An Overview of MCT Oil and Medium-Chain Triglycerides

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Medium-chain triglycerides have played a role in the food and beverage industry for several years, but their use has skyrocketed in the last decade as more consumers are seeking whole foods and healthy fats for nutrition and weight loss. An emphasis on low-carb diets and macronutrients has also driven the growth of medium-chain triglycerides in the food industry. Medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, are metabolized more quickly than other fatty acids to provide energy without being stored as fat. MCTs also provide many other health benefits that position them as a popular dietary supplement whose use is likely to continue to grow in the future.

What Are Medium-Chain Triglycerides?

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are fats that occur naturally in some foods, such as whole foods and dairy products, but they are also manufactured for their value as a healthier dietary fat. 

Triglycerides contain fatty acids with different carbon atom counts, which determine their triglyceride type. Long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), the prevalent dietary fat, consist of aliphatic tails with 13 to 21 carbon atoms. Short-chain triglycerides have fewer than six carbon atoms in each fatty acid, while medium-chain triglycerides possess aliphatic tails with six to 12 carbon atoms on at least two out of three fatty acids.

How Is MCT Oil Made?

MCT oil is obtained through fractionation

MCT oil is obtained through fractionation, which separates caprylic and capric acid from other fats in coconut or palm oil. These isolated MCTs are then used to create triglycerides through lipase esterification, a chemical process involving the enzyme lipase. The oil undergoes subsequent steps, including filtration, deacidification, bleaching and deodorizing. After quality analysis, the resulting MCT oil is considered suitable for consumption. Although it is produced through laboratory processes, MCT oil consists entirely of natural fats.

What Is MCT Comprised Of?

There are four different types of MCTs, and each type is identified by the number of molecules in its carbon chain. Generally speaking, the shorter the chain, the more efficiently the body can process the energy from the molecules.

  • Caproic acid (C6): Caproic acid, also known as hexanoic acid, contains six carbon molecules. It is metabolized quickly and is good for short bursts of energy. Because it can have a strong taste and smell, it is often removed from pure MCT oil.
  • Caprylic acid (C8): Caprylic acid, also known as octanoic acid, comprises eight carbon molecules. It has antimicrobial properties and is also good for quick bursts of energy.
  • Capric acid (C10): Capric acid, also known as decanoic acid or decylic acid, is built of 10 carbon molecules. It turns into ketones quickly in the liver and is good for endurance and increased mental performance.
  • Lauric acid (C12): Lauric acid, also known as dodecanoic acid, has 12 carbon molecules. Though it’s the slowest to digest because of its longer carbon chain, it still has antimicrobial properties and various health benefits. It is also often excluded in pure MCT oil.

Typically the proportion of MCTs in MCT oil is 50 to 80 percent caprylic acid and 20 to 50 percent capric acid. Caproic acid (C6) is often removed from MCT oil because it can have an unpleasant taste and smell. MCT oil typically does not contain lauric acid (C12) either because its benefits are debated. Because lauric acid contains 12 carbons, it is on the cusp of being a long-chain triglyceride. Some argue that lauric acid may act the same as an LCT in the body and be more difficult to absorb and process. Caprylic and capric acid are valuable for MCT oil because they can be more rapidly absorbed and processed in the body than other fatty acids.

How Does MCT Oil Work?

MCT oil stands out due to it's unique chemical composition and its body processing

MCT oil stands out due to its unique chemical composition and its body processing. Upon digestion, MCTs are quickly absorbed in the gut, swiftly entering the bloodstream and being transported directly to the liver. This process is notably more efficient compared to the processing of LCTs.

In the liver, MCTs are converted into ketones, which can be promptly utilized for energy or stored for future use. Once transformed into ketones, they are distributed throughout the body, reaching vital organs such as the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles.

Ketones are created when your body converts fat into energy during a process called ketosis. This process boosts your body’s ability to burn fat, which is why it is popular for dieting and weight loss.

By comparison, LCTs require bile and pancreatic fluids to be absorbed in digestion. Also, excess LCTs are stored in the body as fat, while MCTs are converted and stored as ketones.

What Foods Contain Medium Chain Triglycerides?

