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Q: MCT oil and coconut oil seem alike in my mind. I’m not sure how they differ and which one to use. Do they have the same benefits, and can they be used interchangeably?
A: No, definitely not. While both can be therapeutic for certain conditions, there are key differences between MCT and coconuts oils, and each has unique benefits and uses. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of each to determine which oil is more appropriate for you—or whether you want to use them both.
Coconut oil is a historically used fat in many tropical areas of the world, and it has become popular among many health-oriented shoppers in recent years. It is considered the richest food source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), also called medium-chain fatty acids, which are primarily capric, caprylic, and lauric acids. It also contains some long-chain fatty acids, which aren’t as easy for the body to digest.
The fact that coconut oil is listed as a rich source of MCTs should have an asterisk next to it, though. The highest percentage of fatty acids in coconut oil is from lauric acid. Even though lauric acid is considered a medium-chain fatty acid by chemists, it behaves more like a long-chain fatty acid in terms of digestion and absorption. For this reason, many experts suggest that coconut oil should not be considered an MCT-rich oil. Lauric acid has notable antimicrobial effects, but it doesn’t have the easy-to-digest characteristics of MCTs that encourage the body to burn fat and provide quick energy.
MCTs, on the other hand, don’t require the enzymes or bile acids for digestion and absorption that long-chain fatty acids require. This allows MCTs to go straight to your liver where they are either used for immediate energy or turned into ketones, compounds produced when your liver breaks down a lot of fat.
MCT oil contains 100 percent MCTs, compared with about 50 percent in coconut oil. MCT oil is made by refining coconut oil or palm oil to remove other compounds and to concentrate the MCTs naturally found in the oils.
The Benefits and Uses of MCT Oil
Research suggests that MCT oil may help boost weight loss, metabolic functioning, and energy production more than other oils. As mentioned, your body turns MCTs into alternative forms of energy called ketones, which provide your brain with energy, increase your metabolic rate, and burn excess fat. Mark Hyman, MD, author of Eat Fat, Get Thin, calls MCT oil “the secret fat that makes you thin.” He calls MCT oil a super fuel for your cells that increases mental clarity and boosts fat-burning.
MCTs can increase the number of calories your body burns compared with longer-chain fatty acids‚ and replacing other dietary fats with MCT oil can produce weight loss. One study found that people saw more weight loss and decreased body fat from consuming MCT oil rather than olive oil. Other studies suggest that MCT oil may help you exercise longer and improve your stamina.
Related: 7 Benefits of MCT Oil
Because of the rapid and simple digestion of MCTs, MCT oil also may help people who have malabsorption issues. Some holistic-oriented medical practitioners use MCTs as nutritional therapy for reducing intestinal irritation in patients with irritable bowel disease, short bowel syndrome, or celiac disease, or after gastrointestinal surgery.
The Benefits and Uses of Coconut Oil
Decades ago, coconut oil was avoided because it is a saturated fat that people in the Western world incorrectly associated with heart disease. History shows that coconut oil doesn’t appear to increase cardiovascular disease, and some clinical research also supports this. In parts of the world, such as the South Pacific islands and Papua New Guinea, where coconuts are a dietary staple, people have thrived eating coconut oil for generations and have very low rates of heart disease.
Lauric acid makes up about half of the fatty acids in coconut oil. When your body digests lauric acid, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin may kill harmful pathogens, such as bacteria,
viruses, and fungi. Test-tube studies show that these substances help wipe out Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and the yeast Candida albicans, a common source of yeast infections in humans. Research also shows that lauric acid has potent inhibitory effects against Clostridium difficile, often abbreviated C. diff, a bacteria that affects the intestines and is resistant to many antibiotics.
Related: The Coconut Oil Conundrum
Monolaurin and lauric acid also have the physiochemical property of being able to destroy the membrane of lipid-coated viruses, such as the virus that causes COVID-19. Clinical trials using coconut oil on COVID-19 patients in hospitals in the Philippines are underway as of this writing.
Unlike MCT oil, which should not be used in cooking, coconut oil has a high smoke point, meaning it stands up well to heat and is good for stir-frying and pan-frying. Coconut oil also is an excellent substitute for butter in baking.
Coconut oil can be used topically to improve the health and appearance of skin and hair. Research shows that when coconut oil is applied to skin, it can improve the moisture content and reduce the symptoms of eczema. When applied to hair, coconut oil may soften texture, protect against damage, and act as a weak sunscreen, blocking about 20 percent of the sun’s UV rays.
Which Is Best?
Which of these oils is best for you to use depends on the condition of your health and your personal goals. If you want to lose weight, especially if you’re following a keto-type diet, supplementing with MCT oil can ensure you’re getting enough fat to stay in ketosis—the state in which your body burns fat, rather than carbs, for fuel. But even if you’re on a different type of eating plan, MCT oil can help you feel fuller, longer; help you feel more mentally alert; and might even improve endurance during exercise.
If you have a digestive disorder or difficulty digesting and absorbing fat—which is often characterized by diarrhea, greasy stools, foul-smelling stools, bloating, and gas—consider supplementing with MCT oil to provide an easy-to-digest source of fat that might help reduce irritation in your intestines.
On the other hand, coconut oil is the one to choose if you’re looking for a versatile cooking oil that can also be used therapeutically on the skin and hair. It is an all-star in these areas. It’s also possible that because of its high lauric acid content, consuming raw coconut oil is potentially beneficial for protecting against—or combating—infections caused by numerous pathogenic bugs, including Candida albicans, bacteria, and viruses. For the best health benefits and the most nutrients, opt for organic, unrefined virgin coconut oil.
Regardless of which one you choose, be aware that taking too much MCT oil or coconut oil can lead to stomach discomfort, cramping, diarrhea, and bloating. So, it’s a good idea to start small (say, ½ Tbs. per day), see how your body reacts, and increase as tolerated to a maximum dose of 3–4 Tbs per day.
If you experience digestive distress from supplementing with MCT oil, consider trying another brand of the product. Some people who experience digestive trouble from MCT oil may react to the proprietary blend of MCTs or to the solvents used in the processing that may not be in another brand. Popular brands include Nutiva 100% Organic Coconut MCT Oil and MCT powders; Bulletproof Brain Octane Oil; and hexane-free Garden of Life Dr. Formulated 100% Organic Coconut MCT Oil.
If you don’t like the taste of one brand of coconut oil, try another. There can be differences in flavor depending on where the product is sourced and how it is processed. Common brands include Jarrow Formulas Extra Virgin, Cold Pressed Organic Coconut Oil; Viva Naturals Extra Virgin Organic Coconut Oil; Dr. Bronner’s Regenerative Organic Coconut Oil; and Nature’s Way Extra Virgin, Unrefined Coconut Oil.
Finally, whether you decide to use MCT oil, coconut oil, or both in your diet, understand that MCT oil supplies no essential fatty acids (EFAs), and coconut oil supplies a negligible amount. As the name implies, EFAs are essential for our health and well-being. To avoid becoming deficient in EFAs, eat plenty of cold-water fish, grass-fed beef, omega-3-enriched eggs, hemp seeds, and flaxseeds.