Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are one of the most bioavailable sources of energy. In other words, your body can digest and absorb MCTs better than the vast majority of foods, even for people with gastrointestinal disorders[*].
MCT oil refers to fatty acids extracted from coconut oil (the most common source) or palm kernel oil.
They’re best-known for being quickly absorbed by your body and metabolized into energy in the liver, where they elevate ketone production.
MCTs are considered the most efficient dietary fats in terms of energy production because, unlike other fats, they absorb directly through the portal vein in your GI tract, without needing to be broken down by pancreatic enzymes[*].
The 4 Different Types of MCTs
There are 4 different types of naturally-occurring medium-chain triglycerides found in food.
As the name suggests, MCTs are classified according to the length of their carbon chain.
The length of individual MCTs and their concentration in foods is what determines their effects.
#1: Caproic Acid (C6)
Caproic acid (also called C6, because its carbon backbone is 6 atoms long) is the shortest MCT molecule and also the rarest in foods.
This type of fatty acid makes less than 1% of MCTs in natural virgin coconut oil and is also the quickest to be converted into ketones[*].
#2: Caprylic Acid (C8)
Caprylic acid (or C8, as it’s called due to its 8-carbon-long chain structure) accounts for just under 12%% of the MCTs in natural virgin coconut oil[*].
Compared to pure coconut oil, C8 is nearly 4 times more effective at raising your body’s ketone production[*].
This is the most efficient fatty acid after caproic acid because it efficiently and rapidly converts into ketones in your liver.
That’s the reason why caprylic acid is the main fatty acid present in MCT oil supplements.
#3: Capric Acid (C10)
Capric acid (C10) has a carbon chain structure that’s 10 atoms long.
It’s a little slower and less efficient than pure caprylic acid as far as ketone production[*].
C10 makes up around 9% of the MCTs in natural virgin coconut oil, and many high-quality MCT oil supplements contain capric acid[*].
#4: Lauric Acid (C12)
Lauric acid (C12) is the longest MCT, with a carbon chain 12 atoms in length. (Longer fatty acids over 12 carbons–omega-3s in fish oil, for instance–are referred to as long-chain triglycerides, LCTs for short.)
This fatty acid makes up 70% of all MCTs in natural virgin coconut oil[*]. But compared to C6, C8, and C10, lauric acid has a slower metabolization process.
Lauric acid still has health benefits, but it’s relatively ineffective at raising your ketone levels. As a result, many high-quality MCT supplements do not contain any C12.
- Supports healthy weight loss: Medium-chain triglycerides encourage your body to use fat as fuel, which is the key to healthy weight loss[*]. In one study, a group receiving MCTs instead of long-chain triglycerides lost nearly twice as much body fat[*].
- Supports cognitive health: Your brain uses more energy than any other organ in your body, and MCTs are a highly efficient form of brain fuel[*]. Numerous studies show cognitive benefits, particularly for older people[*][*]. However, MCTs may promote brain health at every age thanks to the beneficial effects of ketosis[*].
- Supports ketosis: Because they are rapidly metabolized by your liver, MCTs raise your ketone levels quickly and reduce the time it takes to achieve a state of ketosis[*]. A related benefit: MCT oil can reduce symptoms of keto flu[*].
- Increases exercise performance: Energy is vital for physical activity, and studies suggest MCTs can increase exercise performance, especially during endurance training, by fueling your muscles and increasing the number of mitochondria (powerhouses of the cell)[*].
- May help manage diabetes: Early evidence suggests MCT supplements are well-tolerated in people with type 2 diabetes, and may increase insulin sensitivity and pancreatic beta cell function[*][*]. Other research suggests that in patients with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) due to type 1 diabetes, MCT oil can help preserve brain function[*].
- May help prevent heart disease: A 2019 study found that MCT oil decreased insulin sensitivity in healthy people, which could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease[*].
- May support gut health: According to a 2016 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nutrients, “MCT-enriched diets could…be used to manage metabolic diseases through modification of gut microbiota,” or in other words, MCTs may improve “metabolic health via their capacity to improve both intestinal ecosystem and permeability”[*].
