What are Medium-Chain Triglycerides?
Medium-chain triglycerides (or MCTs for short) are made up of medium-chain fatty acids. The “medium” refers to the length of their chemical structure: all fats are made up of strings of carbon and hydrogen. Short-chain fats (e.g. butyric acid) have fewer than 6 carbons. Long-chain fats (for example, the long-chain polyunsaturated fats EPA and DHA) have 13 to 21. Medium-chain fats are in the middle, with 6 to 12. There are three separate fatty acids classified as medium-chain triglycerides:
- Caproic acid (also called hexanoic acid or C6:0)
- Caprylic acid (also called octanoic acid or C8:0)
- Capric acid (also called decanoic acid or C10:0)
Those names are really just in case you want to do some more research on your own; you’ll see them referred to in all three ways.
What are the Benefits of MCTs?
MCTs are very easy for the body to break down and use as energy. Think of long-chain fats as being like a whole piece of fruit and MCTs as being like a smoothie. If you eat the whole fruit, you have to put in a lot of effort chewing, but the smoothie you can just slurp right up almost without noticing. In your digestive system, MCTs are a little bit like that smoothie.
Because they’re so easy to absorb, MCTs are used therapeutically for people with malabsorption problems, like Crohn’s Disease. They’re also great for anyone missing a gallbladder.
You might think from this that MCTs would promote weight gain (after all, if they’re so easy to absorb, and they’re used as a treatment for malnutrition, they’ve got to be a great weight gainer food, right?) but in fact, this isn’t true. MCTs don’t cause instant weight gain, and in fact they may even be a benefit for weight loss. This study, for example, found that, over a 12-week period, subjects who got MCT oil lost about 2 pounds more than controls.
Other studies aren’t quite so optimistic though, and overall the evidence for weight loss is mixed. This review goes over the potential for MCTs to aid weight loss by increasing satiety and raising the metabolic rate. The studies so far are promising – but here’s the catch: the effect is pretty small. The authors of the paper use kilojoules to measure energy instead of calories, but when you convert the units, you'll see that few of the studies showed a benefit relevant to the real world. For example, one study found that 5 grams of MCT oil did indeed raise the metabolic rate of healthy men…by 11 calories a day. And that’s just not such an amazing benefit: you could burn more calories than that by walking for 5 minutes, or jumping rope slowly for 2 minutes.
That’s a bit of a let-down, but don’t give up yet: the hormonal and metabolic benefits might be more impressive. This review covers the potential uses of MCTs for treating diabetes, hypertension, and the other elements of the metabolic syndrome: in various trials, MCTs have shown a lot of promise compared to other fats.
MCTs are also the ultimate ketogenic fat: in fact, they’re so powerful that adding MCTs to your diet can increase the number of carbs you can eat while staying in ketosis.
The bottom line: MCTs won’t necessarily help you burn a crazy amount of extra calories every day, but they may be beneficial to weight loss because they help in restoring normal metabolic function. And if you’re aiming for ketosis for any reason, MCTs will be your very best friend.
Whole Foods vs. MCT Oil
So far, it’s pretty clear that the MCTs themselves are something you want to get in on. But what’s the best source?
You can get MCTs from whole foods: here’s a list of MCTs in foods, as a percentage of total fats (source):
- Coconut oil: 15%
- Palm kernel oil: 7.9%
- Cheese (if you tolerate dairy): 7.3%
- Butter: 6.8%
- Milk: 6.9%
- Yogurt: 6.6%
But you can also get MCTs from specially concentrated MCT oil, which is much more concentrated (it’s almost entirely MCTs). Which form is best for you really depends on your priorities; here’s a breakdown of the two:
|Coconut Oil||MCT Oil|
|Total MCTs, per tablespoon||Around 2 grams||Around 15 grams|
|Cost per gram of MCTs||$0.45-0.60 (depending on brand)||$0.02-$0.03 (depending on brand)|
|Anything else?||Yes – antimicrobial and other beneficial properties||No – it’s just the MCTs|
Clearly, if you’re looking for the maximum MCT contents, the MCT oil is the way to go. Doses in studies tend to vary from 5 to 50 grams – you could get the lower end of that from coconut oil used as part of regular cooking, but if you want closer to 50 grams, you’re going to need a supplement. You can take the supplement straight from the spoon, or put it into whatever you like; MCT oil has no taste or smell, so you can more easily blend it into smoothies (or yes, into your coffee).
On the other hand, coconut oil (and other food sources of MCTs) also has benefits above and beyond its MCT content. For example, the same grass-fed butter and dairy products that give you MCTs can also provide conjugated linoleic acid for a double whammy of weight-loss fats.
Ultimately, it comes down to whatever works for you. For general good health, cooking with coconut oil (or palm oil, or grass-fed dairy products) is probably completely adequate. But if you’re on the hunt for a weight-loss aid, you might need to get special MCT oil for the full effect.
MCTs aren’t a miracle weight-loss pill (nothing is a miracle weight-loss pill, unfortunately). But there’s some evidence that they’re mildly anti-obesogenic, and may help with weight loss. And if you’re really interested in MCTs specifically, adding MCT oil to your daily routine is one way to try a self-experiment and see whether or not they help you.
On the other hand, whole food sources of MCTs also have extra benefits (like other healthy fats) that pure MCT oil can’t provide. And some people just feel better getting their nutrition from whole foods, rather than relying on a lot of supplements. There’s no one right answer here; it’s all about what works for you – and now you have the information to choose wisely!