Proponents of coconut oil say it is a superfood that benefits hair, skin, teeth, and internal organs. They claim that it curbs hunger, burns fat, zaps pathogens, improves cognitive function in Alzheimer patients, and relieves symptoms of juvenile epilepsy—although various medical groups contest this. Fantastic health claims aside, does it expire like other edible oils?
Coconut oil does go bad. Sources differ on the shelf life of virgin coconut oil versus refined oil. On average, store-bought oil lasts up to two years after production, with proper storage. Its longevity depends on its ‘best by’ date and how it’s processed, stored, and handled after first use.
Read on to discover the intricacies of coconut oil, and what you can do to preserve it, so you can take full advantage of its many beneficial offerings.
The Benefits of Coconut Oil
This oil contains a unique combination of healthy fats called “medium-chain triglycerides” (MCTs). Half of this mixture is lauric acid, an essential fatty acid that boosts immunity. Only human breast milk contains such high levels of this acid.
The other 50% is made up of caproic, caprylic, and capric acids. The body metabolizes MCTs differently than other short and long-chain fats. They go straight to the liver, giving sustenance to the brain and an energy boost for the body.
Many cultures use coconut oil as a medicine for its all-encompassing health benefits. It is also used for skin and hair care, as it is gentle enough for babies, children, and pets. However, coconut oil doesn’t yet have the same scientific evidence to back up its health claims as olive oil, which has European Food Safety Authority approval.
Coconut Oil Formats
These are the coconut oil variants grouped according to how the oil is processed or packaged:
Unrefined Coconut Oil
This category, aka virgin or extra-virgin, is best for those using coconut oil for health benefits. Its purest form is the most nutritious because it’s extracted from fresh, raw coconut meat. It’s considered the gold standard in coconut oils as it has the highest antioxidant levels, providing the most health benefits.
The process used to produce virgin oil is chemical-free, thereby protecting its healthful attributes on extraction and retaining its natural scent and flavor.
Refined Coconut Oil
This oil is made from copra (dried meat) or the kernel of coconuts. Refined coconut oil is processed using different methods.
Coconut meat undergoes a purification or bleaching process to rid the copra of contaminants and produce refined oil. The oil is then deodorized to remove its odor and flavor. Sodium hydroxide is added for longevity. This is why refined oil has a neutral scent and taste, but does not have the same health benefits as virgin oil.
Centrifuged Coconut Oil
One of the purest and most expensive, centrifuge-extracted coconut oil is made from freshly pressed coconut milk. It retains a strong coconut taste and smell but doesn’t need further refining, and the centrifuge process involves spinning to separate the oil from the milk and meat. No heat is involved.
This procedure retains most of the vitamin E, fatty acids, antioxidants, and antibacterial content compared to other extraction processes.
Organic Coconut Oil
This is oil harnessed from coconuts whose trees have been planted and grown naturally without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides and have not been genetically modified.
Coconuts are not considered high risk when it comes to pesticides because of their hard shells, but health practitioners recommend going organic to avoid dangerous substances used during the farming process and questionable post-harvest applications altogether. Look for the USDA-Certified Organic label when buying oil.
Repackaged Coconut Oil
For coconut oil to be more palatable or flexible for multiple uses, it is packaged accordingly. These include pill formats, where the oil is encased in capsules for people who cannot ingest it in its other states, and cooking sprays, where the oil is compressed into aerosol containers or poured into spray bottles for use in cuisine.
Coconut Oil in Cuisine
The smoking point of refined coconut oil at just above 400°F makes it ideal for cooking. Use it for cooking if you’re not a fan of coconut taste and smell on your food.
Virgin coconut oil, when used in cooking, has a coconut aftertaste and smell. With its low smoking point in the range of 350°F, it is better suited for salad dressings or baking.
How Long Does Coconut Oil Last?
Of all the cooking oils available commercially, coconut oil is known to have the longest shelf life. Generally, up to two years—thanks to its high fatty acid content. Other vegetable oils, such as olive oil, last only a year.
Sources vary greatly on the shelf life of coconut oil. Some say refined coconut oil can last up to 18 months after production, while virgin coconut oil can last up to five years. If in doubt, check the ‘best by’ date on the label.
What Does Shelf Life Entail?
This term usually refers to the unopened jar. Once you open it, consider other factors, such as container type, storage method, kitchen temperature, and contamination (how much air/pathogens got into the container, exposure to light, etc.)
Coconut oil shelf life depends on the ‘best by’ date, the method used to process the oil, how it’s stored, and how it’s handled after opening. Most containers of coconut oil in the US have expiration dates. Regardless, monitor oil for changes in appearance, taste, and smell.
