the pure water that is present inside the coconuts. The coconut milk is then allowed to sit for approximately half a day. During this time, the heavier water separates from the oil by sinking to the bottom, while the lighter coconut solids float to the top (curds). In between the coconut solids and the water is a crystal clear coconut oil that is completely unrefined. The oil is then slightly heated (less than boiling temperatures) for a short time (5 -15 minutes depending on air temperatures) to remove any remaining moisture and increase antioxidant levels (see below), and then 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, if not thousands of years. Marianita Jader Shilhavy's parents generation made coconut oil this way, but the knowledge was in the process of passing away before the founders of Tropical Traditions revived it, due to the easily obtained refined coconut oils found in the stores in the Philippines. It is a much more labor-intensive method of producing coconut oil, and cannot be replicated by machine through mass-production. Family producers for Mt. Banahaw make the Gold Label standard in small batches.
Laboratory tests show that this Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil is a very high quality coconut oil, with very high antioxidant levels. A study done in Malaysia and published in the International Journal of Food Science Nutrition also reported that the wet-milling fermentation method produced the highest amounts of antioxidants, and another study completed in Sri Lanka in 2011 confirmed the result. This oil is not mass produced, but made by hand just as it has been done for hundreds of years. The coconuts are certified organic according to strict USDA standards. In addition, all of the coconuts are hand-picked within 24-48 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. Because of the extremely selective procedure for choosing the coconuts, a higher price is paid to the farmer. Almost all other virgin coconut oils on the market are mass-produced and do not take this kind of attention to detail that begins with choosing the right nuts. Also, the coconuts used to make our Virgin Coconut Oil are grown in very rural areas, generally far away from metropolitan areas. Since coconut trees grow just about everywhere in the Philippines, most coconut oils on the market are harvested from trees in metropolitan areas, because there is less cost to transport them to the place of manufacture. Many of our producers are in areas so remote, that if they did not use their coconuts to produce Virgin Coconut oil for us, no one would buy their coconuts because it would cost too much to transport them to manufacturing plants. In these areas, the coconuts generally just fell to the ground unused until we started training people to make our Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil.
In spite of the success and growth worldwide of this unique product, we still produce our Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil by hand in small batches by family micro enterprises. Most of them have been producing Virgin Coconut oil for over 10 years now. They have learned what it takes to produce the highest quality oil, such as how to hand pick the best coconuts from each harvest. One of their discoveries occurred in 2007 when certain groups in rural areas had problems with water sources. Water is needed to make the coconut milk from which the oil is extracted. Using true Filipino ingenuity, they started collecting and using the pure nutritious coconut water from inside the organic coconuts instead. They noticed that the water separated from the oil much quicker, that less heat was needed at the end, and that less filtering was needed also. The end result was a higher quality and better tasting Virgin Coconut Oil. Independent laboratory analysis shows that this new method produces even higher levels of antioxidants than first tested in 2006 by Professor Dia! (See below.) So we now require all of our Virgin Coconut Oil producers to use the pure coconut water from their coconuts instead of boiled or purified tap water. This enhanced Virgin Coconut Oil with the highest levels of antioxidants is now our Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil.
I love Tropical Traditions Virgin Coconut Oil, it is the best I have tried, and I will continue to use this oil forever. Kelly - Lander, WY
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.
Virgin Coconut Oil and Heat - Higher Antioxidants!
There have been many claims made recently on the Internet that there are Virgin Coconut oils in the market that are processed without heat, and that these coconut oils are somehow superior to coconut oils that use some heat in the processing. Do these claims have any merit? Mt. Banahaw Health Products and Tropical Traditions has thoroughly researched this topic, and following are the results.
Some are claiming that there are "raw" Virgin Coconut oils that never see heat at temperatures above a certain temperature (usually slightly over 100 degrees F.) and therefore contain beneficial enzymes. However, unless one is purchasing a coconut oil that has been transported from the tropics in refrigerated containers, and is delivered to you in refrigerated delivery trucks, this is just simply not possible. To read our full explanation on why one does not want enzymes in their coconut oil anyway, see our full explanation here.
Mt. Banahaw Healthy Products Corp. was the first company to export "Virgin Coconut Oil" from the Philippines, using the traditional fermentation method as described above. Since those early days, many other producers have now entered into the local market in the Philippines with a variety of different "Virgin Coconut Oils" produced in many different ways. So in 2005 Professor Vermont P. Dia of the University of the Philippines conducted a study with some of his graduate students to analyze various Virgin Coconut Oils produced using different methods. Their results were published in December 2005, in The Philippine Agricultural Scientist, Vol. 88 No. 4, pages 462-475. The title of the article is "Comparative Physiochemical Characteristics of Virgin Coconut Oil." The results of this study have become the standard for Virgin Coconut Oil quality in the Philippines, and were published and implemented by both BFAD (Bureau of Food and Drugs) and PNS (Philippine National Standards).
