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MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Understanding the Difference

Medically reviewed by 
MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Understanding the Difference

As interest in health and wellness grows, so does the popularity of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and coconut oil. While both are derived from coconuts, MCT oil is more concentrated in medium-chain fatty acids, offering benefits like increased energy expenditure and improved cognitive function. Coconut oil, rich in saturated fats and MCTs, boasts antimicrobial properties and is versatile in cooking and skincare. 

This article will explore the differences between these oils to provide clarity when choosing the oil that best suits individual health goals and preferences.


Understanding Fats and Oils

Fats serve important purposes in the body: providing energy, helping with nutrient absorption, regulating cholesterol levels, and stabilizing cell membranes and nerve function. Dietary fats can be broadly categorized into saturated fats, trans fats, and unsaturated fats, which include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a type of saturated fat primarily found in coconut oil and palm kernel oil, as well as dairy products, and they have some unique properties. Unlike long-chain triglycerides found in most dietary fats, the body metabolizes MCTs more quickly and efficiently, providing a rapid source of energy. 

Extraction and Processing

Coconut oil is extracted by squeezing coconut meat. This oil undergoes minimal processing and may be further refined or left in its unrefined state. Coconut oil retains a mixture of fatty acids, including MCTs, contributing to its distinct flavor and nutritional profile.

MCT oil is typically extracted from coconut oil or palm kernel oil through a process called fractionation which involves heating the oil to separate the different types of fats present based on their melting points. MCTs have lower melting points compared to long-chain triglycerides so can be separated out and then further refined to produce a pure MCT oil.

Nutritional Content Comparison

Due to how it is obtained and the level of refinement, coconut oil offers a broader spectrum of fatty acids than MCT oil, while MCT oil generally contains a higher concentration of MCTs.

MCT Oil Composition 

MCTs are made up of chains of fat that are medium-length (medium-chain), containing 6-12 carbon molecules, compared to long-chain fats that contain more than 12 molecules. The most abundant medium-chain triglycerides in MCTs are caproic acid (C6), caprylic acid (C8), and capric acid (C10). 

These fats bypass the typical intestinal digestion process that long-chain fats undergo. They are rapidly absorbed by the liver and metabolized into ketones, which are efficient sources of energy for the brain and body.

Coconut Oil Composition 

Coconut oil contains a mix of fatty acids and is roughly 90% saturated fat. It contains a high proportion (about 50-60%) of lauric acid, along with smaller amounts of caprylic and capric acid and some unsaturated fats. 

While lauric acid is technically classified as a medium-chain fatty acid, it behaves more like a long-chain fatty acid in terms of metabolism. Therefore, coconut oil's MCT content may not offer the same rapid energy benefits as pure MCT oil.

Caloric and Fat Content

Both MCT oil and coconut oil provide 9 calories per gram as fats. However, MCT oil typically contains a higher concentration of medium-chain triglycerides, resulting in a slightly lower total fat content per serving compared to coconut oil. 

Health Benefits

Both MCT oil and coconut oil offer unique health benefits due to their composition and metabolic effects.

MCT Oil Benefits 

Faster Energy Conversion

Because MTCs are smaller than long-chain triglycerides, they are rapidly absorbed and transported to the liver for metabolism and conversion into ketones. This leads to quick energy production and less storage of fat. MCT oil provides a rapid source of fuel for the body and brain, making it a popular choice for athletes and individuals seeking immediate energy boosts and those following a ketogenic diet.

Support for Weight Management

MCTs support weight management through several mechanisms including increased energy expenditure and fat oxidation. Additionally, MCT oil can help promote feelings of fullness and reduce appetite when consumed as part of a balanced diet.

Cognitive Function Enhancement

The ketones produced from MCT metabolism can cross the blood-brain barrier and serve as an alternative fuel source for the brain. Studies suggest that MCT oil is a promising option for enhancing cognitive performance and improving cognitive function, mental clarity, and focus.

Coconut Oil Benefits

Antimicrobial Properties

Lauric acid in coconut oil is converted into monolaurin in the body, which has been shown to help combat harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi. This makes coconut oil a natural and effective option for supporting immune function and fighting infections.

Potential Impact on Cholesterol Levels

While coconut oil is high in saturated fats, studies suggest that it contains a unique combination of fatty acids that may have a neutral or beneficial effect on cholesterol levels.  These may include raising HDL (good) cholesterol levels and improving the ratio of HDL to LDL (bad) cholesterol, associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. Continued research is needed to fully understand the effects of coconut oil consumption on cholesterol and cardiovascular health.

