Coconut oil---derived from the seed of the coconut palm---is a versatile edible oil, with a history dating back thousands of years in tropical regions. Although favored in cooking due to its high melting point and delicate aroma, the uses of coconut oil extend beyond the kitchen: it's also included in cosmetic products, soap, lip balm and even transportation fuel. The two main types of coconut oil, refined and unrefined, have different production methods, costs and benefits.
Whether coconut oil becomes refined or unrefined depends on what processing methods the oil undergoes. Refined coconut oil starts out as dried coconut meat, known as "copra." Because coconut oil producers frequently dry the meat in open air, it can gather hazardous bacteria and pathogens---so any oil extracted from copra needs further purification before it's safe to consume. During the refinement process, copra undergoes bleach filtration to screen out impurities, as well as heat treatment to remove its distinctive odor.
Unrefined coconut oil, on the other hand, starts with fresh coconut meat rather than dried copra---ensuring the extracted oil is sanitary without the need for further purification. To produce unrefined coconut oil, the meat goes through one of two methods: "quick drying" or "wet milling." Quick-dried coconut meat receives a small amount of heat to remove moisture, and then mechanical extraction separates the unrefined oil from the meat. With the wet-milling process, machines press the liquid out of fresh coconut meat---and then use boiling, refrigeration, centrifuging, fermentation or enzymes to isolate the oil from the extracted liquid. With both the quick drying and wet milling methods, the resulting coconut oil is safe for consumption without bleaching or deodorization.
One of the distinguishing differences between refined and unrefined coconut oil is the taste. Because refined coconut oil is deodorized, it loses its signature coconut flavor and has no discernible taste or smell. However, unrefined oil carries a mild coconut flavor and aroma.
Although refined coconut oil goes through more processing stages than unrefined oil, it's typically less expensive. Because it is later sanitized, the copra used to make refined coconut oil doesn't have to adhere to strict health standards, so a greater quantity of coconut meat is acceptable for processing---whereas unrefined coconut oil requires the use of fresh, sanitary meat. Coupled with a higher production output for refined coconut oil, it tends to be considerably less pricey than its unrefined counterpart.
As cooking ingredients, refined and unrefined coconut oil have the same melting point---76 degrees F. However, refined coconut oil has a smoking point of 450 degrees F, whereas the smoking point of unrefined coconut oil is 350 degrees F. Because of its greater heat tolerance, refined coconut oil can be a better option for high-temperature cooking methods such as frying.
The nutritional value of refined and unrefined coconut oil is similar: both oils contain 90 percent saturated fat, primarily in the form of medium chain triglycerides, and no carbohydrates or protein. In some cases, refined coconut oil undergoes additional steps to become hydrogenated---resulting in the presence of trans fats, which can contribute to heart disease.