MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Comparing the Benefits and Risks

How To Choose Your Medium Chain Fatty Acids

MCT oil vs coconut oil: A pitcher of coconut oil with a coconut in the background

MCT oil — otherwise known as medium-chain triglyceride oil — and coconut oil have become fad diet stars over the last decade. So when considering MCT oil vs coconut oil, what’s the difference, which is better, and when would you use them?

The truth is, neither is really better or worse. They simply have different uses.

Let’s compare MCT vs coconut oil, explore their chemistry and how they work, and talk about the unique benefits and possible health risks of these two oils.

Chart about the differences between MCT and coconut oil

MCT Oil Vs Coconut Oil: What’s the Difference?

Dietary fats are essential nutrients. Your cell membranes, brain, and nervous system are largely made of fats, and we need healthy fats to support our hormone health. There are numerous types of fats, and keeping them all straight can be a bit confusing.

Fat Chemistry Basics

All fats are chains of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached all the way around. Chemically, what distinguishes fats from one another is the carbon chain length:

  • Short-chain fatty acids, like butyrate, have up to four carbon atoms
  • Medium-chain fatty acids, like caproic acid, have between 6 and 12 carbon atoms
  • Long-chain fatty acids, like stearic acid, have 14 or more carbon atoms

The main difference between MCT oil vs coconut oil is that MCT oil is made of medium-chain fatty acids, while coconut oil is made of medium and long-chain fatty acids.

What Is Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT) Oil?

MCT oil is a dietary supplement that many people use to increase their energy and weight loss. It is typically sourced from coconut or palm kernel oil [1]. While MCT oil is made from coconut oil, whole coconut oil only contains about 15% MCT oil [2 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

MCTs — which stands for “medium-chain triglycerides” — are saturated medium-chain fatty acids, which simply means that their chemical structure has 6-12 carbon atoms. There are three main types of MCTs:

  • Caproic acid
  • Caprylic acid
  • Capric acid

A fourth fatty acid, lauric acid, is technically a medium-chain triglyceride, but it usually isn’t included in MCT oil. MCT oil typically contains 50-80% caprylic acid and 20-50% capric acid, derived from coconut and palm kernel oil [3]. Other sources of MCTs include butter and some types of cheeses.

Pure MCT oil is a flavorless liquid at room temperature [4], so it can be easily included in food and drinks, like smoothies. But because it has a relatively low smoke point, it’s not ideal for heating or cooking [5].

One of the main benefits of MCT oil compared to other dietary fats is that its absorption does not require bile acids or the digestive enzyme lipase. Instead, it is absorbed directly through the liver, giving your body easy access to medium-chain fatty acids for energy, brain function, and mental clarity [6 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Evidence for the Health Benefits of MCT Oil

Man running on a road

People who practice a ketogenic diet have increased the popularity of MCT oil. It can help maintain ketosis and increase weight loss and is also reputed to improve energy levels and brain function. In fact, this reputation has led to some calling it “brain octane oil.” But MCT oil has several other health benefits.

MCT oil has been shown to:

Some have suggested MCT oil may improve exercise performance, but the evidence for this claim is lacking [24 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 25 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source, 26 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Potential Health Risks of MCT Oil

Some critics of MCT oil have suggested it may not be all it’s advertised as. This is often the case with fad diet products. Let’s consider the evidence.

Various studies have found that MCT oil:

  • May trigger an allergy [27].
  • May cause digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea, upset stomach, or vomiting, stomach cramping, or bloating [28].
  • Could reduce HDL (good) cholesterol after six months of daily use [29].
  • May increase triglyceride levels with long-term use [30]. However, a systematic review and meta-analysis refuted this [31 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

As with many other supplements or dietary additions, moderation is important. Digestive symptoms are commonly reported by those starting MCT oil and can be mitigated by starting with a low daily dose and slowly increasing the daily amount.

Additionally, patients with fat malabsorption syndrome or who must follow a low-fat diet must be sure to use MCT oil in conjunction with other sources of essential fatty acids, such as plant-based and animal-based oils, to avoid deficiency [32]. 

Who Shouldn’t Use MCT Oil

Much more concerning are the potential effects for patients with a compromised liver because your body metabolizes medium-chain fatty acids through your liver.