Skin Health Benefits

Coconut oil contains antioxidants and fatty acids that can help protect the skin from damage caused by free radicals and promote hydration and elasticity. It is commonly incorporated into routines to moisturize dry skin, treat conditions like eczema and dermatitis, and act as a natural sunscreen due to its mild sun protection factor (SPF) properties.

Scientific Evidence 

Recent research studies support various health claims associated with MCT oil and coconut oil, highlighting their potential benefits for weight management, cognitive function, heart health, and antimicrobial activity. An ongoing investigation is warranted to fully elucidate the mechanisms behind these effects and establish optimal usage recommendations.

Weight Management

Studies show that consuming MCT oil can lead to increased energy expenditure, enhanced fat oxidation, and greater feelings of fullness, ultimately contributing to weight loss or weight management. Additionally, some research suggests that incorporating coconut oil into the diet may have similar effects on weight regulation due to its unique fatty acid composition.

Cognitive Function

Studies have shown that MCT oil supplementation boosts ketones to fuel the brain and may benefit individuals with cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer's disease or mild cognitive impairment. Similarly, the rich MCT content in coconut oil offers potential neuroprotective effects.

Antimicrobial Properties

Both MCT oil and coconut oil have been studied extensively for their antimicrobial properties, particularly due to their high content of lauric acid. Research has shown that lauric acid and its derivative, monolaurin, exhibit potent antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, making them effective against a wide range of pathogens, including bacteria, viruses, and fungi.

Usage in Diet and Cooking

Foods that are naturally rich in MCTs include:

  • coconut oil
  • palm kernel oil
  • butter
  • milk
  • yogurt 
  • Cheese

In addition to these natural MCT sources, concentrated MCT oil and coconut oil can be easily incorporated into the diet in various ways. MCT oil is odorless, flavorless, and has a light texture, making it ideal for blending into beverages like smoothies or coffee or incorporating into recipes like salad dressing without altering the taste or texture. 

On the other hand, unrefined coconut oil offers a distinct coconut flavor and aroma and is solid at room temperature, lending a creamy texture to baked goods and desserts. 

MCT oil has a high smoke point, typically around 320°F to 350°F (160°C to 177°C), making it suitable for sautéing, frying, and baking at moderate temperatures. Coconut oil also has a high smoke point, ranging from 350°F to 400°F (175°C to 205°C), making it versatile for a wide range of cooking methods, including high-heat cooking like stir-frying and roasting.

MCT oil's ability to rapidly produce ketones may make it particularly valuable to those following a ketogenic diet

Potential Risks and Considerations

Digestive Tolerance

MCT oil is generally well-tolerated, but some individuals may experience digestive discomfort, such as diarrhea, stomach cramps, or bloating, especially when starting with higher doses. 

Starting with a small amount of MCT oil and gradually increasing the dosage over time, as well as consuming MCT oil with food, can allow the body to adjust and help mitigate these side effects. 

Allergy and Sensitivity

Those with coconut allergies or sensitivities may react to coconut oil with allergic reactions ranging from mild itching or hives to severe anaphylaxis in some cases. Individuals with known coconut allergies should avoid coconut oil and products containing coconut derivatives altogether. 

Economic and Environmental Factors

MCT oil typically tends to be more expensive than coconut oil due to a more complicated production process requiring specialized equipment and an increasing demand for it. 

High-quality virgin or extra-virgin coconut oil may command a higher price due to its superior flavor, aroma, and nutritional content. Similarly, MCT oil derived from premium sources like organic coconuts or sustainably harvested palm kernels may have a higher price tag but less environmental impact. 

The environmental impact of coconut oil production is relatively low, but concerns about deforestation for coconut plantations exist. MCT oil production, particularly from unsustainable palm kernel oil sources, can contribute to deforestation and biodiversity loss.


Key Takeaways

  • MCT oil-primarily comprises medium-chain triglycerides, particularly caprylic acid (C8) and capric acid (C10), while coconut oil contains a mix of fatty acids, including MCTs like lauric acid.
  • MCT oil is metabolized more rapidly by the body, providing quick energy and potential benefits for weight management and cognitive function. 
  • Coconut oil's fat content and effects are more diverse, including antimicrobial properties, potential impact on cholesterol levels, and benefits for skin health.
  • MCT oil is often preferred for ketogenic diets and energy supplementation, while coconut oil is versatile in cooking, baking, and skincare routines.
  • The choice between MCT oil and coconut oil should be based on individual health goals, dietary preferences, and potential benefits. 
The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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