Some foods are naturally high in MCT, such as coconut oil, palm kernel oil, coconut products and dairy products. Palm kernel oil, coconut oil and other coconut products contain higher concentrations of lauric acid and lower concentrations of caprylic and capric acid.

In coconut oil, about half of the fatty acids are lauric acid. On the other hand, dairy products contain primarily caprylic and capric acid and have lower concentrations of lauric acid. However, palm and coconut oil still contain more MCTs than dairy products. This is why they are the primary source of MCT oil even though they contain a lower concentration of the caprylic and capric acid used for MCT oil. Below are some foods that are rich in MCTs:

  • Coconut oil: More than 60 percent of the fatty acids are MCTs in coconut oil. While coconut oil contains a higher concentration of lauric acid, it still has the highest percentage of caprylic and capric acid making up 13 percent of its fatty acids.
  • Palm kernel oil: Another rich source of MCT, the fatty acids in palm kernel oil are over 50 percent MCTs with about 7 percent being caprylic and capric acid.
  • Coconut meat and cream: Coconut meat and cream also rank high as MCT-rich whole foods and contain a good percentage of caprylic and capric acid, at eight and four percent respectively.
  • Dairy products: Butter, goat cheese and feta cheese are all great natural sources of MCT, with percentages ranging from four to eight percent of their fatty acids. Other cheeses, creams and milk contain MCTs as well but in smaller proportions.

While whole foods are a great way to introduce more MCTs into your diet naturally, they still contain a relatively low percentage of MCTs compared to MCT oil. Whole foods with MCTs also contain lauric acid and LCTs that some consumers seek to avoid and which can slow down the rapid metabolizing of MCT for energy. Supplementing with MCT oil can allow consumers to avoid lauric acid and other fatty acids while reaping the benefits of caprylic and capric acids. MCT oil contains 100 percent caprylic and capric acid, meaning consumers do not need to ingest as high of a quantity to receive the same benefits as they would with coconut oil, palm kernel oil or other whole food medium-chain triglyceride sources.

What Is the Difference Between MCT Oil and Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is the primary source for MCT oil, but palm kernel oil is also very common, making up nearly 34 percent of MCT oil production. Consumers sometimes confuse MCT oil and coconut oil as being the same product, but coconut oil contains all four types of MCTs as well as other fats. MCT oil, on the other hand, contains only specific MCTs and no other kinds of fats.

The difference between coconut oil and MCT oil is purity. Coconut oil comprises approximately 60 percent MCTs and other fats constitute the rest of its composition. MCT oil is comprised entirely of MCTs.

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Lauric acid, the predominant medium-chain triglyceride in coconut oil, constitutes 76 percent of its MCT content. However, compared to pure MCT oil consisting solely of capric and caprylic acids, lauric acid is not digested as rapidly or efficiently.

MCT oil offers the advantage of being flavorless, scentless and liquid at room temperature, allowing for versatile use across various applications. In contrast, coconut oil possesses a noticeable aroma, distinct taste and solidifies at room temperature.

Health Benefits of MCTs and MCT Oil

MCT and MCT oil have gained popularity as a health food and dietary supplement because of the numerous benefits they offer. In addition to providing quick and efficient energy, MCT oil can aid in weight loss, improve brain functioning and treat digestive diseases.

Just make sure you take your foray into MCT oil slowly. Everyone’s digestive system will react differently to an influx of a new source of fat, so start small. Most experts suggest trying out a half-tablespoon at first to see if it changes how you feel or adversely affects your digestive system. From there, you can work your way to a maximum of three tablespoons per day. Just keep in mind each one contains about 100 calories. If you eat three tablespoons of MCT in one day, the benefits it provides won’t offset that number of calories.

Maintains Healthy Weight Loss and Management

MCTs and MCT oil have a variety of properties

Dieting and weight loss can be challenging and finding a diet that works and is good for you is half the battle when it comes to shedding pounds. Adding MCT oil to your diet may help dieters lose weight — and keep it off.

