MCT oil, or medium chain triglyceride oil, is the newest healthy fat nutrition craze and with it, of course, comes plenty of health and wellness claims praising its nutritional superstardom.
But is MCT oil really worth the hype? Or is it just a pricey gimmick?
What the Heck is an MCT?
Medium chain triglycerides (MCT) are saturated fatty acids found in animal and plant foods. Like the name suggests, these types of fat are of a medium length and contain six to 12 carbon atoms in their structures.
There are four types of MCTs including caproic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, and lauric acid. These types are found in varying amounts of plant and animal foods including coconut oil, palm oil, and dairy products.
Unlike long chain or short chain fatty acids, medium chain fatty acids are metabolized quite differently by the body, and therefore pose some potential advantages to consuming them.
Due to their length, medium chain triglycerides are sent straight to the liver to be metabolized by the body. Other fats (large and small chain fatty acids) need to go through the lengthy process of digestion in the small intestine first.
Within the liver, the calories in MCTs are quickly processed for instant energy, as opposed to being stored as fat by the body. MCTs can also be turned into ketones for the brain to use as fuel, as opposed to glucose.
This alternate energy process is called ketosis and is commonly used as nutritional therapy for neurological issues and, more recently, for weight loss and high performance athletes.
MCT Oil Nutrition
MCT oil is a concentrated form of fatty acids made through a process called fractionation. During this process, medium chain triglycerides are extracted and isolated from coconut or palm oil. The result is a potent source of fatty acids.
MCT oil is usually made from only two types of the medium chain triglycerides. The oil usually contains 100 percent caprylic acid, 100 percent capric acid, or a combination of the two, according to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Typically, lauric acid and caproic acid are not used for MCT oil. Dave Asprey, founder of Bulletproof Coffee notes that biologists "now understand that the cheapest and most common of the MCTs, lauric acid, is actually a pseudo-MCT.”
Calorie-wise, MCT oil is concentrated. According to the Cleveland Wellness Clinic, one tablespoon of MCT oil provides around 115 calories.
MCT Oil for Weight Loss
MCT oil is associated with a whole host of health claims including weight loss, decreased risk of metabolic syndrome, lowered abdominal fat, lowered inflammatory markers, decreased triglyceride levels, and the ability to raise HDL (good) cholesterol.
But – are these MCT oil nutrition claims valid?
A 2014 study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that medium chain triglycerides, compared to long chain triglycerides, promoted the release of hormones associated with fullness and reduced appetite, leading to weight loss.
MCT oil may also promote weight loss by increasing the body’s ability to burn fat. A 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looked at 49 overweight men and women who consumed either olive oil or MCT oil as part of a weight-loss program for 16 weeks. At the end of the study the researchers found that those who consumed MCT oil had lower body weight, lower fat mass, and lower intra-abdominal adipose tissue, as compared to those who consumed olive oil.
A 2003 study found that those consuming a MCT-rich diet had greater fat burning and fat loss, compared to those who followed a diet higher in long chain triglycerides. This may be due to MCT's ability to increase the body’s calorie burning, according to numerous studies.
MCT oil may also be protective against metabolic syndrome, an umbrella term for metabolic disorders like diabetes, hypertension, and abdominal obesity. A 2010 review of medium chain fatty acids showed that MCTs may help prevent the development of metabolic syndrome, most likely due to their anti-inflammatory and metabolizing properties.
Of course, MCT oil (among other things) is not a weight loss magic bullet. A 2015 review in Journal Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that replacing long chain triglycerides with medium chain triglycerides could lead to modest reductions in body weight without negatively affecting total lipid profiles. However, the review notes that further research is recommended.
The Health Benefits of MCT Oil
Adding MCT oil to your morning coffee may help to lower cholesterol. A 2009 study published in the journal Lipids, looked at 40 women who either consumed coconut oil or soybean oil over a 12-week period. The women who consumed coconut oil (filled with MCTs) reduced LDL cholesterol and increased HDL cholesterol, as compared to the women who consumed soybean oil.
Consuming a diet rich in MCTs has been shown to lower insulin levels, and therefore help to manage blood sugar issues and diabetes. A 2007 study published in the journal Metabolism looked at 40 overweight people with type-II diabetes. Researchers found that supplementation of MCT oil improved diabetes risk factors by reducing body weight, waist circumference, and insulin resistance.
MCT oil is used in nutritional therapy for children with epilepsy. Studies show that supplementation of MCTs allows children to consume larger portions and tolerate more calories and carbohydrates than on classic ketogenic (very carbohydrate-restricted) diets.
The evidence for the other potential benefits of MCT oil is limited. Some research suggests that MCTs can improve learning, cognitive abilities, and brain processing in those with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. However, this is only with a particular gene, the APOE4 gene.
For those looking to boost their athletic performance, supplementing with MCT oil may not be worth it. A 2010 study concluded that “MCT feeding is ineffective in improving exercise performance and future work should focus on the health benefits and applications of MCT.”
How Much MCT Oil Should I Take?
The Cleveland Wellness Clinic recommends taking up to two tablespoons of MCT oil. This can be added to a morning bulletproof coffee or matcha, smoothie, or mixed in as salad dressing oil.
The Cleveland Wellness Clinic notes that MCT oil can cause stomach upset, diarrhea, vomiting, gas, nausea, and essential fatty acid deficiency. The clinic recommends taking MCT oil with food to reduce these effects.
More seriously, MCT oil can include ketosis in diabetics, and should be taken with caution. Speak to a doctor or general health care practitioner before taking MCT or any supplement.