Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and coconut oil are fats that have risen in popularity alongside the ketogenic, or keto, diet.
While their characteristics overlap, the two oils are made up of different compounds, so each has unique benefits and uses.
This article explains the similarities and differences between MCT oil and coconut oil and whether one is better for reaching specific goals.
What are MCTs?
MCTs, or medium-chain triglycerides, are a type of saturated fat.
They are a natural component of many foods, including coconut oil and palm kernel oil, as well as dairy products like milk, yogurt, and cheese. A triglyceride consists of three fatty acids and a glycerol molecule. These fatty acids are made up of carbon atoms linked together in chains that vary in length.
Most fatty acids in dietary triglycerides are long-chain, meaning they contain more than 12 carbon atoms.
In contrast, the fatty acids in MCTs have a medium length, containing 6–12 carbon atoms.
It’s this difference in fatty acid chain length that makes MCTs unique. In contrast, most dietary sources of fat, such as fish, avocado, nuts, seeds, and olive oil, are comprised of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs).
The medium-chain length of MCTs doesn’t require the enzymes or bile acids for digestion and absorption that LCTs require.
This allows MCTs to go straight to your liver, where they are rapidly digested and absorbed and either used for immediate energy or turned into ketones.
Ketones are compounds produced when your liver breaks down a lot of fat. Your body can use them for energy instead of glucose or sugar.
What’s more, MCTs are less likely to be stored as fat and may promote weight loss better than other fatty acids.
Here are the four types of MCTs, listed in order of fatty acid chain length, from shortest to longest:
caproic acid — 6 carbon atoms
caprylic acid — 8 carbon atoms
capric acid — 10 carbon atoms
lauric acid — 12 carbon atoms
Some experts define MCT fatty acids as those that have a length of 6–10 carbon atoms instead of 12. That’s because lauric acid is often classified as an LCT because it’s digested and absorbed much slower than the other MCTs.
MCTs are a type of saturated fat that is rapidly digested and absorbed by your body.
MCT oil vs. coconut oil
While they’re similar, MCT and coconut oils have many differences, namely the proportion and types of MCT molecules they contain.
MCT oil contains 100% MCTs, making it a concentrated source.
It’s made by refining raw coconut or palm oil to remove other compounds and concentrate the MCTs naturally found in the oils.
MCT oils generally contain 50–80% caprylic acid and 20–50% caproic acid.
Coconut oil is made from copra, the kernel or meat of coconuts.
It’s the richest natural source of MCTs — they comprise about 54% of the fat in copra.
Coconut oil naturally contains MCTs, namely 42% lauric acid, 7% caprylic acid, and 5% capric acid.
In addition to the MCTs, coconut oil contains LCTs and unsaturated fats.
Lauric acid behaves more like an LCT in terms of its slow digestion and absorption. Thus, experts suggest that coconut oil cannot be considered an MCT-rich oil, as is widely claimed, given its high lauric acid content.
MCT oil is a concentrated source of MCTs made from coconut or palm kernel oil. MCT oil contains 100% MCTs, compared with 54% in coconut oil.
MCT oil is better for ketone production and weight loss
MCT oil is popular among those following a keto diet, which is very low in carbs, moderate in protein, and high in fats.
The high intake of fat and low intake of carbs puts your body in a state of nutritional ketosis, in which it burns fat instead of glucose for fuel.
Compared with coconut oil, MCT oil is better for ketone production and maintaining ketosis. Fatty acids that promote the formation of ketones are called ketogenic.
One study in humans found that caprylic acid was three times more ketogenic than capric acid, and about six times more ketogenic than lauric acid.
MCT oil has much larger proportions of the more ketogenic MCTs than coconut oil, which contains the greatest concentration of lauric acid, the least ketogenic MCT.
What’s more, MCTs may decrease the time it takes to reach nutritional ketosis and its associated symptoms, such as irritability and fatigue, compared with LCTs.
Several studies have also shown that MCT oil may aid fat loss by boosting metabolism and promoting greater feelings of fullness compared with coconut oil and LCTs.
MCT oil contains a greater proportion of ketogenic MCTs than coconut oil. MCT oil has also been shown to boost metabolism and promote fullness to a greater extent than coconut oil.
Coconut oil is better for cooking, as well as beauty and skincare
While coconut oil has not been consistently shown to provide the same ketogenic or weight loss properties as pure MCT oil, it has other uses and benefits.
Coconut oil is an ideal cooking oil for stir-frying and pan-frying due to its high smoke point, which is higher than that of MCT oil.
The smoke point is the temperature at which fat begins to oxidize, negatively affecting the oil’s taste and nutritional content.
Coconut oil has a smoke point of 350°F (177°C) compared with 302°F (150°C) for MCT oil.
Beauty and skin care
Coconut oil’s high percentage of lauric acid makes it beneficial for beauty and skin care.
For example, lauric acid has strong antibacterial properties that have been shown to help treat acne in human cells.
Coconut oil has also been shown to improve the symptoms of atopic dermatitis (eczema), such as redness and itchiness, when applied to affected areas.
The skin-hydrating properties of coconut oil likewise make it useful for alleviating xerosis, a common skin condition characterized by dry and itchy skin.
Coconut oil has a higher smoke point than MCT oil, making it more suitable for cooking. The antibacterial and hydrating properties of coconut oil also make it beneficial for beauty and skin care.
Risks and considerations
MCT oil and coconut oil are generally well-tolerated and safe when consumed in moderate amounts.
Excessive intake of MCT or coconut oil has been associated with stomach discomfort, cramping, bloating, and diarrhea.
If you choose to supplement with MCT oil for its ketogenic and weight loss properties, start by taking 1 tablespoon (15 ml) per day and increase as tolerated to the maximum daily dose of 4–7 tablespoons (60–100 ml).
You can mix MCT oil easily into a variety of foods and beverages, including hot cereals, soups, sauces, smoothies, coffee, and tea.
MCT and coconut oil are generally safe but can produce gastrointestinal discomfort if consumed in excess. The maximum recommended dose is 4–7 tablespoons (60–100 ml) per day.
The bottom line
MCT oil and coconut oil can both be beneficial — but for different uses.
MCT oil is a concentrated source of 100% MCTs that’s more effective at boosting weight loss and energy production — especially if you’re following a keto diet — than coconut oil.
Meanwhile, coconut oil has an MCT content of about 54%. It’s best used as a cooking oil and may be beneficial for a variety of beauty applications and skin conditions, such as acne, eczema, and skin dryness.