MCT oil is a supplement that contains medium chain triglycerides. There are four main types of MCTs: Caproic Acid (C6), Caprylic Acid (C8), Capric Acid (C10), and Lauric Acid (C12). Pure MCT oil is produced from caprylic and capric acid found in coconut oil while the diluted or cheaper version of MCT oil tends to have more lauric acid. The majority of the MCT oil benefits are credited to the caprylic and capric acid medium chain triglycerides, as they are more easily absorbed by the liver for energy than lauric acid.
Unlike their long-chain counterparts, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) do not require bile enzymes to break them down before being used by the liver. They’re also directly absorbed from your digestive tract into the portal vein and converted into ATP.
Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is a chemical compound and a neurotransmitter primarily involved in energy production and RNA synthesis. It can store and transport energy within cells. ATP also plays an essential role in regulating cellular homeostasis .
MCTs are rapidly metabolized and used as fuel for cellular energy rather than to be stored as fats.
Out of the four main types of medium chain triglycerides, most high-grade manufacturers extract their MCT oil from either 100% capric acid, 100% caprylic acid, or a combination of both. The main reason is that C8 and C10 are easily absorbed and converted into ATP for cellular energy than the other two types (Caproic and Lauric acid).
Another reason is that Capric and Caprylic acid are more in the medium side of the triglyceride chains than Caproic which is close to a short chain and lauric is close to long chain triglycerides.
Manufacturers who tend to use C12 (lauric acid) in combination with C8 & C10) do so because it’s cheaper for them and because lauric acid happens to fall in the list of MCTs anyway. Lauric acid has many other proven health benefits, and it’s widely used in the pharmaceutical industry for its antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
However, only about 70% of it is thought to be absorbed through the portal vein which means adding lauric acid dilutes the quality of the pure MCT oil obtained from capric and caprylic acids.
The fact that coconut oil contains 50% or more of lauric acid, 10% capric acid, and about 7% caprylic acid would mean that C8 & C10 are more scarce than lauric acid. Thus why cheaper MCT oils tend to contain lauric acid, and pure MCT oils are quite expensive because of the scarcity of the two main medium triglycerides used in them.
A lot of the health benefits of MCTs and MCT oil are usually credited to capric and/or caprylic acid.
The liver rapidly absorbs MCTs for energy, or they can also be converted into ketones and help maintain ketosis for those practicing the ketogenic diet.
Since MCT oil is either rapidly absorbed and converted into energy or turned into ketones, it also means that those practicing the intermittent fasting can consume MCT oil in their morning coffee or shakes without having to worry about interrupting the fasting mechanism. MCT oil may help you feel fuller and give an instant energy boost to go about your day until your next meal.
As discussed above, medium chain triglycerides are rapidly absorbed and converted into ATP, and this would mean that the consumption of good quality MCT oil can be used as an instant source of energy especially for those who practice intermittent fasting.
For example, a 2018 study found that MCT improves exercise performance impairment caused by high temperatures. It does this by up-regulating the protein levels of genes involved in mitochondrial biogenesis and metabolism. They also concluded that MCT food supplement has the potential to treat muscle dysfunction and exercise impairments .
In another 2009 study, recreational athletes were divided into two groups to compare the energy efficiency of MCT vs. LCT. One group consumed 6g of MCT combined with moderate intensity exercise and high-intensity exercise. The other group consumed LCTs combined with the same exercises. The results were analyzed at two weeks. They found out that the athletes in the MCT group showed improved time during high-intensity exercise than the long chain triglyceride (LCT) group .
Two randomized, crossover studies were conducted to test the effectiveness of MCTs and LCTs on appetite and food intake in overweight men. The participants were divided into two groups: one group consumed 20g of MCT for breakfast and the other group consumed 20g of corn oil (LCT) for breakfast. They found out that MCT consumption reduced food intake and suppressed appetite .
Another 2017 study tested the effectiveness of MCT oil vs. coconut oil on satiety. In this study, the participants fasted overnight and had a test breakfast smoothie with 205 kcal of either MCT oil, coconut oil, or vegetable oil (control) on three separate days .
They found out that MCT oil showed a significant decrease in food intake compared to coconut and control oil. The control oil increased food intake compared to MCT and coconut oil. MCT oil also increased satiety for over 3 hours after breakfast compared to the other two oils. The results from this study also provide evidence to the fact that pure MCT oil and coconut oil are not the same.
Even a reasonably old study from 1998 supports the theory that MCT reduces food intake by increasing the feeling of fullness for longer .
A 2008 study compared the effectiveness of MCT oil and olive oil for weight loss. Forty-nine men and women (aged 19-50) were divided into two groups. One group consumed 18-24g of MCT oil per day and the other group consumed the same amount of olive oil as part of a weight loss program for 16 weeks. They found out that consumption of MCT oil had a significant reduction in overall body weight than olive oil [9, 10]. The same study also concluded that MCT oil did not lead to adverse effects on metabolic profile compared to olive oil.
A 2007 study tested the weight loss claim of MCT oil on 40 Chinese participants with type 2 diabetes. They were divided into two groups. One group was given MCT, and the other group was given corn oil (LCT) daily for 90 days. They found that the group that consumed MCT had significant overall weight reduction and decreased serum cholesterol concentration than the LCT group .
A 2009 study found that MCT improves cognitive function in type 1 diabetic patients. In this study, 11 participants with type 1 diabetes received either MCTs or placebo drinks during two separate sessions and performed cognitive tests.