MCTs and MCT oil have a variety of properties that aid in weight loss and management. Compared to LCTs, MCTs have fewer calories but can better increase the feeling of fullness and reduce appetite. MCTs are also burned more rapidly by the body and are less likely to be stored as fat. Some studies have shown that MCTs may even increase the body’s ability to burn fat, to reduce accumulation of body fat and help prevent obesity. MCTs can be particularly beneficial for those on a ketogenic diet, as they produce ketones that allow a person to consume more carbs while maintaining a state of ketosis.

This idea is the keystone of the hugely popular keto diet, which encourages dieters to get the majority of their calories — up to 90 percent — from fat and avoid carbohydrates, which provide energy in the form of glucose. Avoiding glucose and consuming high amounts of fats, particularly MCTs, causes the body to burn excess fat during the process of ketosis.

Studies suggest that when MCTs are used to replace LCTs in a person’s diet, body weight and fat is reduced, particularly in overweight individuals.

MCTs also have a greater ability to help people feel full and, therefore, consume less. They also cause increased energy expenditure, which results in more calories burned — another reason why MCTs are extremely popular for those on the keto diet.

Increases Exercise Performance

Because they can increase energy levels and burn fat, MCTs can boost exercise performance for athletes and bodybuilders. Consuming MCT oil before exercise can lead to better workouts

One study found MCTs to be effective in decreasing lactate acid buildup, decreasing athletes’ perceived exertion and increasing stamina during high-intensity exercise. More studies are necessary to substantiate these claims, but the results are encouraging.

Improves Gut Health and Digestion

Incorporating MCTs into your diet may have several beneficial effects. They have the potential to aid in weight loss, enhance athletic endurance, improve digestion and even act as a probiotic in the gut.

MCTs can contribute to a stronger immune system and promote gut health by selectively targeting harmful bacteria while preserving beneficial bacteria in the stomach. Studies indicate that MCTs can inhibit the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, often responsible for causing diarrhea. Moreover, there is promising evidence that MCTs can enhance intestinal permeability and overall gastrointestinal well-being. These properties make MCTs particularly valuable for individuals with gastrointestinal conditions.

Improves Cognitive Health

Consuming MCTs may lead to better focus and more clear thinking. Because the brain is composed of fatty acids, improved gut health has a positive impact on brain functioning. The ketones produced by MCTs are also able to fuel the central nervous system better than LCTs because they can pass through the blood-brain barrier. MCTs may also be able to slow the effects of dementia in those with Alzheimer’s disease by providing ketones to the brain.

A study involving individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) revealed that supplementing their diets with MCTs, in conjunction with standard AD treatment, led to enhanced cognitive functions. Additionally, ongoing research has shown the beneficial effects of the ketogenic diet on brain function through the state of ketosis. This metabolic state has the potential to counteract the decline in glucose utilization associated with AD, thereby mitigating brain deterioration.

Lowers Risk of Diabetes

MCTs may be beneficial for those who have diabetes as they can lower blood sugar levels and increase insulin sensitivity. Better insulin sensitivity is also an important factor in the prevention of diabetes in those who are at high risk. Consuming MCTs can also help reduce body weight which is another risk factor for diabetes.

One study conducted on patients in China found subjects who added MCT oil to their diet saw decreases in cholesterol, weight and waist circumference.

As always, be sure to talk to your doctor before changing your diet, especially if you have an existing medical condition.

Ways to Add MCT Oil to Your Diet

Ways to add MCT oil to your diet

Adding MCT oil to your diet is easy. Since it is flavorless, simply stir a few tablespoons into your favorite dish to receive its health benefits. A few simple ways to integrate it into your diet are:

  • Blend MCT oil into your coffee as a morning meal replacement.
  • Stir it into hot cereals.
  • Spread it on toast to replace butter.
  • Stir it into melted chocolate.
  • Blend MCT oil into fruit or green smoothies.
  • Mix it into salad dressing.
  • Add it to a mayonnaise spread.
  • Use it to top popcorn.

Keep Temperatures Low

Because of its relatively low smoking point, MCT oil isn’t great for high-heat cooking. Raising the temperature of MCT oil beyond 284 degrees causes it to break down and lose beneficial nutrients. This also causes the release of harmful free radicals. Coconut oil is a better alternative for cooking and is rated for moderate heat, like sauteing vegetables or pan-frying meat, with a smoking point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

MCT oil is better added to hot dishes — for example, stirred into oatmeal or coffee — or used in cold salad dressings and smoothies.

