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The Science Behind MCT Oil: The Ultimate Energy Source

If you’ve been doing the ketogenic diet or are just health conscious you’ve likely heard of MCT oil.

MCT is not just a buzzword. It’s one of the best, most bioavailable forms of energy. MCTs are an ideal source of fat that create energy (in the form of ketones) almost instantly for your body, and also generate a strong thermogenic effect.

Best of all, this is done without the concern of it being stored as unwanted body fat.

So what are MCTs and what makes MCT oil so good for you?

Here’s a clickable menu that will help you navigate through everything you need to know about these magic fats:

What Is MCT Oil?
Before we get into all the benefits of MCT oil, let’s break it down what they are.

MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides. You may also see them called MCFAs (medium-chain fatty acids). They’re “medium” because they only have 6-10 carbon atoms.

MCTs are a form of saturated fatty acids and consist of four different types based on their carbon length. MCTs are the ideal source of energy because they don’t rely on other enzymes for absorption in your body.

The oil is made from pure MCTs extracted from whole foods, specifically coconut and palm oil. It’s not coconut oil, but a byproduct of it.

Let’s take a closer look at each medium-chain fatty acid.

The Different Types of MCTs

MCTs are known for being quickly absorbed by your body and metabolized into energy in the liver. They’re the most efficient saturated fats in terms of energy production.

They create ketones, an energy molecule. Ketones are an amazing source of energy for your body in comparison to glucose because they produce far less molecules that react with other molecules when they are metabolized[*].

There are the four MCTs found in food:

  1.  Caproic  Acid
  2. Caprylic Acid
  3. Capric Acid
  4. Lauric Acid

#1 Caproic Acid (C6)

If you’re wondering why your MCT oil tastes a bit off or creates a tingle in our throat, it most likely has too much caproic acid (C6) in it.

While it doesn’t taste the greatest, there’s usually not enough of it in coconut oil or MCT oil to taste it. It converts quickly to ketones. C6 makes up about 1% of the total MCTs in coconut oil.

#2 Caprylic Acid (C8)

Caprylic acid makes up 12% of the MCTs in of coconut oil.

This type of MCT helps you maintain a healthy gut thanks to its strong anti-microbial properties. This is the most efficient fatty acid after C6 because it converts rapidly into ketones in your liver.

That’s why it’s the main fatty acid in MCT oil, as we’ll see later on.

#3 Capric Acid (C10)

Like C8, C10 turns into ketones quickly in the liver. It’s a little bit slower than C8 during the ATP process, and makes up 10% of MCTs in coconut oil.

#4 Lauric Acid (C12)

Lauric acid makes up 77% of MCTs in coconut oil. Like its fellow MCTs, lauric acid has antimicrobial properties (kills microorganisms or stops their growth). However, unlike the last two mentioned, lauric acid has a slower metabolization process.

Some people debate the fact that lauric acid should even be considered a MCT due to it’s larger size and longer time to metabolize. Lauric acid is the most inefficient of all the MCTs because it can’t be turned into energy as quickly as the others. Because of this, you won’t find it in a high-quality MCT oil.

The shorter the carbon chain, the more efficiently the MCT will be turned into ketones. Fatty acids with longer carbon atoms are metabolized much slower.

MCTs vs. Long-Chain Fatty Acids

Aside from medium-chain triglycerides, there are also long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) or long chain fatty-acids, which have 13 carbons or more. LCTs require much more work by the body to process than MCTs because of their size.

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.

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.

After they’re broken down and absorbed, they are delivered to the lymphatic system and then transported to the liver, where they will 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 where they are used immediately by the mitochondria and oxidized for energy.

Here’s how LCTs compare to MCTs:

MCT Oil

Interestingly, MCTs are not the smallest of the carbon sizes.

MCTs vs. Short-Chain Fatty Acids vs. MCTs

Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) are fatty acids with fewer than 6 carbon atoms. SCFAs are created by the bacteria in your gut. The friendly bacteria in your microbiome produce these fatty acids and help provide your colon and its cell lining with energy and nutrition[*].

About 95 percent of SCFAs are:

  • Acetate (C2)
  • Propionate (C3)
  • Butyrate (C4)

While propionate is used to produce glucose in the liver, acetate and butyrate are both incorporated into other fatty acids.

