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What is MCT Oil? (Medium Chain Triglycerides)

MCT Oil is an oil that is comprised of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These medium-chain fatty acids have a aliphatic tail ranging from 6 to 12 carbon atoms. Any chains of fatty acids with 6 or less carbon atoms are referred to as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). Any chains of fatty acids longer than 12 carbon atoms are referred to as long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs).

Medium chain triglycerides are a healthy medium between the short-chains and the long-chains. While the longer the chained triglycerides can still be useful, they aren’t processed nearly as efficiently as medium chain fatty acids.  Medium chain fatty acids are processed by the portal vein and quickly converted to ATP for cellular energy.  Additionally they won’t get stored as fat because your body efficiently uses up the energy.

For this reason, medium chain triglyceride supplementation has become relatively popular in recent years.  While MCTs aren’t packed with vitamins, they can provide you with an energy boost, decrease food cravings, and ramp up your metabolism.  There are many health-based MCT oil benefits such as improvement in cognitive function, eliminating Candida (yeast infections), and reducing epileptic seizures. Furthermore, some speculate that science is just scratching the surface regarding the therapeutic potential of MCT oils.

What is MCT Oil?

As was mentioned, MCTs or medium-chain triglycerides are fatty acids comprised of 6 to 12 carbon atoms. MCT oil is not naturally occurring, rather it is extracted from various sources (most commonly coconut and palm kernel oils) to be sold as a dietary supplement. This extraction process (called “fractionation”) involves separating specific medium-chain fatty acids from the rest of the oil.

MCT oil supplements are man-made fats in that they are extracted from a source. Coconut oil and palm kernel oil are most commonly used for extraction simply due to the fact that they are the most cost-effective way of obtaining MCTs.  Coconut and palm kernel oils are processed in a laboratory and the MCTs are separated from other length triglycerides (e.g. LCTs).

Some companies utilize catalysts and/or solvents during the extraction process, while others use steam distillation to avoid oxidation and impurities. Most high-grade MCT manufacturers extract only the “capra” fatty acids (e.g. C8 and C10). However, some are fine with extracting all four and/or the three longest of the MCTs (C8, C10, and C12) in varying percentages due to the fact that some people may want the cheaper C12 (lauric acid).

MCT Oil: Mechanism of Action

Medium-chain triglycerides are passively diffused from the gastrointestinal tract to the portal vein. They don’t take long to “break down” like longer chain fatty acids and aren’t thought to require bile salts for digestion. This is why they are commonly administered to individuals that are malnourished or are coping with malabsorption syndromes in which the small intestine becomes unable to absorb nutrients from the foods that a person eats.

While MCTs don’t provide vitamins and nutrients, they are rapidly metabolized and a great source of energy. Additionally they won’t get stored as body fat like long-chain fatty acids and may even increase fat oxidation (the burning of fat for fuel). This is why many people report feeling less hungry and having significantly more energy upon supplementation of MCTs.

4 Common Types of MCTs

Each of the different fatty acid carbon atom lengths is thought to elicit slightly different physiological effects based on the length of the carbon atom chain. Each of the four common types of MCT oils have been assigned specific names for identification purposes. C6, C8, and C10 have been named from the root word “capra” which translates to “goat” due to the fact that goat’s milk is a source of MCTs. Some have argued that C6, C8, and C10 may fit the definition of medium-chain triglycerides better than C12.

C6 (Caproic Acid)

This is perhaps the least popular medium-chain triglycerides – a Google search reveals only 395,000 results. C6 is seldom used in MCT oil formulations due to the fact that it tends to have a strong taste, can create burning sensations in your throat/gut upon consumption, and is most likely to result in gastrointestinal distress.

Since C6 is the shortest of the medium-chained fatty acids, it is the quickest to convert into ketone bodies. Thus you’ll probably get a quicker, less sustained boost of energy from this particular MCT. That said, most manufacturers use a distillation process to eliminate the C6 from their product so that there’s no sketchy taste or other MCT oil side effects like stomach aches.

C8 (Caprylic Acid)

If you were to search Google for caprylic acid, you’d see that it is the third most popular MCT of the four with 551,000 results. Caprylic acid is known for its antimicrobial properties and is thought to be significantly more potent than lauric acid in this respect.

Additionally C8 is processed by the portal vein, meaning it doesn’t need to get broken down by the liver and quickly converts to ATP (cellular energy). Sometimes called “ocatonic acid,” C8 elicits the most potent antimicrobial effects of any MCT. It has been known to restore health of the gut flora, particularly in cases of Candida and other fungal infections.

C10 (Capric Acid)

On the totem of MCTs, C10 (capric acid) is the second shortest and isn’t as abundant in coconut oil as longer chained C12 (lauric acid). It is estimated that approximately 10% of MCTs from coconut oil are C10, making it more costly to obtain than C12. While coconut oil contains slightly more C10 than C8, most high quality MCT formulas consist of both C8 and C10.

Capric acid is easily absorbed by the portal vein and converted into ATP energy. Of all MCTs, a Google search reveals that C10 is the second most common (with 579,000 results). Some MCTs use a combination of C12 and C10 with smaller amounts of C8 as a way to cheapen the product.

Capric acid is also sometimes used in the process of creating perfumes, food additives, and pharmaceuticals. When taken as an MCT, it isn’t metabolized as quickly as C8, but may provide slightly more sustained energy due to its longer chain.