MCT and Saturated Fats

MCT oil is a form of saturated fat. While this fat has a bad reputation for clogging arteries, increasing cholesterol levels and contributing to heart disease, recent evidence suggests that this isn’t necessarily the case.

Though saturated fats are typically categorized as ‘bad’ fats, a meta-analysis of previous studies and research conducted in recent years indicates that it does not contribute to heart disease, as previously reported, and may even lower the risk of stroke.

Other Ways to Include MCT Oil

MCT oil’s odorless and colorless nature makes it versatile for various homemade beauty products. Here are some suggestions for incorporating MCT oil:

  1. After-sun sunburn remedy: Apply MCT oil to sunburned areas to promote healing and prevent peeling.
  2. Hair conditioner: Prior to shampooing, apply MCT oil to your hair and allow it to sit for a few minutes.
  3. Lip balm: Moisturize and protect your lips by applying MCT oil.
  4. Makeup remover: MCT oil effectively dissolves eye makeup, allowing for gentle removal.
  5. Massage oil: MCT oil is a safe and gentle alternative to petroleum-based products for massages.
  6. Nail cuticle oil: Prior to pushing back your cuticles, moisturize them with MCT oil to prevent fungal infections.
  7. Natural throat lozenge: Swallow half a teaspoon of MCT oil multiple times a day to soothe a sore throat and cough.
  8. Shaving oil: Use MCT oil as a substitute for shaving cream, and apply it after shaving to help minimize ingrown hairs and razor burn.
  9. Skin moisturizer: MCT oil serves as an effective moisturizer, potentially reducing the appearance of stretch marks and wrinkles.

Be an Educated Consumer

Be sure to read labels so you know what you're buying

Now, your next step is to find MCT oil and try it. Be sure to read labels so you know what you’re buying. Sometimes, something marketed as MCT will contain a good portion of coconut oil, too. This blend will still provide benefits, albeit diluted ones. Nevertheless, this might be enough of a draw, considering that pure, medical-grade MCT can cost about $200 for one eight-ounce container.

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With that, you’re ready to sample MCT. Start small and work your way up to the dose that makes you feel your best.

How Manufacturers and Consumers Use MCT Oil

MCT oil is quickly growing in popularity as a dietary supplement and many consumers and manufacturers are using MCT oil as a food additive for health foods and beverages. Because it is colorless and tasteless, MCT oil can be consumed plain or added to various products without altering their flavor. Many consumers incorporate MCT oil into homemade recipes as well for additional health benefits. Below are some popular ways to consume MCT oil:

  • MCT coffee: Blending coconut oil or MCT oil into coffee is one of the most popular uses for MCT oil. This MCT-charged coffee boosts energy and helps stimulate the brain at the start of the day.
  • Smoothies: Adding MCT oil to post or pre-workout shakes or smoothies provides more energy for exercising and helps aid in recovery after high-intensity workouts.
  • Salad dressings or marinades: Get the benefits of MCT oil in dressings and marinades without adjusting the taste.
  • Sauces: Because MCT oil has a very low smoke point, it can only be used for cooking at low temperatures. This makes it a perfect addition to sauces that can simmer without reducing the effectiveness of the MCTs.
  • Homemade energy bars: MCT oil can be used to energy balls or bars when blended with dried fruit, nut butter, coconut or cacao powder.

While MCT oil has no serious side effects, it can take some time for a person’s body to get used to consuming MCTs. Those who are new to MCT may experience some nausea or diarrhea when they first begin using MCT oil supplements. It is recommended to start with one teaspoon a day of MCT oil and then increase the MCT intake over time.

MCT Oils in Beauty Products

MCT oil is a relatively new player in the beauty and personal care sectors but is poised to become a valuable addition. Following the popularity of coconut oil in skin care, moisturizers and other beauty products, MCT can offer many of the same benefits. MCT oil is great for adding moisture to the skin or lips and can be incorporated in lotions, moisturizers or creams. MCT oil is a lightweight moisturizer that does not leave a greasy or oily feeling on the skin when applied.