- Helps prevent cravings and keeps you satisfied: All healthy fats can potentially suppress your appetite during fat loss, but MCTs appear to go the extra mile. A 2019 study found that compared to long-chain fatty acids, medium-chain triglycerides reduced calorie intake at subsequent meals and increased satiety (feelings of fullness) more[*].
MCTs are often compared with other types of fatty acids. Here’s a closer look to help you compare and understand the superior benefits of MCT oil in a keto lifestyle.
MCTs vs. Long-Chain Fatty Acids
Aside from medium-chain triglycerides, there are also long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) or long-chain fatty acids. LCTs require much more work by the body to be processed for energy than MCTs because of their size and structure.
There are 17 recognized LCTs, including: myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid, arachidonic acid, oleic acid, eicosenoic acid, erucic acid, nervonic acid, omega 3, omega 6, omega 9 fatty acids[*].
Due to their high carbon content, they’re not easily absorbed by the body and require pancreatic enzymes to break them down.
After being broken down and absorbed, they’re delivered to the lymphatic system and then transported to the liver, where they’ll finally become oxidized and available for energy.
On the other hand, MCTs don’t need to be broken down at all. MCTs are transported directly to the liver by the portal vein, where they’re used immediately by the mitochondria and turned into energy.
MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil
The main difference between MCT oil and coconut oil is their MCT content.
Coconut oil is 55-60% MCTs, while MCT oil is made of 100% MCTs.
The remaining fats in coconut oil are long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) In coconut oil, the main LCTs are:
- Stearic acid (C18)
- Oleic acid (C18:1)
- Linoleic acid (18:2)
While MCTs get to the liver in no time, LCTs require a bit more work. Due to their carbon size, they are not easily absorbed by the body and require pancreatic enzymes to break them down.
Furthermore, coconut oil contains all 4 medium-chain fatty acids, including large quantities of lauric acid, the least efficient MCT. MCT oil only uses the two most efficient MCTs for energy: caprylic and capric acid.
On the other hand, as we’ve discussed, MCTs don’t need to be broken down at all prior to being used for energy.
If you’re looking to stay healthy and simply add more MCTs to your diet, coconut oil is enough. However, if you want to gain all the advantages of pure medium-chain triglycerides and fuel your body with ketones, MCT oil is the best choice.
The amount and types of MCTs present in normal whole foods are highly variable.
Generally speaking, coconut oil, coconut-derived products, and palm kernel oil have higher concentrations of lauric acid than capric or caprylic acid, while dairy products such as butter have far lower concentrations of lauric acid and relatively more capric and caprylic acid[*][*].
MCTs in Other Foods
Most whole foods have a combination of all four types of MCTs in varying degrees.
Below is the total amount of MCTs present in fatty foods:
Source: USDA Food Data Central Database
- Coconut oil (55%)
- Palm kernel oil (53%)
- Coconut meat (37%)
- Coconut cream (20%)
- Coconut milk (14%)
- Butter* (8%)
- Goat cheese (6%)
- Feta cheese* (4%)
- Gouda cheese* (3%)
- Heavy cream* (3%)
- Cream cheese * (3%)
- Gruyere cheese* (3%)
- Cheddar cheese* (3%)
- Parmesan cheese* (3%)
- Swiss cheese* (3%)
- Romano cheese* (2%)
- Mozzarella cheese* (2%)
- White cheese* (2%)
- Dry milk* (2%)
- Plain yogurt* (0.3%)
(* dairy is best from grass-fed cows)
While both coconut oil and palm oil contain high levels of MCTs, the main fatty acid present in both is lauric acid, the slowest to be metabolized and converted into ketogenic energy.
One of the main advantages of supplementing with MCT oil is that you get a high concentrated dose of MCTs that convert quickly to ketones, without having to eat big quantities of any particular food to get the same benefits.
Here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re considering adding MCT oil to your diet.
Research studies show that a wide range of MCT dosages are effective.
People in clinical trials sometimes take up to 56 grams per day, or over 25% of calories from MCTs[*].
If you’re new to MCT oil, you may want to start off slowly, especially if you have a sensitive stomach. . Begin with a teaspoon per dose, once or more each day, and increase your intake over a period of 1-2 weeks to get your body accustomed.
