“MCTs”, a healthy type of saturated fatty acid, has been linked to several important health benefits — including improved cognitive function and support with weight management. Coconut oil is one great source of MCTs — roughly 62 percent to 65 percent of the fatty acids in coconut oil are MCTs. But recently more concentrated “MCT oil” has also been growing in popularity.
MCTs are believed to be largely missing from the diets of people eating “standard Western” diets, most likely because the public has been led to believe that all forms of saturated fats are potentially harmful. However, recent research has shown a lot of evidence about the real truth regarding saturated fats.
For example, MCTs seem to help reduce the risks of low-fat diets, and they’re supportive of brain health and your gut environment, especially since they have the capability to combat harmful bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
What Is MCT Oil?
“MCTs” are medium-chain triglycerides, a form of saturated fatty acid. They are also sometimes called “MCFAs” for medium-chain fatty acids.
- MCTs get their name because of the length of their chemical structure. All types of fatty acids are made up of strings of connected carbon and hydrogen.
- Fats are categorized by how many carbons they have: short-chain fats (like butyric acid) have fewer than six carbons, medium-chain fats have between six to 12 carbons and long-chain fats (like omega-3s) have between 13–21.
- Compared to longer-chain fats, MCTs are absorbed more easily since there’s less work for the body to do breaking apart carbon bonds. MCTs are smaller, so they can permeate our cell membranes more easily and don’t require that we use special enzymes in order for our bodies to utilize them.
What does MCT oil do to make it a top source of healthy fats? Medium-chain fats are digested easily and sent directly to your liver, where they have a thermogenic effect and the ability to positively alter your metabolism. This is one reason why many people claim that MCTs, including coconut oil, are burned by the body for energy, or “fuel,” instead of being stored as fat.
Traditional populations living in tropical areas have been consuming saturated fats, including sources of MCTs like coconuts, for thousands of years without any ill effects — so consider the idea that a low-fat diet is “healthy” to be one of the biggest nutrition lies there ever was!
6 Health Benefits
1. Can Help with Weight Loss/Maintenance (Including on the Keto Diet)
As part of a healthy diet, there’s some evidence (mostly from animal studies) that MCT oil can help increase satiety and even raise the metabolic rate at which the body functions. Does this mean eating large amounts of MCTs daily will make you drop pounds? Not quite. Not every study has shown a link between MCT oil and weight loss, but some definitely have shown positive effects on metabolic function.
For example, a 2003 study published in the Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders showed that after comparing long-term consumption of MCTs and LCTs on energy expenditure, body composition and fat oxidation in obese women, the MCTs had more significant effects. Substitution of MCTs for LCTs in a targeted energy balance diet proved to offer better prevention of long-term weight gain due to increases in energy expenditure and fat-burning.
Another 2001 study published in the Journal of Nutrition compared body weight and body fat in groups of adults either consuming long-chain fats or medium-chain fats over a 12-week period. The energy, fat, protein and carbohydrate intakes did not differ significantly between the groups, only the types of fats they were receiving. After 12 weeks, the decrease in body weight and body fat was significantly greater in the MCT group than in the LCT group.
How may MCT oil help you lose weight?
Experimental studies demonstrate that dietary MCTs suppress fat deposition through enhanced thermogenesis and fat oxidation in both animals and humans. In other words, it’s believed that they help the body produce ketones, which gives you the same benefits as the keto diet without needing to cut carbs to drastically low levels.
In fact, MCTs are sometimes called “the ultimate keto fats” because of their heating effect in the body and ability to rapidly be used for energy, especially when someone is not eating a lot of carbohydrates, making them perfect for the keto diet to help the body reach ketosis — along with one of the best things to consume on the Paleo diet.
2. Helps Protect Heart Health
What are the benefits of MCT oil when it comes to cardiovascular health? A 2010 study published in the Journal of Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods reported that MCTs can help prevent the development of metabolic syndrome — a term given to a cluster of metabolic disorders, such as abdominal obesity, dyslipidemia, hypertension and impaired fasting glucose levels.
MCTs seem to be able to help decrease cardiovascular disease and mortality risk in general due to helping lower odds of becoming obese. Most likely, they have this positive effect because they are anti-inflammatory, easy to digest, satiating and easily used for energy as described above.
3. May Improve Energy Levels, Mood and Performance
Medium-chain fats are believed to be one of the most easily digested, utilized and protective fatty acids that exists.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neurobiology of Aging found that the MCTs in coconut oil helped improved memory problems, including Alzheimer’s disease in older adults. Another 2018 study found that use of MCTs while following the ketogenic diet helped patients with Alzheimer’s. It only makes sense that a food that supplies fuel for your brain and also helps you absorb vitamins and minerals better will also make you feel more clear-headed, energetic and positive.
Other studies have found that MCTs can help support performance during moderate- and high-intensity exercise.
