The 30-Second Review
There are a lot of unknowns in the world of coconut oil, but what makes the best is clear: It comes from an ethical company, it’s conveniently packaged, and it’s as healthy as possible, no matter how you plan on using it. We dove deep into fair trade certifications, then tested six coconut oils ourselves. In the end, we found two products that taste and feel great.
A “pleasantly nutty” oil that melts without leaving chunks, available in seven sizes. Wide-mouthed jars means it’ll fit flawlessly into any kitchen or bathroom routine. All that, and it’s produced by a transparent company with the gold-standard in fair trade certification.
Dr. Bronner’s is the original fair trade coconut oil brand, and it offers two types of oil: one with a strong flavor profile, and one that’s milder. The oil is just as meltable as Kelapo, but it only comes in three jar sizes. Only the bulk size is convenient for scooping by hand, so this one’s a solid option for the kitchen or for those who want an option with a subtler coconut taste and smell.
The Best Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is the chameleon of oils, blending into kitchen cupboards and bathroom counters with ease and serving seemingly endless purposes. Its high smoke point makes it perfect for frying, while its properties as a saturated fat make it a go-to dairy-free butter substitute in baking. And the nutty, slightly sweet scent of virgin coconut oil could just as easily belong to a moisturizer as a coffee creamer alternative.
How you use your coconut oil will determine your top priorities when you buy. If you use it only in the kitchen, the jar shape doesn’t matter as much as the oil’s taste and available sizes. But if you plan on using it for skin or hair, the oil should melt quickly, smell good, and come in a jar that makes it easy to scoop with your hands. And in light of the controversial coconut farming industry, it’s also important to find companies with transparent practices.
The standard, 14-ounce glass jar of Kelapo Extra Virgin Coconut Oil has a uniquely wide mouth that makes it possible to dig into its depths by hand or spoon with no mess. If 14 ounces isn’t the right size for you, you’re still covered — it comes in an unmatched range of sizes and materials, from 0.5-ounce packets to a one-gallon plastic tub. On skin, the oil melts quickly and cleanly, leaving only a faintly “nutty” scent behind. And its tasting notes are similar; No tester felt it was too strong for their liking, regardless of coconut preference.
Our runner-up, Dr. Bronner’s Whole Kernel Organic Virgin Coconut Oil, actually helped establish the world’s first fair trade coconut oil farming project. That’s admirable, but it’s not why we chose it. Along with its coconut-forward, sweet oil, Dr. Bronner’s offers a “white kernel” version that’s described as “milder” in scent and taste, which might suit someone less coconut-keen. It paled in comparison to Kelapo in packaging and size variety only: Dr. Bronner’s comes in just three jar sizes, and only one of those, the 58-ounce plastic tub in the stronger scent and taste, has a wide mouth that’s easy to scoop by hand. So while the muted smell might appeal to some skin and hair care users, you’ll have to use a spoon once the jar’s half-full.
How We Found the Best Coconut Oil
Do a quick internet search for coconut oil, and you’ll find enthusiasts who swear by it as the perfect elixir for everything from a cure for Alzheimer’s to a pet skin care staple. You’ll also run into lots of vague terminology again and again. Virgin, extra virgin, cold-pressed, refined, fractionated — it’s a lot to take in. We dug into scientific articles and talked to nutritionists, dermatologists, and researchers to learn what’s currently known about coconut oil, and found clarity in a murky sea of claims.
First, we learned there’s not necessarily a “healthiest” coconut oil.
The two major varieties of coconut oil on the market are refined and virgin (sometimes called unrefined or extra virgin — all three mean the same thing). Any kind of coconut oil is processed; After all, you can’t pick oil straight off the tree. But the way the two kinds are processed differs.
Refined oil is processed with heat or direct sunlight and goes through refining, bleaching, and deodorizing (also called RBD). The result is an oil with a smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit and a neutral smell and taste. Typically, we found that people use refined if they don’t love the smell and taste of coconut, or if they want to fry in high (over 350-degree) heat.
Bleached doesn’t necessarily mean chemically processed.The term threw us off at first, but refined oils are often bleached using clay and activated carbon — perfectly safe for consumption.
