MCT Oil Vs Coconut Oil

coconut or mct oilCoconut oil has been the buzz for almost a decade – and now its protégé, MCT oil, is taking center stage. Both oils are rich in saturated fatty acids that have been shown to promote weight loss and rumored to heal all of your ills. What’s the difference, and which one should you take?

Here’s the breakdown:

What Are the “MCTs’ in MCT Oil?

Medium chain triglycerides (MCTss) are fats that contain between 6 to 10 carbons. Technically, 12 carbon chain fatty acids (lauric acid) are also MCTs, but they have vastly different digestion and biological properties so are not strictly considered a “functional MCT”. MCTs with 6 to 10 carbons are small enough to bypass regular fat digestion and are easily absorbed during digestion. They have antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties and are quickly used to produce cellular energy by producing ketones – you would have heard about them if you’ve looked into keto diets or smashed back a bulletproof coffee.

MCTs include:

C6 – Caprioc acid has 6 carbons and is found in small amounts in nature – it’s the rarest occurring MCT. With such a short carbon length, it is converted into ketones super quickly – this is quick-burning energy that provides excellent fuel to the brain and body! Unfortunately, it tastes really, really bad. MCT oils with high caproic acid content can cause sore throats and tummy upsets.

C8 – Caprylic acid has 8 carbons, and is renowned for its antimicrobial, ketogenic, and anti-inflammatory properties. Caprylic acid makes up ~6% of coconut oil. It’s said to be effective for improving weight loss, memory, and gut health. Learn more about caprylic acid here →

C10 – Capric acid or decanoic acid has ten carbons. It’s needed by the electron transport chain and studies have shown that increasing capric acid intake can boost ATP synthesis. It is converted into monocaprin in the body, a compound that has potent anti-viral activity [12].

MCTs are naturally found in coconut oil, palm oil, and dairy. Goat milk is particularly high in capric acid, while coconut oil and palm oil. Processing and refining get the MCTs out of these sources to bottle up.

 Curious about MCT Oil supplements? Check out our best rated MCT oils here.

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil contains ~40% MCTs, but it also contains antibacterial, anti-fungal, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory constituents beyond MCTs. Coconut oil contains ~50% lauric acid. Lauric acid, while labeled by chemists as technically being a medium chain triglyceride, does not act in the body as other MCTs – it requires digestion and absorption like most other fats. It doesn’t act biologically like a true MCT oil, and it doesn’t promote ketosis.. On the other hand, studies show that lauric acid has benefits beyond MCTs:

  • Fights inflammatory acne better than conventional medications [1]
  • Improves circulating cholesterol and triglyceride levels ratios [2]
  • Inhibits bacterial growth, including tuberculosis [3]

It also contains small amounts of vitamin E, a strong antioxidant; vitamin K, necessary for bone and heart health; and a very small amount of phytoesterols which can reduce cholesterol – but don’t jump to any conclusions. On a positive note, coconut oil has been shown to be much better for cardiovascular health than butter and olive oil [9].

Coconut oil as a whole is not known as a great food for heart health. An Australian study in 2006 showed that coconut oil reduced the endothelial function in arteries and reduced HDL cholesterol (the “good cholesterol”) levels within hours of consumption [8]. This is contrary to the studies on isolated lauric acid – let’s say that the jury is out for now on how heart-healthy coconut oil might be.

But things aren’t all positive for lauric acid. A recent study suggests that lauric acid may promote pro-inflammatory gene expression, and can stimulate the expression of NF-kB and COX-2 [4]. It may be possible that the combination of lauric acid with the true MCT oils results in a net nil or anti-inflammatory effect – maybe…

The Middle Ground

Some MCT producers have begun to include a large amount of lauric acid (~30% total volume) in their mix to make their MCT oils more palatable and appropriate for cooking at high temperatures [5]. These products are kind of an in-between of traditional MCT oils and coconut oil. They don’t solidify in cold temperatures or taste coconut-y, and they have a higher ratio of other MCTs:lauric acid – remember that coconut oil contains ~50% lauric acid, while these blends usually have ~30% lauric acid.

The benefits of these products depend on the quality of the oils used, and the ratio of lauric acid to caprylic and capric acids – if you’re looking for fast ketone release, anti-viral or anti-inflammatory actions, stick to a pure caprylic and capric acid MCT oil, but products that include 30% of lauric acid are great for long-lasting energy.

Major Differences Between Coconut Oil & MCT Oils:

  • A 2017 study showed that coconut oil is less satisfying than MCT oil. Participants consumed a smoothie containing 205kcals of either coconut oil, MCT oil or vegetable oil, then recorded their appetite for the next few hours. MCT oil reduced food intake at lunch time, and reportedly more palatable than coconut oil [6]. It might be more effective in weight loss, by suppressing appetite and reducing cravings.
  • Coconut oil causes very few gastrointestinal side effects, if any. On the other hand, MCT oil frequently causes diarrhea, nausea and reflux [7]. Start slowly with MCT – try ½ a teaspoon at first and work your way up! Speak to a qualified nutritionist for personalized advice.
  • Coconut oil is claimed to be more “natural” than MCT oils. In reality, even coconut oil has been processed and refined – “unrefined” on the labelling just means it hasn’t had natural colors or impurities removed. The coconut kernels have to be highly processed to extract their oils. MCT oil products are produced with further fractionation to isolate the triglycerides.

Further Reading:


About James Lyons

James Lyons (BHSc Nutritional Medicine) is a clinical nutritionist, medical writer, and educator. He specialises in plant-based nutrition and is passionate about improving public access to reliable and accurate health information.

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