4. Supports Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
Both MCT oil and coconut oil are beneficial for balancing bacteria in the gut microbiota, which in turn has positive effects on the digestive symptom, energy expenditure, and the ability to absorb vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat.
Medium-chain fats can help kill a wide range of pathogenic viruses, strains and bacteria that cause digestive issues, including candida, constipation, diarrhea, food poisoning, stomachaches and so on.
You also need to consume coconut and other healthy fats in order absorb fat-soluble nutrients found in various foods. These include nutrients like beta-carotene (a precursor of vitamin A found in plants like berries, squash and leafy greens), vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and lutein.
5. Has Antibacterial, Antiviral and Antifungal Properties
MCTs have natural antimicrobial properties and may help balance bacteria in the gut.
Here are some known to be killed by medium-chain fats: streptococcus (which causes strep throat, pneumonia and sinus infections), straphylococcus (which causes food poisoning and urinary tract infections), neisseria (which causes meningitis, gonorrhea and pelvic inflammatory diseases), and some other strains that cause stomach viruses, candida, ulcers and sexually transmitted diseases.
Another great thing about MCTs is that they are capable of reducing “bad bacteria” without harming or removing “good bacteria.” That’s important, considering we need the good kind for intestinal health and digestive functioning.
According to some studies, medium-chain fats offer better protection from infections than longer-chain fatty acids do. A study published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry found that fatty acids and monoglycerides with chain lengths varying from 8–12 carbons were found to be more strongly antiviral and antibacterial when added to milk and formula than long-chain monoglycerides.
Medium-chain lipids added to milk (lipid-enhanced milk) and formula inactivated a number of pathogens, including respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), herpes simplex virus type 1 (HSV-1), haemophilus influenzae and streptococcus.
6. Can Withstand High-Heat Cooking
MCT oils are particularly good for cooking because they have a high “smoke point,” meaning they don’t oxidize from heat easily. This is important, because even certain cooking oils that are “good fats” are not well-suited for high-temperature cooking (like extra virgin olive oil or flaxseed oil, for example) and can become rancid oils somewhat easily.
Both coconut oil and MCT oil can be used for the most part in baked goods, sautés, stir-fries and grilled foods without oxidizing.
There are actually a few different forms of MCTs, some that are likely more effective than others. The four different kinds of MCTs include:
- caprioc (acid C6:0)
- caprylic (acid C8:0)
- capric (acid C10:0)
- lauric (acid C12:0)
Generally speaking, the shorter the chain (meaning the lower the number of carbons the acid has), the faster the body can turn the fatty acids into usable energy, in ketone form. Ketones are what the body produces when it’s using fat for energy instead of glucose, such as when someone is following the keto diet
Regardless of the exact kind of MCT, all are still beneficial for overall health — especially for people who have a difficult time digesting other forms of fats, including anyone with malabsorption problems, digestive disorders like leaky gut syndrome, Crohn’s disease, gallbladder infections and so on.
Product Types and Dosage
MCTs are found in both certain foods, and in concentrated supplement form. Aside from coconut oil, smaller amounts of MCTs can also be found in certain other foods with saturated fats, including butter (especially butter from grass-fed cows), cheeses, palm oil, whole milk and full-fat yogurt.
Where can you buy MCT oil? Look online and in health food stores.
Here’s more about the different types that are available:
- Organic MCT oil — The production of MCT oil as a supplement is not very well regulated, so if you don’t buy a high-quality oil from a reputable brand that you trust, then you may not really know what you’re getting. Be sure to always buy a high-quality, ideally organic oil, that clearly states what the ingredients are and how it was produced.
- Un-emulsified” MCT oil — This type works best in recipes when it’s blended because it helps improve the creamy texture.
- Emulsified MCT oil — This type mixes much more easily at any temperature. Emulsified oil is regarded as the best type to use in coffee if you want a creamy quality and don’t want to blend it first.
- MCT oil powder — These are newer types of products that can be used just like liquid oils. They are advertised as a “mess proof,” convenient way to add MCTs to things like smoothies, coffee, baked goods, etc.
Caution: Palm oil is a controversial source of MCTs, not because it’s bad for your body, but because there are major issues involved in the process of procuring this oil. These include deforestation, loss of wildlife diversity and unethical treatment of workers. That’s why many authorities recommend RSPO-certified palm oil, which comes from producers who prioritize sustainability practices.
A wide range of MCT dosages have been used in studies, from about 5–70 grams daily (or 0.17–2.5 oz) depending on the person’s goals.
Some people are firm believers in taking MCT oil daily just like a supplement, straight from the spoon or mixed into drinks. MCT oil has no taste or smell, so this is an option if you’re really looking to increase your intake quickly. But be careful — a little goes a long way.
Start off with half to one teaspoon daily and work your way up to one tablespoon per day. While consuming MCTs and other fats shouldn’t lead to weight gain, of course portion control is still important. Calories can add up fast if you’re pouring oil onto many meals (and drinks) daily, plus quality is expensive, so you still want to use sparingly.