They produced three batches of Virgin Coconut Oil in their laboratory using three different methods, and also analyzed six different commercial brands of Virgin Coconut Oil in the Philippines. The three batches they produced in their laboratory were all produced with little or no heat, some using refrigeration and never going above 47 degrees Celsius (less than 117 degrees F.) The values that were tested in all these Virgin Coconuts oils were: melting point, gravity, saponification, iodine, free fatty acid (FFA), peroxide value, moisture content, fatty acid composition, tocopherols, and total phenolic content. Their results found that: "while the VCOs produced by the three methods and using different varieties had some differences in chemical and quality properties, these differences may not be large enough to significantly affect the overall quality of the VCO. Further, their levels are still within the CODEX standards for coconut oil." In the 6 commercial brands they tested (where it is routinely assumed today that "no heat" is better), they found some had values that exceeded the limits of standards in areas like moisture content and FFA. The study was concluded by stating: "The effect of higher temperature (>50 C) during processing on the quality of VCO is likewise important to determine and is being investigated."
Mt. Banahaw Health Products Corp.'s Virgin Coconut Oil is not sold in the local Philippine market, as it is produced exclusively for Tropical Traditions, so we decided to send a sample to Professor Dia to analyze. We already knew that our VCO consistently tested well within standards for moisture and FFA (our moisture levels, for example, have ranged from 0.06 to 0.08 percent in 2006, where industry standards for refined coconut oils are .10%), but we had never tested for phenolic acid, an antioxidant usually associated with products like Green Tea and Olive Oil. Some have theorized that it is the polyphenols in Virgin Coconut Oil that differentiate its quality from regular refined coconut oil, where polyphenols are generally missing. The three samples Professor Dia and his students produced in the laboratory, and the six commercial samples they tested had a range of 6.29 to 8.38 mg gallic acid of phenolic content per gram of oil. When they tested the VCO of Mt. Banahaw Health Products Corp., the values were 13.21 to 13.43 mg gallic acid per gram of oil! (See Professor Dia's statement on Mt. Banahaw Health Products VCO here.) We repeated this test several times on different batches of our Virgin Coconut Oil to verify the high results. In some cases, our phenolic content was more than twice as high as other Virgin Coconut Oils they had tested. Since these original tests were carried out, Mt. Banahaw's producers, many of whom have been producing Virgin Coconut Oil for over 7 years now, have further perfected the traditional method of coconut oil extraction by using simple techniques, such as using the sterile and nutritious coconut water inside the coconuts to make the coconut milk from which the coconut oil is extracted. The result is that our antioxidant levels today test even higher than Professor Dia's original tests, meeting our new standards for Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil. In 2008 a study done in Malaysia and published in the International Journal of Food Science Nutrition also reported that the wet-milling fermentation method produced the highest amounts of antioxidants. In 2011, studies conducted in Sri Lanka by Professor Kapila Seneviratne of the University of Kelaniya showed that traditionally made virgin coconut oils that use heat in the process, even high levels of heat such as boiling the coconut milk to completely separate the oil (a method we do not use), not only does not harm the oil, but may actually promote the antioxidants to become dispersed in the oil:
More surprises awaited the research team. The general impression is that cooking at high temperatures would degrade the quality of the oil. However, it is not applicable since coconut oil is thermally stable, it is learnt. “Fortunately, most of the phenolic anti-oxidants present in coconut oil are also thermally highly stable,” he pointed out, explaining that the reason for a greater composition of anti-oxidants is that simmering for a long time at a high temperature dissolved more anti-oxidants into the oil. (Published in The Sunday Times of Sri Lanka, October 16, 2011 - "Coconut Oil: It's good for your after all," by Kumudini Hettiarachchi and Shaveen Jeewandara)
So in terms of empirical evidence, there is no evidence anywhere that we can find that Virgin Coconut Oil produced with "no heat" is superior in any way to the traditional method of producing Gold Label Virgin Coconut Oil that is used for the Tropical Traditions brand of VCO, which has been sold to hundreds of thousands of people in the US market and around the world for over ten years now. On the contrary, Professor Dia has verified that at least with phenolic content, our VCO tested higher than any other VCO they had tested in the Philippines, and the study done in Malaysia in 2008 confirmed that the wet-milling fermentation method produced the highest levels of antioxidants in Virgin Coconut Oils. Then in 2011 studies done in Sri Lanka showed that coconut oil produced by traditional methods and employing heat actually produced results with higher antioxidants than other coconut oils, further verifying that the traditional method is superior.