As you can see, MCT only incorporates medium-chain triglycerides because they’re the best at energy product in comparison to long-chain fatty acids. MCT oil is often confused with coconut oil, but they’re not the same.

Coconut Oil vs. MCT Oil

The main difference between MCT oil and coconut oil is their MCT content.

Coconut oil is 55% MCTs, while MCT oil is made 100% of MCTs.

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.

MCT oil is actually a byproduct of coconut oil. You could think of MCT oil as the fast lane to getting the most efficient fats from coconut oil.

Here’s how both compare:

MCT Oil

Coconut oil and MCT oil have different benefits.

If you’re looking to stay healthy and simply add more MTCs to your diet, coconut oil is enough.

However, if you’re looking to gain all the advantages of pure MCTs and fuel your body with ketones, MCT oil is the best choice.

See how coconut oil makes MCT oil possible:

How MCT Oil Is Made

MCT oil is a man-made oil blend that combines two of the best MCTs: caprylic and capric acids.

Scientists distill these two fatty acids because they’re the most absorbable and turn into energy quickly in comparison to the other MCTs.

Natural foods don’t have high enough levels of these fats, and when they’re present, they’re usually combined with less efficient fats like lauric acid. This prevents your body from metabolizing MCT fats for energy quickly.

Even though it’s man-made, the fats in MCT oil are completely natural. The MCTs are taken from fatty foods rich in MCTs, mainly coconut oil and palm kernel oil.

This is how it works:

Step 1. Sourcing high-quality coconut oil.

Step 2. Fractionation. This is where caprylic (C8) and capric (C10) acid are extracted and separated from the rest of fats.

Step 3. Lipase Esterification. This is a chemical process that produces triglycerides, with the help of an enzyme called lipase.

Step 4. Filtration to remove lipase.

Step 5. Deacidification.

Step 6. Bleaching and Deodorizing.

Step 7. Packing.

Step 8. Quality analysis.

Step 9. Finished MCT Product

Depending on the brand, the ratio of C8:C10 may vary.

The Ratio of Fatty Acids

Most MCT oils are a blend of C8 and C10, although they could also be 100% either caprylic acid or capric acid.

This is how most MCT oils are divided:

  • 50-80% caprylic acid (C8).
  • 20-50% capric acid (C10).

Caprylic acid tends to be the majority because it’s more efficient than C10. Lauric acid and caproic acid are entirely removed.

MCT Oil

Main Characteristics

A high-quality MCT oil will have some distinct features:

  • Tasteless: MCT oil doesn’t have a taste or smell because it’s removed during the “bleaching and deodorizing” phase.
  • Liquid at room temperature: The final product has a lower smoking point than coconut oil, so it will be liquid at room temperature.
  • Highly absorbable: A quality MCT oil will quickly turn into energy. Generic MCT oils could be blended with lauric acid or other fats to cut costs, making your supplementation ineffective, so always know what you’re buying by reading labels.
  • Highly soluble: The small size of the carbon molecules in MCT oil increases its solubility in water and biological fluids like blood.

Why MCT Oil Is The Ultimate Energy Source

When your body uses ketones as its main source of fuel instead of glucose (from carbs), it can enter and remain in a state of ketosis.

MCT oil is powerful because it helps make ketones readily available for your body to use, making ketosis easy to achieve and maintain.

Unlike almost all other foods, the two MCTs used in MCT oil are swiftly absorbed and metabolized as energy in your body, making them the perfect fuel.

Because they’re efficiently burned, saturated fats and MCT oil in particular, have two positive effects on weight:

  • Lower propensity to be stored as body fat. MCTs are rapidly metabolized and used for energy.
  • Higher calorie burn. MCTs have a thermogenic effect (burning calories to create heat). This fat-burning process results in a metabolism boost.

There are 4 reasons why MCT oil can be burned as fuel so effectively:

  1. MCTs reach your liver quickly. They don’t have to go through peripheral tissues first, like LCTs do.
  2. MCTs don’t have to be broken down into smaller molecules. Unlike long-chain fats, the body can absorb MCTs more efficiently due to the size of their carbon bonds.
  3. MCTs cross the double membrane of the mitochondria quickly (the energy “factory” of the cell).
  4. MCTs don’t need the presence of an enzyme called carnitine to be converted to energy, like LCTs do.

In conclusion, MCTs can be quickly converted into ketones because they need less steps to be metabolized in your cells. MCT oil provides the most effective MCTs that turn into energy faster.