What Is Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is a commonly used body care and cooking oil extracted from the dried meat of coconuts (Cocos nucifera), which contains 60-70% fatty acids [36 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. Its fragrant and rich flavor enhances many types of cuisine the world over.

Coconut oil’s fatty acid profile is quite different from MCT oil. Its fats break down into these categories:

About 15% of coconut oil’s content is MCT oil, so eating coconut oil does give you a small serving of MCT oil [42 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source]. But you would need to consume a large amount of coconut oil to get an equivalent amount of MCT oil [43].

Coconut oil has a relatively high smoke point, which means it is a good choice for high-heat cooking, baking, stir-fries, and roasting.

Evidence for the Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is widely promoted in the Paleo and keto diet communities as a healthy fat, while conventional wisdom maintains that coconut oil’s saturated fat content increases your risk of heart disease. Let’s see if coconut oil has documented health benefits.

Coconut oil has been shown to:

  • Significantly increase HDL (good) cholesterol concentrations compared with both olive oil and butter. Specifically, coconut oil raised HDL 0.28 mmol/L, whereas olive oil raised it 0.10 mmol/L and butter raised it 0.09 mmol/L [44]. A rise of only 0.025 reduces the associated risk of cardiovascular disease by 2-3% [45 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Decrease indicators of gingivitis and dental plaque formation when used for oil pulling [46 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].
  • Moisturize the skin.

Coconut oil is thought to have antibacterial and antimicrobial properties due to its content of lauric acid (also called monolaurin). However, a recent literature review concluded that there were not yet any clinical data indicating that monolaurin was an effective antibacterial or antifungal agent [47 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

Potential Health Risks of Coconut Oil

It’s a common belief that coconut oil can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, but is this true?

The American Heart Association (AHA) said in 2017 that coconut oil may increase the risk for heart disease because evidence shows that coconut oil reliably raises LDL cholesterol — which the AHA believes is a cause of cardiovascular disease — similarly to butter, beef fat, and palm oil [48].

A recent high-quality systematic review and meta-analysis of 16 clinical trials agreed. It found that coconut oil consumption resulted in significantly higher LDL cholesterol than did non-tropical vegetable oils, such as olive, canola, peanut, or high-oleic safflower [49 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

However, another meta-analysis disputed this [50 Trusted SourcePubMedGo to source].

As in many cases, the science isn’t yet clear. Perhaps the best policy is a moderate use of virgin coconut oil along with a diversity of other types of fats and cooking oils, including fish oils, and plant-based oils like olive oil or avocado oil.

How To Use MCT Oil vs Coconut Oil

MCT oil vs coconut oil: Woman about to put coconut oil on her pan

Both MCT oil and coconut oil are easy to include in your regular diet, but you use them differently.

MCT oil is a liquid with a relatively low smoke point, so you can use it anywhere you would use liquid oil, except for cooking.

Ways To Use MCT Oil

  • Drizzle on salad or grains, steamed vegetables, or soup.
  • Mix with a smoothie or elemental diet shake.
  • Include in a salad dressing or sauce.
  • As a supplement in capsule or whole-oil form.
  • As an additive in your coffee for a Bulletproof (TM) coffee.

Though it’s often promoted for use on a low carb or ketogenic diet, you can use MCT oil with any diet.

To minimize gut symptoms, like nausea, bloating, or diarrhea, start small and gradually increase your dose to the recommended amount.

Ways To Use Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is usually solid at room temperature unless it’s been specially processed. Because coconut oil has a relatively high smoke point, it can be used as a high-heat cooking oil. Try these ways to use coconut oil:

  • To saute veggies for stir fry, curry, or soup, especially if you want a coconut flavor.
  • In baking as a butter substitute.
  • To roast veggies or potatoes.
  • As a coffee additive to make Bulletproof coffee.

Coconut oil can also be used for personal care:

  • As a skin care or hair moisturizer.
  • For oral care with oil pulling (swishing melted coconut oil through and between your teeth).

For the highest quality, choose extra virgin coconut oil.

MCT Oil vs Coconut Oil: The Bottom Line

Including healthy fats, such as MCT oil and coconut oil, can improve your energy, cognitive function, and even help you lose weight when used appropriately. When comparing MCT oil vs coconut oil, there isn’t really a better oil, just different uses. Include MCT oil for a fat-burning energy supplement, and include coconut oil for flavor, and potential benefits for cholesterol levels, as well as for its light MCT oil content.

➕ References
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