Fluctuations in indoor air temperature can change the state of the oil from solid to liquid and cause chemical reactions in the oil that make it go bad faster.
Homemade coconut oil, just like other homemade food, will not keep fresh for long. So use it up quickly and make a fresh batch when needed. Don’t expect it to last as long as store-bought coconut oil. To extend the shelf life of coconut oil, practice proper handling and storage.
Can You Refrigerate or Freeze Coconut Oil?
Generally, coconut oil does not require refrigeration for normal use and can be stored with other pantry products. If you have an opened container of oil that you can’t consume within two months, however, or you want your oil chilled, or need it solid for baking, it’s better to refrigerate it.
When stored at room temperature, coconut oil retains its liquid consistency. When kept in the refrigerator, it solidifies, making it more difficult to scoop out. To make scooping easier, place the cold jar in a bowl of warm water or near a warm air source until the oil liquefies. Or take the container out of the fridge and wait for the oil to reach room temperature.
Partially melted oil will have clumps in it. These are the crystalline structures of the saturated fats near the melting point. This is normal and part of its natural characteristics. When the oil goes above the melting point, it will turn into liquid completely. Whether solid or liquid, the quality is retained.
You can freeze coconut oil, but place it in a freezer-safe container first. Refrigerating or freezing it will prolong its shelf life.
What Is the Correct Way to Store Coconut Oil?
Oil stored carelessly can go bad faster. Proper storage of coconut oil is important if you want to prevent it from spoiling.
Here are some of the ways to prevent it from spoiling:
- Keep it at room temperature in a sealed, airtight container to prevent oxygen from breaking it down.
- Avoid storing it under direct sunlight. Exposure to light, heat, and air can make oil rancid quicker. Store the container in a cool, dark place like the pantry, but keep it away from heat sources, like stoves.
- For storage, use glass to avoid the risk of bleaching. If you prefer plastic, use the BPA-free and food-safe variant to avoid harmful compounds getting into the oil.
- Use clean utensils when taking the oil out of its container. Avoid double-dipping. Don’t use your fingers. Contamination from used utensils can cause mold to form on the oil. Always reseal the container tightly after use.
- Use different containers, depending on how the oil is used to prevent cross-contamination. For example, use dark, opaque glass bottles for beauty and health purposes and separate jars for cooking oil.
- When buying oil in bulk, don’t attempt to store more than five pounds of it in its current state. Instead, melt it in a large pot then pour it into smaller containers. Store what you currently need at room temperature, then refrigerate the rest for later use.
- The practice of turning juice into popsicles, the same can be done with coconut oil. Pour the liquid into ice cube trays or rubber molds then freeze them. Pop a cube or a few into drinks or soups as needed.
Can You Use Coconut Oil on Wood?
Some people recommend applying it on wooden butcher blocks or cutting boards to make them last longer. Heed this with caution, as there have been reports of boards treated with coconut oil beginning to smell after some time.
Others also disagree with this advice because they are wary of decomposing oil on implements used in food preparation. This is a matter of opinion, however. The oil is used for wood preservation, not for cleaning or as a cooking aid.
A food chemist and woodworker has confirmed that saturated fat (coconut oil) does not go rancid as easily as unsaturated fat. So it’s okay to use on chopping boards. If it goes rancid, just wash it off with soap before food prep, then reapply the oil for protection afterward.
Since not all coconut oils are considered food-safe, one solution to the debate is Caron and Doucet’s Cutting Board Oil, a food-safe, coconut-based oil with antibacterial lemon oil essence. The manufacturer claims it doesn’t go rancid, as their solvent-free process removes the oil’s long-chain fatty acids.
Some furniture enthusiasts experimented with coconut oil to protect their wooden furniture and enhance its color and grain. They believe that coconut oil can penetrate deep into even the hardest of wood due to its tiny molecules.
However, experts claim that oils that slowly polymerize (change their physical composition)—such as walnut or sunflower—are the best choice for a natural oil finish.
When Coconut Oil Turns Into a Liquid, Has It Gone Bad?
Coconut oil remains solid up to 74°F, after which it becomes a liquid. It has a low melting point, about 75 to 76°F. Once heated, it turns into a liquid, but this doesn’t mean it’s rancid. You can store it in both states: liquid and solid. The consistency change in melted coconut oil is normal.
How Would You Know if Coconut Oil Has Gone Bad?
To know if the oil has gone bad, check its smell, taste, and appearance (includes clarity, consistency, and color).