The Benefits of MCTs

There are numerous benefits of MCTs — ranging from weight management and gut health to mental and physical advantages.

More of these benefits include:

  1. Maintain healthy weight loss
  2. Support a healthy gut
  3. Improve cognitive health
  4. Improve heart health
  5. Prevent risk of diabetes
  6. Increase exercise performance

1) MCTs and Weight Loss

Fats have always been known to help you stay fuller, longer.

However, more studies have been popping up showing that MCTs not only help you maintain satiety, but raise the metabolic rate at which your body functions — leading to greater weight loss and health outcomes[*][*][*].

Specifically, The Journal of Nutrition published a double blind placebo study demonstrating the difference between one group of subjects consuming MCTs and the other group of subjects consuming LCTs (long-chain triglycerides) for their fat intake. The rest of their nutritional intake was the same, the only difference being the type of fat they consumed[*].

Over the course of a 12-week period, there was about an eight and a half pound difference in overall body fat lost, and a loss in body weight, as well. This difference could be due to the fact that MCT’s suppress fat deposition through enhanced thermogenesis and fat oxidation — which helps the body produce ketones[*].

A double-blind study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that MCTs suppressed the accumulation of body fat in healthy men and women[*].

Another study found that for both obese and lean individuals, meals with MCTs increased thermogenesis after eating.[*]

MCTs also have fewer calories than LCTs, with 8.3 calories per gram vs 9.2 calories per gram.

Despite these promising findings, the effects of MCTs on weight loss remain moderate. A meta-analysis of 13 studies found that compared to LCTs, MCTs did decrease body weight, waist circumference, hip circumference, total body fat, total subcutaneous fat, and visceral fat – but the changes were modest.[*]

In conclusion, MCTs can aid healthy weight-loss because they make you feel fuller for longer, don’t get store as fat, have lower calories, and boost your metabolism through their thermogenic effect, but the overall change is moderate.

2) MCTs and Gut Health

MCTs are natural antibiotics and are capable of killing certain types of harmful bacteria without decreasing or removing “good” bacteria. This leads to a better gut environment overall which improves the defense against harmful bacteria, fungi and other parasites.

Harmful bacteria such as streptococcus, staphylococcus, neisseria and other bacteria known to cause viruses have been killed by MCTs. Your  gut affects everything from energy expenditure to your ability to absorb vitamins and minerals from the foods you eat, so it’s important to keep it balanced and healthy[*].

Fats are also important because they help your body absorb key vitamins and minerals. When you consume a diet consisting of whole foods, but don’t get enough healthy fats, your body isn’t capable of absorbing and using those nutrients.

In conclusion, MCTs help keep a healthy balance of gut flora and improve the absorbability of nutrients.

3) MCTs and Cognitive Health

As recent studies have shown, the connection of brain and gut health is more apparent than ever.

As the majority of our brains consist of fatty acids, it’s no wonder we get more energy and think more clearly when we provide our bodies with MCT oil and other healthy fats.

Ketones are able to pass through the blood-brain barrier and serve as fuel for the central nervous system, which means MCTs directly support brain health.

The journal Front Aging in Neuroscience recently published a study showing that subjects with memory impairment showed improvement in memory after supplementing with MCTs that produced higher ketone levels in the blood[*].

Additionally, MCTs have been shown to have a strong blood sugar stabilizing effect that may help reduce inflammation and improve brain function[*].

4) MCTs and Heart Disease

In addition to MCTs providing natural antibiotics for immune and gut health, studies have shown the potential for MCTs to aid in the prevention and treatment of diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a study showing that the consumption of MCTs for 8 weeks resulted in a significant decrease (-14.54%) in blood triglyceride levels — a common marker of cardiovascular disease — in hypertriglyceridemic patients compared to consumption of LCT oil[*].

Another study published in the Journal of Nutrition supports the above findings showing that consumption of MCTs in overweight men lead to improvements in overalllipid profiles — specifically showing increases in LDL particle size (the big “fluffy” LDLs that are associated with decreased cardiovascular risk) [*].

Furthermore, a study from the journal of Metabolism concluded that overweight women consuming MCTs improved their overall cardiovascular risk profile [*]. However, in this study the MCTs were combined with phytosterols and omega-3 fatty acids so it is hard to conclude if the results were solely due to the MCTs themselves or the combination of these oils.

