Touted as a potential key to appetite control, immune function, and digestion, MCT oil has gained massive popularity since it sprung on the scene during the keto diet rage. With a new influx of research, we can now evaluate some significant claims and myths surrounding this fatty acid. Should you try it?
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MCT oil was brought to the forefront when Dave Asprey, an American entrepreneur and author, gave “Bulletproof coffee” the popular bullseye. Years ago, hiking in Tibet, he found himself consistently exhausted until a local energized him with a creamy cup of yak butter tea.
Fast forward to much research, Bulletproof Coffee was created in its likeness with MCT oil to help provide immediate energy to give a steady source of energy throughout the day. Those following the ketogenic diet are likely familiar with MCT oil. With its rapid gain in popularity comes a jump in research — here’s what you need to know!
Claims and myths: What does the science say?
Claim #1: MCTs provide steady energy and mental clarity
As people age, brain glucose metabolism deteriorates. Since ketones can serve as an alternative fuel to glucose in brain tissues, a small subset of studies have shown that MCTs may raise plasma ketone levels, which benefit cognitive function.
While studies are still preliminary, there is early proof that ketones, or the byproduct of MCTs, can make up for a lack of glucose uptake, which naturally occurs in the brain during the aging process. This makes MCTs an area of interest surrounding treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.
Claim #2: MCTs increase performance and weight loss
When exercising, lactate levels can rise. This lactate buildup can increase the acidity of muscle cells, disrupting metabolites. Metabolites facilitate the breakdown of glucose into energy, which can affect performance. Studies have found that MCTs can help to lower lactate levels. According to one clinical trial out of Oxford Brookes University:
“These results indicate that the ingestion of MCT-containing food may suppress the utilization of carbohydrates for energy production because of increased utilization of fatty acids for generating energy…
In conclusion, our data suggest that short-term ingestion of food containing a small amount of MCT suppresses the increase in blood lactate concentration…and extends the duration of subsequent high-intensity exercise at levels higher than those achieved by ingestion of LCT-containing food.”
MCTs can help regulate our bodies’ harmful type of fat, called “white fat” or adipose fat tissue. This oil naturally has about 10% fewer calories than other common oils like olive, avocado, and nut. Also, because of its shorter fatty acid chain makeup, MCT helps increase fat oxidation, which is associated with loss of adipose fat tissue and a decrease in inflammatory markers. Lastly, MCTs have also been shown to satiate hunger which has ultimately reduced food intake, contributing to weight loss.
Claim #3: MCTs fight infections
One of many impressive facts about MCT oils is that they act as natural antibiotics. Due to their chemical structure, MCTs are drawn and easily absorbed into most bacteria and viruses. When they enter the virus through the lipid membrane, they weaken it, eventually breaking it open to cause cell death. That is when the white blood cells quickly dispose of the remains.
Furthermore, capric and caprylic acid are two of the most active antimicrobial fatty acids. They are naturally the most potent yeast-fighting substances, and as research shows, they are one of the most beneficial antimicrobials you can take without a doctor’s prescription. Supplementary MCT oil is best taken in doses of 15 to 20 mL per meal, up to 100 mL per day.
Claim #4: MCTs improve gut health and digestion
The ingestion of easily digestible fatty acids like MCT oils leads to increased movement in your digestive tract, thus promoting regular bowel movements. Additionally, MCTs help to improve the gut lining, a critical component of your gut’s microbiome. It aids in increasing the permeability of the lining, which can facilitate an increase in metabolic functions.
Claim #5: MCTs can help with hormone balance
MCTs work to provide a balance of adipose fat tissue. The dreaded “white fat” negatively affects hormone regulation, as can adipose fat levels when they’re too low. (Normal levels for women are between 3 and 8 percent, while for men, it is between 8 and 12 percent). To better understand our white fat stores, speak with your doctor, who will calculate your body mass index (BMI) and other markers and tests to estimate your levels.
MCT oil can help with this! Because it can provide necessary fats to produce a balanced amount of fatty tissue, it also has been shown to increase the release of both peptide YY and leptin specifically—this contributes to a feeling of fullness and satisfaction, aiding people in avoiding overeating, and helping to limit too much fat tissue accumulation.
Busting MCT Myths
While the above five claims have scientific legitimacy, here are some notable myths.