Virgin coconut oil is processed without heat and never goes through RBD processing. It retains its coconut flavor and scent, has a lower smoking point of 350 degrees, and some research shows that it might retain more antioxidants. Though its smoking point is lower than that of refined oil, it’s the same as butter’s and is higher than that of extra virgin olive oil. In other words, it’s a great oil for stir frying or baking (as long as you don’t mind the subtle sweetness and nuttiness it might add). Virgin and refined oils have the same fatty acid profile, and both melt at 76 degrees Fahrenheit.
Experts have a hard time recommending any given type of coconut oil processing over the others, mostly because there’s not a wealth of widely-accepted evidence suggesting any kind of coconut oil is good for you. They all agree that more research needs to be done, and that a saturated fat is a saturated fat, regardless of processing.
In the end, the most solid answer we got was, “virgin is probably better.” That’s based on the principle that less processing is always a good thing, and experts’ slight preference for virgin doesn’t end at cooking. Board certified dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frey, founder of FryFace.com, even suggested that virgin could potentially be better than refined as a moisturizer (though well-formulated moisturizers are better than both). We didn’t leave refined oils out of our search — the functional advantages are impossible to ignore — but we kept in mind the potential benefits of unrefined oil.
Fractionated coconut oil is just a “fraction” of its original form, often isolating fatty acids for a specific purpose and lowering its melting point. It’s often marketed as a skin care product or filler essential oil. While fractionated oil certainly has its place, it’s a stretch to call it “coconut oil” at all. We left it out of our search for the best.
But one thing’s certain: Not all coconut oil is ethically sourced.
During our research into coconut processing, we encountered a discouraging slough of statistics that added a new layer to our search for the best. Demand for coconuts is going up 10 percent per year, but farmers are struggling to keep up with the demand because coconut trees are monocrops (the sole crop grown on a farm, year after year), and they yield fewer and fewer coconuts as they age. Most farmers sell their crops to middlemen, who turn a profit by selling them at a higher price to factories. Less money means less investing back into the farm and planting new trees, which then take five years to produce yields. Because of this, the National Anti-Poverty Commission estimates that most farmers live below what the U.S. considers the poverty line.
So we found vetted, socially responsible brands.
Not all companies who are taking advantage of the coconut boom are taking advantage of the farmers behind it. We pored through 65 virgin and refined coconut oils that are widely available at national retailers (Target, Whole Foods, and Walmart) and online (Amazon and vitamin stores) and found just six that are fair trade certified — a term that typically implies good working conditions, fair wages, and transparent business practices. Four were certified by “Fair Trade USA” and two by “Fair for Life.”
There aren’t any legally enforceable standards for fair trade, so the term isn’t regulated like, say, “USDA Organic.” To parse out the differences between Fair Trade USA and Fair for Life certifications, we first dug into each organization’s guidelines. Both organizations claim to use stringent certification processes, yearly in-person audits, and interviews with workers to hold companies accountable. For a more detailed picture, we called up Kerstin Lindgren, who does most of the fair trade label analysis for fair trade watchdog organization Fair World Project.
Lindgren told us the major distinction between Fair Trade USA- and Fair for Life-certified products is Fair for Life’s strict eligibility requirements for companies to get certified. Fair for Life intentionally filters out companies that have a history of labor abuse and only certifies products from companies that have a proven social mission to enhance the lives of their workers. In general, Fair World Project considers Fair Trade USA “baseline adequate” in a lot of areas, and ranks Fair for Life higher in terms of fair trade standards.
Out of our six certified fair trade coconut oils, we noticed that Fair for Life companies (Dr. Bronner’s and Kelapo) offer next-level transparency. But here’s the thing: Either of the labels is better than none, at least with coconut oil. That’s not the case with every product, according to Lindgren, but the coconut farming scene is unique. “With some products, we know we can trust our favorite brands, a local farmer, or even an ethically-minded retailer. But with coconut oil, there’s so much exploitation of farmers, workers, and the environment that it’s important to look for a third party certification on coconut oil products.”
Keep in mind that fair trade comes at a price. The six widely available fair trade options range from 72 cents per ounce to almost five dollars per ounce, while un-certified jars can cost as little as 28 cents per ounce. We decided we’d rather pay a little more for transparency and a guarantee that our money is trickling all the way down to the people who farmed the coconuts.
Two of the coconut oils we encountered (Garden of Life and SheaMoisture) have B Corp certifications, which we initially bundled with fair trade certifications. Certified B Corps, after all, are required “to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.”