MCT is also effective in massage oils as it does not clog pores. The beauty and personal care industries provide a lot of opportunities to use the health benefits of MCTs and MCT oil and MCT use is likely to continue to expand in these industries.

What the Demand for MCT Oil Means for Manufacturers

The demand for natural, sustainable and “good-for-you” products is nothing new. From the Atkins diet of the early 2000s to the quinoa craze of 2010s to the more recent consumer obsession with coconut oil, health trends are a major driving factor of the food and beverage industry. These health trends carry over to the personal care and cosmetics industries in products such as moisturizers, makeup and skin care products. MCT oil is a natural and sustainable product recently gaining popularity globally. The high consumer demand for MCT oil is driven by many factors, including its effectiveness as a dietary and weight loss supplement and its application in pharmaceuticals and beauty products.

In 2016, the global market size for MCTs was 271 kilotons. Dietary and health supplements accounted for over 59 percent of the total revenue from MCTs. Societal concerns about obesity, stress and other unhealthy lifestyles drive this high demand, as MCT has been shown to improve metabolism and digestion while increasing energy and fat burning. The demand for medium-chain triglyceride supplements is projected to continue to grow in the future.

MCT also has applications in the pharmaceutical industry that will likely contribute to its growth in the coming years. The benefits of MCT for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes make it valuable in this industry. MCT can be used in antiviral, antifungal or antibacterial medicines. MCT is also an effective suspension medium or carrier for oil-soluble drugs and antibiotics.

The growth of demand for MCT oil in the personal care market is driven by increased consumption of care products such as lotions, ointments, moisturizers and creams for their health benefits. Because MCTs have almost no odor or taste, they can be incorporated well into beauty and personal care products without producing a harsh or unappealing scent.

North America was the largest consumer of MCT in 2016 and is projected to generate over 752 million in revenue by 2025. MCT is currently used in the food, personal care and detergent sectors and is well-established in the North American region. Asia Pacific is expected to experience the fastest growth in MCT consumption in both revenue and volume, with a projected demand of 120 kilotons of MCT by 2025. The demand in Asia Pacific is driven primarily by MCT as a dietary supplement as for personal care products. MCT growth in Europe is also driven by the personal care and dietary supplement sectors, but MCT is particularly popular in Germany in the pharmaceutical industry.

Because the demand for MCT grew very rapidly in recent years, global supply decreased just as quickly. Coconut and palm trees used to produce MCT oil take time to reach maturity before they can be harvested. Health trends are often hard to anticipate, so growers and producers of MCT oil were not prepared for the market boom. This low supply and high demand for MCT and MCT oil makes MCT oil manufacturing and MCT products a smart investment, as the high price of MCT oil will likely remain stable soon. The desire for natural and healthy products is here to stay, so smart manufacturers should strive to produce products that meet this demand from consumers.

Finding a Reputable MCT Oil Supplier

Because of the boom in popularity of MCT oil, it can be tempting for manufacturers to cut corners in MCT production. Some manufacturers will include lauric acid in their MCT oil to reduce costs and increase production. However, this also depletes the health benefits of MCT oil, as lauric acid is more difficult to metabolize than caprylic and capric acid. Other suppliers may not use sustainable and clean production methods, which then reduces the effectiveness of MCT as a natural health or dietary supplement.

Using a sustainable supply chain is also becoming increasingly important to both consumers and the integrity of the final product. As a bio-based product, MCT oil should be sourced through environmentally friendly practices at all stages of production. Sustainable production of MCT and MCT oil means providing a fair price to suppliers and transporting goods in a way that reduces the production of greenhouse gases. The coconut and palm oil used in MCT production should also be sourced from sustainable farms and manufacturers. A good supplier of MCT and MCT oil will have a sustainable supply chain from bottom to top and provide pure MCT and MCT oil.

As a leading producer of oleochemicals, Acme-Hardesty has been producing high-quality and sustainable products for more than 70 years. MCT oil from Acme-Hardesty is ethically sourced and contains only caprylic and capric medium-chain fatty acids. Acme-Hardesty provides various bio-based products to clients across industries for comprehensive and exceptional service. Contact us to hear more about our MCT oil or request a quote for MCT oil.