Potential Side Effects
Most people can tolerate this product well, considering it’s naturally found in some foods. When they do occur, MCT oil side effects are usually minor and may include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and an upset stomach.
To avoid adverse effects start by taking a low dose such as 1 teaspoon, and increasing gradually up to 1–2 tablespoons daily. Taking this product with food can also help to reduce digestive upset and other effects.
Because high consumption of MCTs may impact cardiovascular disease risk factors in people at risk for heart disease, speak to your doctor if this applies to you before a starting an MCT regimen or high-fat diet.
MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil
Coconut oil provides not only MCTs (especially abundant levels of lauric acid), but also antibacterial properties, antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and more. What is the difference between coconut oil and MCT oil?
The main difference between MCT oil and coconut oil is that MCT oil is much more concentrated and contains mostly capric acid and caprylic acid.
Coconut oil is one source of MCTs, but it also contains other types of fatty acids besides MCTs. While coconut oil certainly has MCTs in it, concentrated MCT oil is almost entirely MCTs.
- There are four different kinds of MCTs, which differ depending on the number of carbons there are connected to the fat molecules (this ranges between 6 to 12 carbons long).
- The MCTs in coconut oil are made up of about 50 percent of one kind (lauric acid) but typically contain the other three in varying amounts.
- MCT oil, on the other hand, is produced using fatty acids extracted from coconut and palm oil and is usually comprised of capric acid, caprylic acid or a blend of both.
- Coconut oil is one of the best sources of lauric acid. Although about 90 percent of the fats found in coconut oil are saturated, a high percentage is not the very short chain MCTs that have less carbons (lauric acid has 12).
The fatty acids termed MCTs and lauric acid act somewhat differently in the body, although in the U.S., coconut oil and MCT oil manufacturers are legally allowed to claim that lauric acid is a type of MCT.
Some people claim that lauric acid doesn’t biologically act like other forms of shorter MCTs (or at least as quickly), which is one reason why MCT advocates believe that MCT oil is somewhat superior.
On the other hand, coconut oil does have some well-documented health benefits that concentrated MCT oils might be lacking. The biggest drawback to buying manufactured MCT oil is that you might not really know what you’re getting. In order to produce a liquid MCT oil that does not become solid at colder temps, it might need to be more refined than regular coconut oil.
So while some marketers of MCT oil might claim that their products contain more concentrated and diverse MCTs than real coconut oil does, it might be because they’re chemically altered. It could even have “filler” oils like omega-6 polyunsaturated fats.
Another factor to consider is that most MCT oils on the market are manufactured via chemical/solvent refining, which can mean they require using chemicals like hexane and different enzymes and combustion chemicals.
The bottom line? Enjoy both coconut oil and quality MCT oil for their numerous benefits — just make sure you buy a high-quality MCT oil that clearly states what the ingredients are and how it was produced.
How to Use in Recipes
Perhaps one of the biggest reasons that MCT oil sales have skyrocketed in recent years is due to growing popularity of “The Bullet Proof Diet,” created by Dave Asprey, which is a dietary approach that recommends you receive 50 percent to 70 percent of your energy from healthy fats, especially MCT oil, grass-fed butter and coconut oil.
The plan’s signature breakfast, “bulletproof coffee”, is basically MCT coffee; it’s a mix of coffee, MCT oil and butter and promises decreases in hunger levels, the ability to fast easily, better brain function and mental clarity. Other people call this concoction “keto coffee.”
How can you use MCT oil creatively at home without needing to simply drink “Bulletproof coffee” every morning? Some clever ways to get more MCT oil into your diet include:
- Making homemade mayonnaise in a blender (using creamy MCT oil, an egg yolk, extra virgin olive oil, lime juice and salt)
- Whisking together a salad dressing (using MCT oil, raw honey, Dijon mustard and your favorite herbs)
- Adding some MCT oil to smoothies, shakes or yogurt (which stabilizes your blood sugar since it helps slow down the rate that glucose and fructose sugar molecules are absorbed)
- Using MCT oil in homemade baked goods instead of coconut oil (sub out about 1/3 of the coconut oil for MCT oil instead)
Don’t forget that just like with coconut oil on your body, MCT oil has benefits for your skin and hair, too. It can be used in homemade teeth whitening treatments, moisturizer, lip balm, sunscreen, shaving cream, conditioner, facial masks, salt scrubs and essential oil blends.
- The difference between MCT oil and coconut oil is that MCT oil is more concentrated and contains different proportions of MCTs. While coconut oil certainly has MCTs in it, concentrated MCT oil is almost entirely MCTs.
- What does MCT oil do to your body? Scientifically proven benefits of MCT oil include its ability to help with weight loss or maintenance, heart health protection, improved energy levels and mood, and digestion and nutrient absorption support.
- In addition, MCT oil has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties, and it can withstand high-heat cooking.
- It’s become popular to use MCT oil in coffee when following a high-fat diet, such as the keto diet.
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