However, as we dug a little deeper, though, we found that Fair for Life and Fair Trade USA require a yearly audit of facilities in-person, while just 10% of certified B Corps get randomly selected for in-depth site visits. And since companies need to get just 80 out of 200 on their B Corp assessment to qualify, it’s possible that a company could get approved without paying workers a living wage.
We still think B Corps are a step in the right direction, it’s just not the most surefire way to judge a coconut oil. If you’re curious and want to learn more about B Corps certification, we were impressed by their customer service — we recommend sending an email.
And we tried all six fair trade certified oils ourselves.
We knew we could feel good buying any one of the six fair trade oils on our final list. But could we feel good using them? We bought all the oils in their standard sizes (generally 14-15 ounces, with a few outliers), scooped them out of their jars, and analyzed their textures, tastes, and smells. Our mission? Find oil that:
- Is easy to get out of the jar with a spoon
- Tastes subtly like natural coconut, not overpowering or artificial
For Skin and Hair Care:
- Is easy to get out of the jar by hand
- Smells subtly like natural coconut, not overpowering or artificial
- Melts quickly and cleanly between hands, leaving no chunks on skin or under fingernails
We thought we might find one “best” oil for cooking, and another “best” for skin and hair care, but after days of walking around the office uncomfortably moisturized and smelling like we stepped off a tropical beach, we found the one oil that hits every mark, no matter how you plan on using it.
- Conscious Coconut
- Dr. Bronner’s Whole Kernel
- Kelapo Extra Virgin
- Nutiva Virgin
- Nutrigold Extra Virgin
- Simple Truth Organics Virgin
Our Picks for the Best Coconut Oil
Kelapo Extra Virgin Coconut OilA fast-melting oil in by far the most convenient jar, with a smell and taste testers described as “pleasantly nutty.” Its unmatched variety of Fair for Life-certified coconut oil products will fit your needs, however you plan on using it.
We concede that Kelapo’s labeling verges on cheesy, with its bold primary colors and Papyrus-like font, but the 14-ounce jar dimensions made it a breeze to scoop out by hand and by spoon. Wide-mouthed and stout, no part of the jar is out of fingers’ reach, and you can maintain good scooping leverage down to the last spoonful. Other jars that hold the same amount of coconut oil (like runner-up Dr. Bronner’s) have too narrow a mouth to accommodate a whole hand, and scooping out the last morsel will feel a lot like struggling with that last bit of peanut butter — you can never get it all.
We thought Conscious Coconut might be onto something with its travel-sized lotion bottle, but the properties of coconut oil stay the same regardless of what you put it in. It took us over ten minutes of rubbing it in our hands and running it under hot water to get it out of its bottle at all, and then it came out as a liquid. That inconvenience cut it out of testing early. If you can’t use it, you can’t love it — especially not when costs $16.95 for 3.4 ounces.
Out of the jar, Kelapo continued to impress. Testers who use coconut oil for skin and hair care — who were already gushing about its jar shape — particularly appreciated its texture. Kelapo melted completely with minimal hand-rubbing and left no chunks lingering on skin or underneath fingernails. In contrast, Nutrigold’s oil left gritty beads that refused to disappear in even the most determined hands.
One place that other oils fall short is the variety of jar sizes and materials they offer. Take popular brand Nutiva, for instance, which offers seven sizes of virgin oil and two sizes of refined oil as well — but only the virgin oils in glass jars are certified by Fair Trade USA. Their website doesn’t mention why, and we didn’t get a response when we reached out via phone and email to ask. However you plan on using your oil, Kelapo’s got you covered. If you’re like one of our testers, who only uses coconut oil in the shower, you’ll be best served by Kelapo’s 15-ounce plastic jar with a wide mouth. Plan on using the coconut oil as a butter substitute? You might be interested in its pre-measured baking sticks. None of the other oils come in more than three fair trade-certified sizes (the three-variety brand is runner-up Dr. Bronner’s). Take note: The one product Kelapo offers that isn’t fair trade certified is its cooking spray.
