If you’re in the keto diet community, you’ve likely used—or at least heard about—MCT oil. It’s a staple for helping people with satiety and energy while on keto.
But, that buzz is starting to spread beyond just keto. MCT oil is starting to appear in more and more products on the shelves of grocery and health food stores around the country. So maybe you’ve seen MCT oil out there, but you’re not exactly sure of why you should be adding it to your diet, and what the potential benefits are. To understand why MCTs are so powerful, it’s important to look at the science behind them.
Weight loss and increased energy are just a couple of the positive effects you might experience with MCT oil use. To get a better understanding of MCTs, you have to dive deeper into their chemical makeup, and how they trigger certain biological responses.
Let’s explore what MCTs are, how they work, and how they might be a particularly beneficial addition to a keto diet for improved results. And if you’d like to learn some ways of incorporating MCTs into your diet, be sure to check out our recipes at the bottom of the page.
What are MCTs?
To understand MCTs, let’s start with the basics. MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides. Triglycerides are three fatty acid groups bound to a glycerol backbone; they’re the main constituents of body fat in humans and animals, and are natural fats found in food.
People tend to have a misconception when it comes to triglycerides—they usually associate triglycerides with bad cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease. There’s some truth to that.
High levels of triglycerides in the blood pose a risk of cardiovascular disease, but not all triglycerides should be viewed negatively.
In fact, some MCTs are considered to be the healthiest fats around.
There are three types of fatty acids: short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain. The length of the “chain” refers to the number of carbon atoms linked together to form these fatty acids.
Short-chain fatty acids (or triglycerides): composed of 0 – 5 carbon atoms
Medium-chain fatty acids (or triglycerides): composed of 6 – 12 carbon atoms
Long-chain fatty acids (or triglycerides): composed of 13 – 21 carbon atoms
Short-chain fatty acids are not obtained through food, but are actually produced by bacteria in the gut when dietary fiber is fermented. They help reduce inflammation and protect the digestive system.
Long-chain triglycerides can be found in olive oil, fish, nuts, avocado, and meats. Some long-chain triglycerides, such as Omega 3s, provide cardiovascular benefits.
Medium-chain triglycerides can be found in limited amounts in foods such as coconut oil and palm oil.
The distinction between MCTs and other types of fats (and lengths of fatty acid chains) is in how they’re processed by the body.
Unlike other fatty acid chain lengths, MCTs are not digested and absorbed in the same way as other fat sources. MCTs go directly from the gut to the liver and can be used as an immediate energy source themselves, or they are quickly converted to ketones. MCTs can be extracted from food sources, such as coconut, and liquified into a pure form of 100% medium-chain triglycerides.
Now that you understand what makes MCTs unique from other types of fats, let’s get into the different types of MCTs.
Types of MCTs
MCTs contain anywhere between six and 12 carbon atoms in the fatty acid chain. It’s a range—and the term MCT covers all the triglycerides that have “medium” length fatty acid chains.
Although they are all considered MCTs, the different chain lengths have slightly different physical properties, metabolism in the body and therefore, different effects and uses. So, depending on your goals, not all MCTs are created equal.
Caproic Acid (C6)
Known as the shortest MCT, caproic acid contains six carbons in each fatty acid chain. Although it can be converted quickly to ketones, it has a bitter taste and may cause stomach problems.
It can be found naturally in plant and animal sources, but generally comes with an unpleasant odor. Some MCT products on the market contain caproic acid, but it’s not the optimal source of MCT to use as a dietary supplement.
Caprylic Acid (C8)
Caprylic acid, or C8, contains eight carbon atoms in each fatty acid chain. Known as the most ketogenic form of MCT, it can provide an array of health benefits because it can be converted to ketones faster than any other form of MCT.1
When it comes to enhancing fat burning and increasing energy levels, C8 is the MCT to choose. Its effect was significantly higher in the absence of an accompanying meal.1 So, taking MCT (C8) while fasted may increase ability to maintain a ketogenic state.
About 6% of C8 occurs naturally in coconut oil, so it makes sense to try and find a more concentrated version of C8 instead of just using coconut oil. While on keto, products with the highest levels of caprylic acid (C8) can help you hit your goals. H.V.M.N.’s MCT Oil powder contains pure C8 and a gut-friendly prebiotic called acacia fiber. With zero net carbs, it’s a fast way to kickstart ketone production and boost your metabolism.
Some of the benefits of C8 include:
Quick energy: when ingested, C8 turns into ketones rapidly.2 Enhanced ketone production will help you stay in ketosis. MCTs may also increase mental and clarity and focus because ketones are such a potent brain fuel—they evolved to keep us sharp and functioning at a high level in situations of desperate need (like hunting between big meals)
Helps fight infection: in studies performed on animals, researchers added C8 to milk and it helped kill streptococcus, staphylococcus, and E. coli3
Reduces gut inflammation: C8 may help aid in digestion by lessening intestinal inflammation4
These are just some of the benefits associated with caprylic acid (C8). As the world’s most ketogenic form of MCT, you should strive to make sure the majority of MCTs in your diet contain C8 to maximize health benefits.
