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.
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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.
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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 use. 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 the 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 milk. 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, it’s 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 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.