In conclusion, MCTs might be able to help in the prevention of heart disease by keeping blood triglycerides stable and modestly reducing LDL (harmful) cholesterol.

5) MCTs and Diabetes

Studies have shown that MCTs play a possible role in the prevention and treatment of diabetes. Specifically, the journal of Diabetes and the journal of Metabolism published studies showing that MCT consumption improved insulin sensitivity — a key factor in diabetes prevention and management– in both diabetic patients and nondiabetic subjects[*][*].

However, more research is still needed to establish a clear link between MCTs and insulin function.

A more recent study published in 2012 in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that MCT consumption actually induced insulin resistance in humans[*].

MCTs are also a promising supplement for people who already suffer from Type 1 diabetes. A small study found that ingesting MCTs prevented the decline in cognitive performance during hypoglycemia in people with Type 1 diabetes. The effect was the most positive in verbal memory. [*]

6) MCTs and Exercise

Over the years, MCTs have become a staple in the diets of both recreational and elite athletes. This is no surprise due to the fact that MCTs have a high energy density, are rapidly absorbed in the body and can quickly convert into clean and sustainable energy.

Research is continuously emerging in this area but one fairly recent study published in the Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology showed that recreational athletes significantly reduced blood lactate levels and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) during moderate-intensity exercise while also extending the duration of high-intensity exercise when consuming MCTs [*].

Another study from the Journal of Applied Physiology found that endurance-trained cyclists who consumed MCTs during moderate-intensity exercise for two hours had significant improvements in time-trial performance during subsequent high-intensity exercise[*].

The research in this area is still in its initial stages, but with more and more athletes making the conversion to low-carbohydrate, high-fat diets, there is no question that the scientific evidence will follow and the benefits for all different types of exercise will become more clear.

The Nutrition of MCTs and Where to Find Them

MCT oil or MCT oil powder is perfect in your morning coffee, salads or added into protein shakes. Just one tablespoon contains about 100 calories and 14 grams of fat.

The amount and types of MCTs present in whole foods are highly variable. Generally, coconut oil, coconut-derived products, and palm oil have higher concentrations of lauric acid than capric or caprylic acid, while dairy products have relatively low concentrations of lauric acid and more capric and caprylic acid.

Let’s take a closer look at food sources of MCTs:

MCTs in Foods

Most whole foods have a combination of the 4 types of MCTs in varying degrees. The richest sources are coconut, palm oil, and dairy products.

Below is the total amount of MCTs (C6,C8,C10,C12)  present in fatty foods:

MCT Oil

Source: USDA Food Composition Databases

  • Coconut oil (55%)
  • Palm 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%)

(* all dairy is best from grass-fed cows)

Coconut oil is made of 55% MCTs and palm oil is made of 53% MCTs, but most of these are lauric acid:

  • Coconut oil
    • 76% lauric acid (C12)
    • 1% caproic acid (C6)
    • 12% caprylic acid (C8)
    • 10% capric acid (C10)
  • Palm oil:
    • 86% lauric acid (C12)
    • 1% caproic acid (C6)
    • 7% caprylic acid (C8)
    • 6% capric acid (C10)

As you can see, lauric acid is responsible for the majority of MCTs in coconut and palm oil, and unfortunately it’s the least efficient fatty acid. That’s why only caprylic and capric are extracted when making MCT oil.

For now, let’s just focus on the two most efficient MCTs: C8 and C10. If we removed lauric acid and caproic acid from the equation, this is how the percentages change:

MCT Oil

If we count only the two MCTs present in MCT oil (C8 & C10), coconut oil would be 14% MCTs and palm oil 7% MCTs — a drastic difference, right? This is how much there is in each food:

  • Coconut oil (13%)
  • Coconut meat (8%)
  • Palm oil (7%)
  • Coconut cream (4%)
  • Butter (4%)
  • Goat cheese (4%)
  • Coconut milk (3%)
  • Feta cheese (3%)
  • Gouda cheese (1%)
  • Heavy cream (1%)
  • Cream cheese  (1%)
  • Cheddar cheese (1%)
  • Gruyere cheese (1%)
  • Swiss cheese (1%)
  • Parmesan cheese (1%)
  • Romano cheese (1%)
  • Dry milk (1%)
  • Mozzarella cheese (1%)
  • White cheese (1%)
  • Plain yogurt (0.3%)

As you can see, the content of the effective fatty acids C8 and C10 is relatively low in whole foods.