Capric Acid (C10)
Capric acid, or C10, can be found in coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and some forms of animal milks. It provides a few unique benefits in addition to what we’ve already mentioned regarding metabolism:
Antifungal properties: one research study concluded C10 destroyed strains of Candida albicans, a yeast causing digestive gut issues5
Boosting immunity: a study performed on breastfeeding mothers found nursing infants were able to fight off infections and viruses more effectively when the mother supplemented with C10.6 Although the study has not been performed on adults, its reasonable to assume they may experience some of the same benefits
C10 is seen in many MCT products, but it might not be the optimal MCT for ketone production—that’s still C8.1
Lauric Acid (C12)
Lauric acid can most commonly be found in coconut oil, accounting for nearly half of coconut oil’s MCT content. The main benefit associated with lauric acid (C12) is its antimicrobial properties.
Lauric acid helps your body develop monolaurin, a compound responsible for killing pathogens such as measles, herpes simplex, staph, and E. coli.
Besides from the antimicrobial benefits, it can also serve a few other functions, including:
Fighting acne: the antimicrobial properties were put to the test in a study performed on people with acne.7 People taking lauric acid in the study found it to be a better form of treatment than benzoyl peroxide, a leading acne fighting ingredient.
Treatment for psoriasis: coconut oil (which contains nearly 50% lauric acid) was found to increase hydration and skin elasticity in a 2013 study.8
The topical benefits of lauric acid (C12) possibly make it a viable form of skin treatment in certain circumstances. But again, for purposes of ketone production, stick with C8.
Benefits of MCTs
You know the differences between different MCT chain lengths. Now, let’s look at the benefits of including MCT into your diet.
Improved Energy Through Ketone Production
Not only are MCTs a direct source of energy, they can also help create ketones for brain and body fuel.
MCTs are rapidly digested and absorbed—most fats travel slowly from the gut into the bloodstream, whereas MCTs are directly shuttered to the liver where they can be used for energy for the body or converted into ketones.
While fat can’t be used directly as brain fuel, that’s where the ketone production comes into play. Ketones pass through the blood-brain barrier making them a direct source of energy for the brain as well. This mechanism supports the anecdotal feelings of mental sharpness associated with MCT use and ketosis overall.
Helps Promote Weight Loss
One of the main benefits of MCTs are helping directly or indirectly aid in weight loss. MCT oil can help increase the production of certain hormones—like peptide YY and Leptin—which help you feel full.9 With an increase in fat consumption, you are more likely to feel satisfied for longer and thus, you’ll be less likely to overeat.
A research study showed that when people consumed a breakfast containing MCT oil they ate less food at lunch compared to those who had the same amount of coconut oil.10 This means that MCT, rather than coconut oil, is a better choice if you are looking to use fat to curb your appetite. That’s why many people choose to add MCT oil to their butter coffee in the morning.
MCT oil can also help to assist directly with weight loss through increased energy expenditure.
In one study, individuals taking MCT oil increased their energy expenditure, leading to weight loss.11 These people had a higher resting metabolic rate, so in essence, they were able to consume more calories without gaining weight.
Compared to long-chain fatty acids, MCT consumption resulted in greater fat loss (due to increased energy expenditure and fat oxidation).11 These studies lead researchers to believe MCTs could be used to prevent obesity or stimulate weight loss.
Studies performed on animals also showed MCT oils may result in decreased body fat through improved metabolism and enhanced thermogenesis.12
Enables Athletes to Burn Fat as Fuel
Consuming MCT oil may also boost your athletic endurance. One study showed that taking MCT prior to exercise enabled athletes to work at 80% of their VO2 max for longer when compared to athletes taking LCTs.13
The ingestion of foods containing MCTs may help suppress utilization of carbohydrates for energy production through increased utilization of fatty acids for generating energy. In other words, you replace the energy coming from carbs and glucose with energy coming from fat and ketones to fuel your workout. It takes a while to become fat adapted, but once you’re able to tap into the seemingly endless fat stores in the body, endurance performance may get better.
MCT oils may also impact athletic performance through reduction in lactate buildup due to a shift in balance from carb to fat metabolism. In that study where athletes could exercise for longer, the researchers also found that they had lower lactate levels.13
If you take MCTs prior to exercise, your fat burning capabilities may increase due to a higher resting energy expenditure. Essentially, you burn more fat during your workouts than you may have otherwise, in part because you’re consuming more fat.
May Reduce Risk of Heart Disease
Maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most effective ways of lowering the risk of heart disease.
Since MCT oil can help with weight and fat loss, this can in turn lower the incidence of heart disease in some people.
A study was performed on twenty-four healthy overweight men who consumed controlled diets designed to maintain weight over the course of two months.14 These diets contained 40% energy from fat, of which 75% was added fat in the form of an MCT oil based compound (also containing phytosterols and flaxseed oil) or olive oil. Body composition and blood samples were analyzed after each month. The MCT oil-based compound resulted in a ~14% decrease in LDL levels of cholesterol (the bad cholesterol) compared to the control group. Maintaining healthy cholesterol levels is crucial to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Poor diet, lack of exercise, and genetic predisposition can cause heart disease, but MCT oil consumption may be a tool capable of supporting heart health.