C12 (Lauric Acid)

This is the most popularized of the four manufactured medium chain triglycerides. If you search Google for “lauric acid” you’ll see over 625,000 results – significantly more than the other forms of MCTs. Lauric acid is most commonly derived from coconut oil, accounting for over half of the MCTs in coconut oil.

Lauric acid is useful in that it functions as an antimicrobial agent and is present in coconut oil – which is why it is the most popular MCT. Other uses for lauric acid include: preservation of food and other nutraceutical supplements. Most people are able to obtain sufficient lauric acid directly from coconut oil consumption.

It is up for debate as to whether lauric acid cheapens vs. enhances the quality of MCT oils. Many coconut oil proponents suggest that MCT oils don’t include lauric acid in their product because it is “rare” and more costly to include. Others suggest that lauric acid cheapens the MCT product and may behave more similarly to a LCFA due to its 12-chained length.

Manufacturers of MCT oils advocate using 100% C8, 100% C10, or a combination of C8 and C10 because they are most rapidly metabolized for energy. C13 is considered a long chain fatty acid, and since C12 is close, it may not be metabolized as efficiently via the portal vein like C8 and C10. Some experts have argued that C12 lauric acid is referred to as an MCT purely for the sake of convenience.

Upon investigation, longer chained fatty acids require carnitine for cellular transportation, but MCTs are passively diffused. Over 70% of lauric acid is thought to be absorbed through the portal vein. In comparison to other MCTs, this percentage is not as significant and therefore may be a less efficient way to obtain energy (or less valuable MCT).

  • Source: http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/46/5/862.1.full.pdf
  • Source: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11746-014-2562-7

MCTs in Coconut Oil

If we looked at the MCTs in coconut oil, we would see that lauric acid (C12) is the most abundant, making up approximately 50%. Next would be capric acid (C10) making up approximately 10%, and next caprylic acid (C8) making up approximately 7%. Clearly C8 and C10 are more scarce, and thus it takes a greater supply of coconut oil to manufacture C8 and C10 as MCTs.

This is why some experts claim that C12 in MCT oil cheapens the product – because it is significantly more abundant and easy to obtain. Coconut oil also contains LCTs such as stearic acid (C18), oleic acid (C18:1), and linoleic acid (C18:2). These LCTs aren’t considered very rare due to the fact that they can be obtained by other foods.

Why not eat foods with MCTs?

Some people consider eating foods an inefficient way to obtain MCTs. While foods that provide MCTs generally are packed with other beneficial nutrients, it requires significantly more of the particular food source (e.g. coconut oil) to provide you with the same amount of MCTs in specifically formulated MCT oil. Some estimate that it could take over 10 tablespoons of high grade coconut oil to get the same amount of MCTs as you would from a purified MCT oil.

Not only can eating a lot of coconut oil make you feel sick, it may be a more costly way to obtain MCTs. Despite the fact that you may be getting other helpful nutrients if you obtain your MCTs from a source like coconut oil, you may not experience the same degree of mental or physical energy due to the fact that they contain all four MCTs, including lauric acid (C12) – which may act more as a long-chain fatty acid compared to the other three.

List of foods with MCTs…

  • Coconut oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Milk
  • Cheeses
  • Butter
  • Yogurt

Note: The two most common sources of MCTs are coconut oil and palm kernel oil. If you purchase an MCT oil, most will say that the MCTs were extracted from 100% coconut oil or a mix of coconut and palm kernel oil.

Coconut Oil vs. MCT Oil

Many people believe they are able to attain sufficient MCTs from coconut oil. While you will get MCTs from coconut oil, you’re getting significantly less compared to taking the same amount of MCT oil. Additionally, the cost per gram of MCTs from MCT oil will be considerably cheaper than the cost per gram of MCTs from coconut oil.

  • 1 tbsp MCT Oil = 16 grams MCTs
  • 1 tbsp Coconut Oil = 2 grams MCTs

On average, you’re getting significantly less MCTs per tablespoon of coconut oil than you would per tablespoon of MCT oil. In fact, it would take you approximately 8 tablespoons of coconut oil to match the MCTs that you’re getting from 1 tablespoon of MCT oil. Additionally you may not be getting very efficient MCTs from the coconut oil (due to the fact that 50% will be C12 lauric acid).

The cost per gram of MCTs from MCT oil is generally much less expensive than the cost per gram of MCTs derived from coconut oil. While coconut oil has its own array of health benefits, from a strict standpoint of getting valuable MCTs, using coconut oil remains an inefficient strategy.

Should you take MCT Oil?

Not everyone can handle supplementing MCT oil in their diet, which is fine because MCT oil certainly isn’t a necessity. However, it should be understood that MCT oil is capable of providing a quick, efficient source of energy for the body and brain. MCT oil will not take long to metabolize (particularly C8/C10 formulations) and work great if you’re looking for an energy boost.

That said, not everyone will experience noticeable benefit from taking them and certain people with medical conditions or those who are pregnant should avoid taking them. Since MCTs are relatively cheap (even from quality sources), and there is increasing evidence that they have potential to increase energy, health, and may even promote weight loss – they are something that you may want to try as a dietary supplement at low doses (e.g. 1 tsp to 2 tbsp per day).

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{ 1 comment… add one }
  • monica October 21, 2016, 1:09 am

    Thank you for this article! Have been reading a lot about MCT Oil, but most tend to get a bit too scientific; makes me wonder if they know what they’re saying. You, on the other hand, really do! Thanks again!

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