Hyperglycemia, a condition where the blood sugar is abnormally high has been known to cause cognitive impairment in verbal memory test, digital symbol coding test, digital span backwards test, and map searching test. This study found that consumption of MCT reversed these adverse effects and improved overall cognitive performance .
Another recent study conducted in 2015 showed that MCT improved cognitive function in participants with mild cognitive impairment (MCI). The 6 participants were randomized to receive either 56g of MCTs or placebo per day for 24 weeks. They found out that MCT oil increased serum ketones and improved memory while the placebo did not show any improvements .
A 2018 study tested the effectiveness of MCT on candida in preterm infants. Twelve preterm infants with Candida colonization who were fed infant formula or breastmilk were divided were randomized to receive MCT supplementation or no supplement. The study was carried out for three weeks, but the infants in the supplement group received MCT for one week. The results from this study showed that infants in the MCT group had a significant reduction in fungal burden during the treatment week compared to the placebo group .
It’s a well-known fact that the ketogenic diet was invented to treat epilepsy in children and has been proven to be successful in many cases. It has even been shown to be useful for drug-resistant epileptic cases. A research paper from 2013 states that for MCT oil with ketogenic diet may be more useful for some children with epilepsy than the standard keto diet and the modified Atkins diet .
In a 2009 study, 145 children with intractable epilepsy were randomized into two groups. One group received the classical, and one group received the MCT ketogenic diet. The study found out that both groups proved to be effective for the treatment of childhood epilepsy .
Another 2013 research paper reported the case of a 43-year-old man with drug-resistant nonsurgical partial epilepsy. After being given MCT oil daily, he went from having multiple daily seizures to one seizure every four days. It’s also important to note that he was given a high dose of 4 tbsp of MCT twice a day to see this improvement. As a result of high doses of MCT, he developed significant diarrhea and flatulence as side effects .
A more recent study conducted in 2018 found that MCT reduces blood cholesterol and body weight in streptozotocin-induced type 2 diabetic [T2DM] rats. Thirty-two rats with T2DM were divided into four groups: low-fat soybean oil (LS), low-fat MCT oil (LM), high-fat soybean oil (HS) and high-fat MCT oil (HM).
Results analyzed after eight weeks found that high-fat diet with MCT oil lowered LDL cholesterol, liver fat, and increased HDL cholesterol which is known as good cholesterol. The study concluded that MCT showed a reduced risk of cardiovascular diseases by improving the lipid profiles and lowering total liver fat .
Another 2018 conducted on 36 mice also supports the claim that medium chain triglycerides can reduce low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL). In this study, the mice were randomly divided into three groups. One group was fed a cholesterol-rich diet (CR), one had a cholesterol-rich diet with MCT (CR-MCT), and one group had cholesterol-rich long-chain triglyceride (CR-LCT).
The results measured after 16 weeks of treatment showed that the mice in the CR-MCT group had overall weight reduction, lower serum cholesterol, reduced LDL cholesterol, and increased HDL (good) cholesterol than the CR-LCT group .
As you can see from the studies discussed above, the consumption of MCT oil can help reduce LDL cholesterol and increase HDL cholesterol in diabetic individuals.
In a 2018 study, patients with mild-moderate Alzheimer's were given 30g of two different MCT supplements daily for a month. The study found out that both types of MCT supplements doubled brain ketone consumption and increased total brain energy metabolism without affecting brain glucose utilization .
In a 2004 study, 20 subjects with Alzheimer's or mild cognitive impairment were given a drink with MCTs or placebo on separate days. The study found that those who consumed MCT had a significant increase in ketone levels and had improvement in paragraph recall compared to the placebo group .
A 2017 study conducted on mice found that the MCT fed group showed an increase in liver fat accumulation. However, they also concluded that high dosage may be harmful in the long run .
MCT oil may have high osmolality which is associated with a higher risk of osmotic diarrhea .
Other known potential side effects can include:
MCT oil is a medium chain triglyceride supplement produced from the extraction of MCTs found in coconut oil or palm kernel oil. Pure MCT oil is produced from either caprylic acid or capric acid MCTs or a combination of both. It’s usually more expensive due to the scarcity of caprylic and capric acids.
The cheaper version of MCT oil contains the above two potent MCTs in small amounts and lauric acid, another major MCT in large quantity. Thus it’s often said that lauric acid cheapens the quality of pure MCTs.
Coconut oil contains lauric acid in abundance which may make you think you might as well consume coconut oil to obtain the benefits of MCTs rather than buying the MCT oil. You can, but it is less likely to yield the same results as pure MCT oil.
The reason is that one tbsp of coconut oil is said to contain only 2 grams of MCTs whereas 1 tbsp of MCT oil contains 16 grams. This means you’d have to consume 8-10 tbsps of coconut oil to get the same amount of MCTs you’d obtain from pure MCT oil and attempting to do so may end up yielding more adverse effects. Another thing to keep in mind is that coconut oil has more lauric acid than the other two potent MCTs which means your body would still have to process a lot of lauric acids the usual way.
If you want to experience MCT oil benefits such as improved cognitive function, energy, and performance, we strongly recommend going with the pure MCT oils that contain only caprylic acid or capric acid or both. It will be a little bit more expensive but worth it to experience the full benefits of MCTs.
That said, please keep potential side effects in mind and consult with your physician especially if you happen to suffer from significant health conditions, pregnant or breastfeeding. It’s also recommended to start with a low dose of 1-2 teaspoons per day for a week or two and then move on to the maximum dose of 1-2 tablespoons per day. Avoid taking more than 2 tbsp a day to reduce the chance of potential side effects.