As awareness for the many benefits and usage of Virgin Coconut Oil (VCO) continues to soar, so is the number of alternative sources of this wonder product. In an effort to sound different or to promote value, VCO marketers use various descriptions and terms which, on closer investigation, usually mean the same thing as other familiar terms – and sometimes may even be totally inaccurate.
If you are a re-manufacturer who uses VCO as an ingredient in your final product, or a re-packer who converts bulk packs into your own retail brand, it would help to understand what is really behind the sometimes confusing process terms and descriptions attached to the VCO products you are evaluating. If you are a consumer, you can better decide which one to buy as you scan through the various shapes and sizes of VCO products on the shelves.
This article aims to go to the basics and clarify what commonly encountered VCO-related terms really mean. By doing so, we hope to help both the business sector and the consumers understand the terms they see on the labels. This will help decide which one is really for them. This will also help ensure no one will get lost in the VCO jargon.
The Dry Process for producing virgin coconut oil uses dried coconut meat, thus the term, dry process. This process involves drying the meat from mature coconuts to convert them to dried coconut meat, as white copra or as desiccated coconut. The drying process applies high heat by using fire or a kiln. The resulting copra or desiccated coconut is then pressed using equipment like expellers, which facilitates the extraction of VCO.
Coconut meat that is dried under the sun is not used for VCO extraction because they turn dark in color and will require intense refining, bleaching, and deodorization. This type of copra is often used as raw material for the commodity cooking oil.
The Wet Process for extracting virgin coconut oil makes use of fresh coconut meat, thus the term wet process, attributed to the meat not being dry. From the fresh meat, coconut cream concentrate is extracted. Coconut cream concentrate is a mixture of coconut oil and water. The protein found in the coconut causes the creation of this mixture, also known as an emulsion. This emulsion is then broken up to recover the coconut oil using various techniques. Modern techniques being employed include centrifuge extraction, fermentation with or without the use of enzymes, heating, addition of acids, salts, or electrolysis, or a combination from these techniques. The quality and physical characteristics of the resulting virgin coconut oil is highly influenced by the extraction technique used.
The Wet Process was established as an alternative to dry process because of the better quality of the resulting VCO.
Expeller-pressed and Cold-pressed
Expeller-pressed simply means using an expeller machine to extract the VCO from dried coconut meat through heat and pressure. It is the most common method of extracting coconut oil in the industry because it is simple and does not require intricate equipment which can be expensive. It starts with drying the coconut meat. This is followed by pressing the meat in large expeller presses through heat and pressure. Expeller-pressed is sometimes referred to as cold-pressed. Using cold-pressed, even if heat is actually used in the process, is attributed to having a cooling system during VCO extraction, but this does not mean the whole extraction process is done cold.
Fermentation is a VCO extraction technique under the Wet Process. This is sometimes referred to as Absolutely No Heat (ANH) method. Once the coconut cream concentrate is obtained, this is stored in appropriate containers and allowed to ferment. Fermentation may be natural and will take 18-36 hours. When an additive, like an enzyme, is used, the fermentation period is reduced to as short as 3 hours. As the layers of oil and water separate during fermentation, the upper layer is simply decanted. This upper layer is VCO. The resulting VCO would still have some level of moisture. Since moisture level in the VCO has a critical effect on shelf life, additional steps are sometimes done to remove the extra moisture. The additional steps may involve heating. If so, this is no longer VCO from the ANH method.
Centrifuge Extraction is a method under Wet Process. Once the coconut cream concentrate (an oil-water mixture) is available, a special equipment, known as a centrifuge, is used to separate the oil from the water portion. This separated oil is the VCO. For highly sophisticated processing plants, a series of centrifuges is used to optimize VCO extraction. This set-up can also almost completely remove moisture, a critical factor affecting shelf life. Centrifuge extraction’s advantage over other methods of VCO extraction is that no heat is required but efficiently produces high-quality VCO. The oil retains its health nutrients with good physical attributes on smell, taste and color. The resulting VCO is light in both looks and flavor, qualities that many consider very positive in the industry.
In general, “raw” refers to food which has not been subjected to heat higher than 400C. So the use of “raw” to describe VCO aims to communicate that it was produced under low heat, <400C. VCO is supposed to be the least refined so the oil will not be altered chemically. “Naturally processed” is also sometimes used with the same intentions as using “raw”. Since the use of heat can possibly alter the nature of the oil, it is a major consideration when evaluating VCO products because good quality VCO would have retained almost all of its natural chemical and physical properties.
Virgin Coconut Oil
It is obtained from fresh, mature coconut kernels through means that do not lead to alteration of the oil. It is the least refined of the coconut oils. This is in contrast to RBD regular coconut oils from dried coconut meat. RBD means refined, bleached, and deodorized.
Compared to regular coconut oil, the main difference with VCO lies in its source, method of extraction and its benefits. Virgin coconut oil comes from coconut milk obtained from fresh or desiccated coconut meat. The resulting coconut oil has a clear look and has a very light smell and taste to it. Because it is not subjected to high heat, it has a higher vitamin and antioxidant composition, making it much healthier than regular coconut oil. It generally has a longer shelf life as well because it has low moisture content and doesn’t become rancid easily.
Extra Virgin Coconut Oil
When using the term, “extra”, with virgin coconut oil, it has virtually no difference when compared to virgin coconut oil. Both types of VCOs have the exact composition, but with vary amounts of free fatty acids. However, there have been no regulations regarding the purity of coconut oil to warrant a different label. The term “extra” is usually used as a marketing term and nothing more.
In the context of the coconut industry, “organic” is a term which refers to agricultural produce and processed products which have not been subjected to pesticides, fertilizers, chemical treatment, genetically modified organisms, or growth hormones during its farming and processing into its final product form. The mere mention on the label of the word organic, such as “uses organic coconut”, does not actually mean the product is already “Certified Organic”. From end to end, from farming to processing to packing into its final package, the coconut product must have adhered to the requirements of being “organic”.