That’s one of the advantages of supplementing with MCT oil – 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.

To consume the same amount of C8 and C10 you find in one teaspoon of MCT oil, you’d have to eat several tablespoons of coconut oil.

How to Use MCT Oil

When you’re ready to take MCT oil, start here:

Dosage & Safety

If you’re new to MCT oil, start off with small amounts. Begin with one teaspoon a day and slowly increase your intake to get your body accustomed to the MCTs.

Once your body begins to adjust to the metabolization process, then you can increase to a tablespoon a day or however much you prefer. A little goes a long way and due to it’s lack of taste or smell, it can be added to almost anything.

Safety

MCT oil is generally safe and doesn’t have adverse effects.

Research hasn’t yet found a lethal dose for MCT oil, even when they have fed rats a dose equivalent to 1.7 cups of MCT oil for a 70 kg person[*].

Side Effects

Some people report having diarrhea when starting to consume MCT oil, so it’s important you begin with a small dose and test how your body responds to it.

You can also try MCT oil powder instead, because it’s easier on the stomach. MCT oil shouldn’t affect your digestion or have any side effects, but if you have a sensitive stomach it’s important to be cautious.

Shelf Life

MCT oil can last up to 2 years in a dry, cool place.

Supplementing

You can use MCT oil or MCT oil powder as a supplement by adding it to your regular meals and drinks:

  • Coffee and other warm drinks: MCT oil is great to take before you need your brain to be working at it’s ultimate level. Adding it into your bulletproof coffee in the morning not only guarantees your intake of healthy fats, but provides the ultimate energy for your body and brain to start the day. Try it in the Perfect Keto Frappucino.
  • Smoothies: Add 1 tbsp of MCT oil to your daily smoothie for a boost of healthy fats. Try the Low-Carb Acai Almond Butter Smoothie.
  • Pre-workout and post-workout shakes: Don’t feel like you have to restrict your MCTs to the mornings — MCTs provide an amazing source of energy for workouts, especially high intensity training. Supplementing your pre or post-workout meal with a tablespoon of MCT oil is guaranteed to improve both training intensity and recovery.  MCT oil as a pre-workout supplement can be great for individuals just starting the keto diet who usually increase their carb intake around their workout times for sufficient energy.

Cooking

Wondering if you can use MCT oil for cooking? You can, as long as you’re cooking at a low temperature or making raw snacks.

Because it has a low smoking point, MCT oil should not be heated to temperatures above 150-160°C. High temperatures will oxidize and breakdown the oil. The smoking point of MCT oil is similar to the one of extra-virgin olive oil (165-190°C), so treat it the same when cooking.

This means it can’t be used for deep frying, but here’s how it can be used instead:

  • Replace olive oil with MCT when making pesto.
  • Use it in salads. Unlike coconut oil, MCT oil is liquid at room temperature and has no taste. This makes it perfect to add as a dressing in salads.
  • Add it to dips.
  • Use it in marinades and sauces.
  • Drizzle it over zucchini pasta.
  • Mix it with cacao powder to make a quick chocolate sauce that you can drizzle over snacks and berries.

MCT Oil vs MCT Powder

Did you know you could consume MCT oil in powder form? MCT oil powder is more practical and even less detectable than MCTs in oil form.

Why Choose MCT Oil Powder?

MCT oil in powder form:

  • Is easier on the digestive system.
  • Raises ketone levels more effectively.
  • Is easier to mix in baking recipes because of the dry texture.
  • Leaves no oily residue.
  • Travels easier through those airport security checks!
  • Can be easily packed when going camping or on road trips.

The Perfect Keto MCT Oil Powder is ideal for individuals looking for a powder form of MCT oil.

Looking for ways to incorporate MCT oil powder in your diet?

Try Anti-Inflammatory MCT Fat Bombs. They’re  a great snack to grab on-the-go with a prep time of less than five minutes. If you’re looking for something to satisfy that sweet tooth, these Mocha Fat Bombs are another option that are sweet and satiating for the chocolate lover in all of us.

Whether it’s in oil form or powder form, the benefits of MCT oil make it the ultimate addition to any meal or time of day. Start improving all aspects of your health by adding MCT oil to your daily regimen today.



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