Coconut: From Nut to Oil

Carly Kellogg Knowles, MS, RDN, LD

Vibrant Nutrition & Health

Do you know where your coconut oil comes from? You should. In a day and age where chemicals are readily found in our food system, and more and more labs are creating genetically modified foods, it’s important to be informed, and understand what you’re eating. Coconut oil is one of those foods that can vary greatly in processing, so know what you’re really buying and putting in your body. After all, your body is a temple! 

Coconut oil is a highly processed popular product that originates from the coconut palm. Coconut palm trees grow mainly in warm and tropical climates where there’s plenty of sand and little to moderate rainfall. The highly sought-after oil can be extracted from coconuts in numerous lengthy processes before it becomes the luscious oil we recognize on shelves at grocery stores or in our favorite lotions and beauty products. Some of these processes are better than others for preserving nutrients and maintaining health, so make sure you know what to look for in a quality coconut oil product.

Harvesting: Coconut palm trees start producing nuts between four and six years. Mature coconuts are harvested from the trees around two to 20 months of age. Careful timing according to climate will dictate the amount of oil a coconut will bear. Harvesting techniques differ around the world. For example in Thailand, trained monkeys retrieve coconuts from the trees and in India, a pole with a knife on the end is used to cut the coconuts down. Another common method for coconut collection is patiently waiting until the nuts drop from the tree. Once harvested, the meat or flesh of the coconuts is removed and the oil can be extracted.

Dry Processing: Dry processing is when the meat is removed and dehydrated with sunlight, fire, or kilns to create a substance called copra. The dry copra is then placed in a hydraulic press, with a solvent such as hexane, and is heated to high temperatures to produce oil. This will yield crude coconut oil that is not yet edible or sellable. The oil must be further heated and filtered through another refinement process in order to deliver coconut oil that is palatable and safe for consumption, as well as more shelf-stable (Refined, Bleached, and Deodorized oil, a.k.a. RBD oil).

RBD oil can be further processed into partially or fully dehydrogenated oil to increase the oil’s melting point. This might be useful in warmer climates where oils can melt from high outdoor temperatures. The hydrogenation process can turn this naturally occurring saturated fat product into trans fat if partially hydrogenated. If fully hydrogenated, there will be no trans fatty acids present.

Wet Processing: Wet processing starts with raw coconut meat. The meat consists of a coconut protein base, oil, and water. The protein and water must be separated to yield the oil and this is accomplished by boiling for prolonged amounts of time. The oil that is collected is discolored and generally not marketable, so further processing must be done. Chilling, heating, centrifuging, acid, salt, and enzyme additives, electrolysis, and shock therapy are all possible treatments that can occur to create the final more marketable coconut oil. This, however, is not the preferred industrial process, because it yields less oil per coconut and it requires too much technical equipment and oversight to be highly profitable.  

Enzymatic Processing: Another process used to extract coconut oil is with the use of alpha-amylase, polygalacturonase, and protease—enzymes that work on diluted coconut paste. However, this treatment is considered expensive and high-end, so it’s not often used.

Manual/Electric Pressing/Cold pressing: “Virgin” coconut oil comes from this method. It is another version of oil that comes from fresh coconut meat or milk. The oil is removed by way of wet or dry milling in a press. Virgin coconut oil can also be pulled out of freshly grated and dry coconut meat with high moisture content or by adding water and then pressing it through a manual or electric press. No bleaching or further processing occurs.

Fermentation: Fermented milk can also produce oil and the milk can be heat treated to remove any remaining oil. Finally, a centrifuge can be used to separate the oil from the coconut milk.

Fractionation: In specific scenarios of medical application or highly specified diets requiring strict standards, coconut oil will be further processed or fractionated to produce oil that includes only medium chain triglyceride oil or MCT oil. This may be beneficial for increasing someone’s lipid profile, specifically the good fat called HDL. This is not, however, the typical form of coconut oil one would buy at a grocery store—it’s considered a specialty item or product.

End Product: All processes described above produce a light colored solid at room temperature saturated fat oil. Higher quality oils will smell similar to the tropical palm tree and most edible coconut oils will taste mild, light, and slightly sweet.

Packaging and Wording: Edible coconut oil is available for purchase in glass jars or plastic containers. Most all packaging claims coconut oil’s health benefits and overall wonderment with statements like, “Natural Energy Source”,  “Pure Food”, “Lower Cholesterol Compared to Butter”,  “Moisturizing”, “Island Fresh”,  “World’s Best Cooking Oil”. Other common verbiage on packaging states, “Expeller Pressed”, “Organic”,  “Unrefined For Medium Heat”. Words like ‘saturated fat’, ‘monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat’, ‘may contain trans fatty acid’, ‘processed with chemical hexane’, or ‘omega 6 fatty acids’ have not been included on most packaging.

Whew! That’s a lot of information—important information to know though! Can you believe how varied coconut oil processing can be?! If you’re looking for an unadulterated version that is as close to a whole food as possible, look to buy organic unrefined virgin coconut oil.

Try the recipe below for a delicious and nutritious Breakfast Cookie using organic unrefined virgin coconut oil.

Breakfast Cookie

Carly Kellogg Knowles, MS, RDN, LD

 

Prep time: 10 minutes, Cook time: 25 minutes, Yield: 11-12 cookies

 

Ingredients

1 overripe banana, mashed

1 cup almond butter

2 tablespoons organic unrefined virgin coconut oil

3 tablespoons maple syrup

1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup gluten free rolled oats

2 cups fine almond meal

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

 

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Thoroughly mash the banana into a paste. Mix all of the wet ingredients into a large mixing bowl. Mix together all of the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add them to the wet ingredients. Mix together well. Finally, add the walnuts and fold in to the dough.

Once all ingredients are combined, take 1/4 cup of dough and roll into ball. Place the dough ball onto a parchment paper lined cookie sheet. Continue until all the dough is balled and on the cookie sheet. Gently press each ball down with the palm of your hand to mold them into flat disks. Make sure to press evenly so that they all cook through at the same time.

Place in the oven and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Reduce the oven temperature to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and cook for an additional 10 minutes or until your cookies are golden brown.

Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes. Enjoy a breakfast cookie with a warm cup of home brewed coffee. Good morning!

Recipe from http://www.vibrantnutritionandhealth.com/breakfast-cookies/

Resources:

1. P.G.Punchihewa and R.N. Arancon. COCONUT: Post-harvesting operations-Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (http://www.fao.org/fileadmin/user_upload/inpho/docs/Post_Harvest_Compendium_-_Coconut.pdf)

2. Wikipedia: Coconut Oil (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coconut#Fruit)

3. R Mensink, P Zock, A Kester, and M Katan. Coconut and HDL content. (http://www.ajcn.org/content/77/5/1146.full.pdf+html)

4. Bruce Fife, N.D. Coconut Research Center. (http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/Coconut%20Research-Coconut%20Research%20Center.pdf)