May Help Treat Diabetes
Building off the other metabolic benefits of MCT, it may be able to help treat individuals with diabetes.
A study was conducted on two groups of overweight type 2 diabetic patients.15 One group was given 18g of MCT and the other was given 18g of LCTs in the form of corn oil over the course of 90 days. The results of the study showed a reduction in body weight, waist circumference, and homeostasis model assessment of insulin in subjects taking MCT oil. No differences were noted in the LCT group. These results suggest MCTs have a positive effect on diabetic-related treatment.
Why Use MCTs on Keto?
While the benefits of MCTs obviously stretch outside of just ketone production, they’ve found a special home among keto diet practitioners.
What’s so special about ketones?
Before we dive into specifics, let’s talk basics. Ketones are fundamentally different substrates than the carbohydrates or fats your body typically uses to create energy.16 They are produced when your body begins using fat instead of carbohydrates for fuel. Ketones may even be a more efficient source of fuel than glucose; they provide more energy per unit.17
Keto is a low-carb, high-fat diet. So when the body doesn’t have any carbohydrates to rely on for energy, it will begin using the copious fat stores we all carry with us.
The brain’s usual source of energy is carbohydrates. They’re a quick, easily-used fuel. But what about when the brain doesn’t have those carbs to rely on? That’s why we evolved to create ketones, to fuel our brain (ketones cross the blood-brain barrier). In our neanderthal days, we’d go days or weeks without food. Our bodies needed a way to create energy from what we already had—fat.
Once the body is producing ketones, ketosis in considered ketones present in the blood at greater than 0.5mM; when you hear people say they’re in ketosis, this is what they mean.
Ketosis can be achieved in two distinct ways. The first is endogenously, which means through internal mechanisms within the body. By following a low-carb diet and/or fasting, the body will eventually stop running on glucose and begin producing ketones.
However, there’s another way to get into ketosis. Exogenous ketones are consumed through external means. Using exogenous ketones can raise blood ketones to a physiological level even if you aren’t following a high-fat diet or fasting.
The level of ketosis achieved can vary depending upon the type of supplement used. H.V.M.N. Ketone is a form of exogenous ketones (it’s the world’s first ketone ester drink) used to get into a deeper state of ketosis.18 Its patented technology is designed to deliver pure consumable ketones for sport, cognition, fasting or keto diet support. Ketone salts are another option, but can require a high amount of sodium be ingested to reach desired ketone levels.19
MCT oil has gained substantial traction in recent years as a product shown to enhance ketone production and provide an immediate source of energy, albeit a lesser levels than H.V.M.N. Ketone and salt-based products (because MCTs don’t actually contain ketones themselves).
Benefits of Ketones
Biologically, the body is designed to run on glucose and fat as its main forms of energy; but ketones are a more efficient fuel source when compared to glucose.17 Also, as you get into endogenous ketosis, the body is able to breakdown more and more fat for energy.
There are several evidence-based health benefits seen during a ketogenic diet, including:
Losing weight: the most common reason people follow a ketogenic diet is for weight loss reasons.20 By changing your diet, you can help switch your body from a glucose-reliant to running on ketones and fat
Managing diabetes: a keto diet may help control symptoms of type I and II diabetes by lowering carbohydrate intake and keeping blood glucose levels under control21
Satiation: ketones can improve satiation, leading to less overeating.16 Research suggests a diet high in fat provides satiating benefits not seen with carbohydrates
Treatment of certain diseases: the keto diet may help act as supplemental treatment for diseases such as epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and even Alzheimer’s22
Lowers rate of inflammation and aging: ketogenic diets have been shown to improve survival, memory, and healthspan in animal studies.23 Future studies may show the same effects could be seen in humans as well
The keto diet has gained popularity for a reason. Not only are the physical benefits sought after, but the mental clarity of ketosis, along with other neurological benefits, have also emerged as some of the main reasons people decide to switch to keto.
How MCT Oil Increases Ketone Production
MCTs go directly to the liver, and it’s here where they are converted into ketones through a process called ketogenesis. MCTs can help you stay in ketosis or get to ketosis faster, because they’re a healthy source of fat and are less likely to be stored as body fat.24Longer-chain fatty acids, on the other hand, do not directly enhance ketone production because of how they’re metabolized.
MCT oil can be found in coconut oil, palm oil, and even some dairy products. However, these products do not contain 100% pure MCTs. They contain roughly a low percentage of C8 (the most optimal form of MCTs), along with other types of lower-quality fatty acids. In order to optimize the effects of high-quality MCT oil, it must be extracted from other sources into a highly-concentrated, stand alone product.
Disadvantages of MCT Oil
Although MCT oil can provide plenty of health benefits, it can be easy to go overboard on calories if you do not measure serving sizes correctly. Even on a ketogenic diet, you should still be cognizant of your overall caloric intake to avoid overeating.
Taking too much MCT oil can also cause gastrointestinal distress