Myth: MCT oil only comes from virgin coconut oil.
Truth: Nearly all MCT oil comes from refined coconut oil and sometimes palm oil. The process of retrieving the MCTs requires refinement, bleaching, and deodorizing. All of which are safe processes and fine for ingestion.
Myth: MCT oil is sustainable.
Truth: Yes and No. MCT oil only uses about 15% of the coconut’s oil, and not all of the residual 85% is used in other products. And while most MCT oils are derived from coconut oil, about 34% of MCT comes from palm, which has deforestation implications. However, sustainable ways to harvest palm exist, and not all palm harvesting contributes to deforestation.
Myth: MCT oil does not need to be counted as part of your fat intake due to its benefits.
Truth: MCT oil can increase the amount of fat in your liver if not accounted for as part of your daily fat intake. Be sure to keep your total fat consumption per day between 44 and 77 grams of fat (which respect for a 2,000-calorie diet).
How is MCT made?
MCT, or Medium-chain triglycerides, is a compound made of fatty acids and fat molecules with between six and 12 carbon molecules. Alternatively, fats derived from animals and plants primarily comprise long-chain fatty acids (LCTs), which contain more than twelve carbon molecules.
But what do the molecules have to do with it? The health claims surrounding MCT oils are that they can help burn fat, boost metabolism, promote weight loss, and provide increased energy. These claims have everything to do with how MCT oils are processed in the body.
Medium-chain triglycerides behave differently in the body compared to LCTs. They are more easily absorbed in the body, as they do not require pancreatic enzymes or bile to be digested, unlike LCT. Instead, they are transported directly to the liver, which can immediately be used as energy.
MCT oil is typically derived from coconut and palm oils. It is then refined in a lab using a process called fractionation. This process extracts the medium-chain triglycerides and other fats. Once isolated, a chemical process called lipase esterification uses lipase enzymes to produce the final product.
While coconut is the primary source of commercially-produced MCT oil, MCTs are also naturally found in some full-fat dairy products, like cheese (7.3% MCT by volume), butter (6.8%), and milk (6.9%) and yogurt (6.6%).
MCT Oil Types
There are four identified types of MCT with various purposes and efficacy:
- Caproic Acid (C6): Commonly referred to as C6 due to its 6-atom carbon backbone, is the shortest medium-chain triglyceride. This type of MCT is the rarest form of fatty acid, making up just a mere 1% of MCTs in coconut oil. That said, it is also the quickest to be converted into ketones. (Ketones are an acid released from the liver to your bloodstream that is used as fuel to drive the body’s metabolism and support muscle function.) Typically, you won’t find this fatty acid in MCT oils for direct consumer use as it has an unpleasant taste. However it is often used in cosmetics.
- Caprylic Acid (C8): This fatty acid accounts for about 12% of MCTs in coconut oil and is the primary supplement component, as it has a neutral taste and is very efficiently metabolized. This is a highly beneficial fatty acid, so much so that it is present in the breast milk of most mammals like humans and goats. Fun fact: the Latin word for goat is ‘capra’, the root of caprylic acid.
- Capric Acid (C10): Making up around 9% of the MCTs derived from coconut, capric acid is also easily absorbed during the digestion process, though not as efficient as C6 or C8. It has been shown to boost immune system function and support healthy and efficient digestion. Bulletproof coffee uses this type of MCT in its keto products.
- Lauric Acid (C12): This is the primary MCT found in coconut. While it is the slowest to metabolize, it contains the most potent antimicrobial properties—making it suitable for use in natural health products. With its higher smoke point, this MCT can be the most easily substituted for oils in cooking from being the longest of the MCT oils at 12 atoms.
How can I use MCT oil?
MCT oil comes in many forms, including oil, supplements, and powders.
You can use it for baking or frying, in smoothies or soups, or just as a topping to your favorite veggies.
I have tried Bulletproof Coffee and Sports Research MCT oil in my smoothies and have enjoyed both.
There are currently many varieties on the market, including organic versions, cold-pressed, flavored, flavorless…the list goes on.
There is a type out there for every preference.
The Bottom Line
With any new food trend, there will be truth to some claims and hype to others. MCT oil has proven benefits to your cognitive, gut, and immune health. But consult your doctor before you include MCT oil as a part of your daily fat intake.