Once your body acclimates to MCTs, you can then increase to a tablespoon several times per day.
Strategies for Supplementing MCTs
Try adding MCT oil or powder to your regular meals and drinks:
- Coffee and other warm drinks: MCT oil is a perfect choice whenever you need your brain to fuinction optimally level. Adding MCTs to your coffee in the morning not only guarantees you start your day with intake of healthy fats, but it also provides plenty of energy for your mind and body. Try it in the Perfect Keto Frappuccino.
- Smoothies: Add 1 tbsp or more of MCT oil to your daily energy smoothie for a boost of healthy fats. Try it in a low-carb acai almond butter smoothie.
- Pre-workout and post-workout shakes: You don’t have to restrict your MCTs to the mornings — they also provide an amazing source of energy for workouts, especially high-intensity training on the keto diet. Supplementing your pre- or post-workout meal with a tablespoon of MCT oil may support both training intensity and recovery. Additionally, MCT oil as a pre-workout supplement can be great for those just starting their keto diet who usually increase their carb intake around their workout times for sufficient energy.
Cooking with Medium-Chain Triglycerides
You may be wondering if you can use MCT oil for cooking. You can, as long as you’re cooking at a relatively low temperature or making raw snacks.
Because it has a low smoking point, MCT oil should not be heated to temperatures above 300-320° F (about 150-160° C).
High temperatures will oxidize (damage) and break down the oil, which is not what you want to happen–from a flavor or a health perspective!
In other words, MCTs can’t be used for deep frying, but here’s how to use them instead:
- Bake at low temps
- Replace olive oil with MCT oil when making pesto.
- Use it in salads. Unlike coconut oil, MCT oil is a liquid at room temperature and has a mild, pleasant taste. This makes it perfect to add to salad dressings.
- Add it to dips.
- Use it in marinades and sauces.
- Mix it with cacao powder and non-bitter stevia to make a quick and easy chocolate sauce that you can drizzle over snacks and berries.
MCT supplements come in two forms: oil and powder.
The biggest difference? The powdered supplement is more portable and convenient than MCTs in oil form.
Why Choose MCT Oil Powder?
Here are additional reasons why MCT oil is a good idea in powder form:
- Some people find it easier on the digestive system.
- It’s easier to mix into baking recipes because of its dry texture.
- No mess or oily residue (perfect for the kitchenette at work, road trips, and camping)
MCT Oil Side Effects
MCT oil is generally safe and doesn’t have any documented serious adverse effects, even at dosages up to 1 gram per kilogram of bodyweight[*].
Some studies report diarrhea or other digestive problems when people start to consume MCT oil, which is why you should begin with a small dose and observe how your body responds to it.
But don’t worry about diarrhea too much. Sometimes doctors and dietitians actually prescribe MCT supplements to help with diarrhea or fat malabsorption[*][*. The key is figuring out the right dosage for your needs.
You can also reap the benefits of MCT oil by using the powder form, which may be easier on the digestive system.
Who Should Avoid MCT Oil and Why?
So far, scientists and researchers haven’t identified any situation where MCT oil is harmful to individuals who take it.
But if you’ve got a medical condition or take prescription medication, speak to your doctor before adding medium-chain triglycerides to your regimen, just to be on the safe side.
MCT oil could potentially affect medical treatment or interact with certain drugs, particularly for the following conditions:
- Metabolic syndrome
- Diabetes (all types)
- Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia or cognitive decline
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Bariatric surgery
- Psychiatric diagnoses
Again, MCT supplements are highly unlikely to be harmful, and may even help. But the best approach is to let your doctor know ahead of time in case there’s an interaction, such as making your medications work differently.
Are medium-chain triglycerides the ultimate keto supplement?
It sounds like a bold claim, but we think it’s true. No other supplement is proven to boost fat-burning, speed ketosis, reduce keto flu symptoms, and provide readily-available energy to your brain and body.
MCTs are also cost-effective, versatile, portable, and good for you.
Whether it’s in oil form or powder form, the many benefits of MCT oil make it the ultimate addition to any meal or snack, any time of day, no matter who you are.