MCT stands for medium-chain triglycerides, which is a form of saturated fats that have some interesting features. They are handled by the body differently and are preferentially sent to the liver to be burned as energy. One analogy is they act like kindling to help stoke the fire of metabolism. The reason being is these MCT fats support a healthy weight by increasing the body's rate of thermogenesis (the burning of calories).
What Makes It Medium-Chain?
All fatty acids are chains of carbon molecules, and they are categorized by the number of carbons in their chain (short, medium, long). Medium-chain fatty acids contain six to 12 carbons in their chain and include caproic acid (C6), caprylic acid (C8), capric acid (C10) and lauric acid (C12).
MCTs and The Brain
Many integrative neurologist, such as David Perlmutter, MD, recommend diets high in MCT’s because of their positive effect on the brain. So good in fact, ketogenic diets with MCTs are an accepted treatment for childhood epilepsy at many of the top hospitals around the country because MCT’s produce ketones, which help stabilize brain waves.
There are even MCT-based drugs and medical foods being tested in clinical trials that may help Alzheimer’s patients by creating ketones that help brain neurons become better able to utilize glucose in order to fuel and energize the brain.
Ketones As Fuel
The primary energy source of the brain is glucose (blood sugar). The back-up fuels for the brain are compounds known as ketone bodies. If there is very little carbohydrate in the diet, the liver breaks down the fat into ketone bodies like acetone, acetoacetic acid, and beta-hydroxybutyric acid. These ketone bodies are thought to support energy production within the brain.
Coconut Oil vs. MCT Oil
The main fat in coconut oil is lauric acid (C12). With a carbon length of 12, it doesn't really qualify as an MCT even though many manufacturers call it one (and include it in the percentage of MCTs they claim for their coconut oil). Meanwhile, a true MCT oil supplement won’t contain any lauric acid. Rather, it will contain one or both of the two true medium-chain fatty acids, caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10).
Both coconut oil and MCT oil have their advocates, and many people use both. MCT oil is a good, fast-burning source of calories and a healthy fat that apparently has some nice benefits for the brain. But you can’t cook with it because it is very unstable at high heat. On the other hand, coconut oil is terrific for cooking. And its main fat, lauric acid, may not technically be an MCT, but it’s highly antimicrobial and supports the immune system.
Regarding the recent coconut debate, coconut oil does not increase heart disease risk.
There’s definitely a use for both coconut oil and MCT oil, and I encourage you to incorporate both into your diet.
In Health and Happiness,
Kelly Harrington, MS, RDN
Registered Dietitian Nutritionist for Healthy Goods