What sealed the deal for Kelapo was its transparent practices, from farm to store. Not only does Kelapo have the Fair for Life certification that’s preferred by the Fair World Project, but it’s straightforward about where its coconuts come from. The only other oil that was as transparent was runner-up Dr. Bronner’s, the company that helped set up the world’s first-ever fair trade coconut oil project, Serendipol (to read more about Serendipol, check out this article on the coconut industry from TIME). Interestingly enough, Kelapo now partners with Serendipol for their coconut oil — the workers and farmers behind our favorite oils are part of a time-tested project that keeps their rights and livelihoods at top priority.
Dr. Bronner’s established the world’s first-ever fair trade coconut project, and it’s the only oil besides top-pick Kelapo that’s certified by expert-preferred Fair for Life. Fewer sizing options and a less-convenient standard jar are what kept Dr. Bronner’s from claiming the top spot. But for people who plan on using the oil only in the kitchen only or want to buy in bulk, it’s an alternative to Kelapo we can get behind.
Its branding won us over, with matte, minimalist design elements that hearken back to vintage drugstores. In packaging, we were only disappointed by the size of Dr. Bronner’s we ordered: 14 ounces. Along with Simple Truth’s oil, it came in a tall, skinny glass jar that testers found to be a hassle when compared to wide-mouthed Kelapo. That may not matter if you plan on solely cooking with the oil, since you’ll be scooping with a spoon rather than your fingers. The Dr. Bronner’s 30-ounce jar is similarly tall and thin. If you plan on using the oil for skincare and want to stick with Bronner’s, order in bulk: The 58-ounce plastic tub is the only option with a wide mouth.
Dr. Bronner’s oil itself melts and spreads on skin just as easily as Kelapo, with no leftover chunks or residue. But its strong coconut scent prompted equally strong reactions from testers. They felt they had been transported directly to the center of an Almond Joy, which was heaven for coconut-lovers, but a bit much for others. Most preferred the more subtle nuttiness of Kelapo. One thing to keep in mind, though, is that we ordered Dr. Bronner’s “Whole Kernel” oil, which includes the brown inner skin of the coconut — Dr. Broner’s touts it as the healthiest option, but mentions that it’s especially fragrant. If you’re not a fan of prominent coconut flavor or scent, Dr. Bronner’s offers a “White Kernel” variety that’s available in 14-ounce jars and is advertised as having a “mild aroma.” If you find the Kelapo and the Whole Kernel Dr. Bronner’s too strong in taste and smell, that may just be the perfect fit for you.
Did You Know?
Misinterpreted research may be at the heart of some coconut oil confusion.
Coconut oil is a saturated fat, which is why it stays solid at room temperature. Although it’s widely accepted that unsaturated fats are better for you and your heart than saturated, coconut oil has a unique profile of fatty acids that features medium chain fatty acids, or medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) — which have been proven beneficial in some conditions and amounts.
However, the American Heart Association recently caused a stir by issuing a presidential advisory about dietary fats and recommended “against the use of coconut oil.” So where did we all get the idea that coconut oil is good for us to eat?
We talked to Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, whose work is often cited as the source of some of the confusion. Dr. St-Onge published two papers in 2003 that may be considered the root of some of coconut oil’s health claims. But she says that her research was taken out of context.
“My research is on medium chain fatty acids, not on coconut oil,” Dr. St-Onge told us. She told us that MCTs make up only 14-15% of the fatty acids in coconut oil, and that a small concentration is “unlikely to have the same health effects” of the MCTs used in her research. Overall, Dr. St-Onge told us research on coconut oil is limited, and much of the existing literature out there echoes her concerns. For more insights into Dr. St-Onge’s research and experts’ current thoughts on coconut oil, check out this piece in TIME from April 2017.
So before you use coconut oil, consider serving size and skin type.
Plan on eating your coconut oil? The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 13 grams or less each day. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains over 11 grams, so let the tablespoon be your guide.
And if you want to use coconut oil on your skin? Dermatologist Dr. Fayne Frye doesn’t recommend coconut oil as a moisturizer to her patients, but she did give it a nod as maybe a good moisturizer alternative for “non acne-prone do-it-yourselfers,” since it might act as an “emollient” (it fills the cracks on skin’s surface). The other dermatologist we talked to, Dr. Neal Schultz, creator of BeautyRx by Dr. Schultz, was also wary of full strength oil use and said acne-prone skin may not react well. If acne is an issue for you, you may want to save coconut oil for the kitchen.
The Best Coconut Oil, Summed-Up