Fresh virgin coconut oil has a subtle, sweet coconut scent, while its refined equivalent has a neutral scent. Either has gone rancid when it develops a strong sour smell. According to the Essential Apothecary Alchemist, the best description of rancid oil smell is the scent of a melting crayon.
Rancid oils (not limited to coconut) have an intense metallic or bitter smell, which is evident despite the infusion of fragrance or essential oils in some products. Fresh, refined coconut oil has a neutral flavor, while virgin coconut oil has a natural coconut flavor. When coconut oil tastes sour, it is most likely stale.
Fresh coconut oil is transparent and crystal clear when it melts. In between phases, it is naturally cloudy. When it solidifies, it turns milky white. When this smooth, translucent white consistency turns yellow and becomes chunky or lumpy, like curdled milk, it is most likely spoiled.
Look out for weird floating substances in the oil or specks that have settled at the bottom of the container. Dark brown or green spots—or small patches on the oil (or in and around the container)—may mean bacteria is multiplying or mold is developing.
Some people just remove the offensive bits, but one can’t be sure of the extent of the mold/bacteria contamination. To be safe, discard the remaining oil.
Should You Use Rancid Coconut Oil on the Skin?
According to the Essential Apothecary Alchemist, rancid oils (not just coconut) are toxic and are considered a big health risk. When rancid oils are consumed or applied to the skin, there is a greater likelihood of cells being damaged by the free radicals they produce. The medical community considers rancid oils to be toxic and can cause inflammation, and possibly, cancer.
Is Coconut Oil Comedogenic?
An investigative article published in Popsugar claims that coconut oil, despite its anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, and moisturizing properties, is comedogenic (meaning, it can clog pores). And it doesn’t have to be rancid to be so. When applied to the skin, coconut oil can make acne worse in those susceptible to allergies and skin ailments. It is, therefore, not recommended for people with sensitive or oily skin.
Comedogenicity ratings refer to the classification of oils and emollients based on the degree to which they’re likely to clog pores. Comedogenic substances have a greater likelihood of producing or aggravating blackheads and/or acne.
The rating scale goes from zero to five. Substances with a rating of zero won’t clog pores, while those with a rating of five have a greater tendency to clog pores. Lists differ, but coconut oil is regularly listed as a level four, or moderately comedogenic—sometimes higher.
Negative Effects of Spoiled Coconut Oil
Ingesting rancid coconut oil has health risks for both humans and animals, although there aren’t enough studies on the side effects of spoiled matter in general. Some studies claim that expired oil produces harmful free radicals that can destroy cells, cause organ damage, and contribute to the development of cancer. Rancid oil won’t make you sick right away, but its adverse effects will manifest in the long term.
Separate studies on rancid plant-based oils similar to coconut have shown that these have adverse health effects. Sesame oil, despite its protective properties, has been shown to turn toxic when it goes bad. Rancid sunflower and safflower oils also become hazardous to cells and may be carcinogenic.
This is why we should always practice food safety and never use rancid coconut oil for consumption. It has other uses, though, so don’t discard it yet.
Uses for Rancid Coconut Oil
Preparedness Advice writer Noah Baudie and his readers posted these alternative uses for cooking oil gone bad, including coconut oil:
- To remove grease, pine sap, or unwanted paint from clothes, hands, hair, and vehicle chassis. It’s more natural than using a solvent.
- Most oils mixed with borax can be used as a poison against vermin.
- Oil on stale bread can be used as bait for pest traps.
- As a lubricant—effective in silencing squeaky hinges. It’s also handy for oiling and preserving tools and machinery, such as chainsaws and sewing machines.
- It acts as protection against rust, especially on vehicles, firearms, and equipment or furniture made of metal.
- To make or light oil lamps.
- It’s an amazing furniture polisher and conditioner. Make a 50-50 mixture of oil and vinegar to revive furniture that has seen better days.
- To soften, restore suppleness, preserve, and protect the leather.
- It protects rattan and wicker furniture from cracking. Warm the oil before applying it with a soft cloth on furniture.
- To make lye soap. Some disagree with this because they believe that the rancid smell persists after the soap is made. But this can be remedied with an additional step in the process. Consult books or watch videos on basic soap-making for instructions.
- To store gardening tools, such as trowels, in a mixture of oil and sand, to keep them rust-free.
- For blade sharpening (knives, swords, scissors) and drilling metal.
- As a bicycle chain oil.
- To make diesel.
Once limited to existing in tropical countries, the lowly coconut has expanded its global reach, thanks to improvements in travel and technology. The spread of news of the impressive health and culinary rewards of its byproducts, especially its oil, has added to its international demand.
Now that you know how to care for coconut oil and how to store it properly, you can prolong its life and enjoy the awesome benefits.