Coconut oil and MCT oil are all over the place these days, and as intrigued as people are, the hype has left many of us scratching our heads. After all, we’ve heard that coconut oil contains MCTs—so is there really much of a difference between the two products?
Simply put: Yes. Here’s what distinguishes the two trendy oils from each other.
Coconut oil is made by pressing the oil out of dried coconut, and is 92 percent saturated fat. (Yep, it’s higher in saturated fat than beef or butter!) Between 62 and 65 percent of coconut oil’s saturated fats come from MCTs (medium-chain tryiglycerides), a type of saturated fat that is absorbed and used by our body differently than most fats, like LCTs (long-chain triglycerides), which make up the rest of the saturated fat in coconut oil. MCTs are smaller molecules, making them easier for our body to use for energy and less likely to be stored as fat.
Though coconut oil doesn’t contain exclusively MCTs, it does contain more than other types of dietary fats, explains Ginger Hultin, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Here’s the catch, though: Up to 53 percent of coconut oil’s fatty acids come from an MCT called lauric acid, which “behaves more like a long-chain triglyceride than an MCT in many ways,” says Josh Axe, D.N.M., C.N.S., D.C., founder of Ancient Nutrition and DrAxe.com. “It contains more carbon atoms and therefore takes more work to break down, so some people don’t even feel it should be called an MCT.”
While coconut oil contains both MCTs and LCTs, MCT oil contains just MCTs. To create pure MCT oil, coconut and/or palm kernel oils undergo a process called ‘fractionation,’ in which filters or chemicals separate the different types of fatty acids in the oil and create the odorless, colorless, and flavorless refined oil you see on store shelves, says Hultin. No LCTs to be found.
Through this process, even larger MCTs—like lauric acid (which has 12 carbons)—are filtered out in favor of smaller MCTs—like caproic acid (six carbons) and caprylic acid (eight carbons), says Axe. “The shorter the chain (meaning the fewer carbons the fatty acid has), the easier it should be to absorb and use the fat for energy,” he explains. Most MCT oils contain less lauric acid than coconut oil, and concentrate those smaller MCTs in order to be as easy for our body to use for energy—and unlikely to be stored as fat—as possible.
When To Use What
Both coconut and MCT oils are great to have on-hand. “The MCTs you get from either coconut oil or MCT oil are digested easily and support your metabolism because they have a thermogenic (heat-building) effect,” says Axe.
Coconut oil’s main perks: It boasts a smoke point (350 degrees Fahrenheit), has a long shelf life, and offers a unique flavor, making it a great option for cooking and baking, says Hultin. Try using it in creamy soups, baked goods, and stir-fries, or blending it into coffee or smoothies. It also makes a great shortening replacement for greasing pans!
Plus, coconut oil’s uses don’t end in the kitchen; it’s also a superhero beauty and skin-care ingredient, often used to lock moisture into dry skin and hair or remove makeup.
MCT oil, on the other hand, isn’t something you’d want to cook with, partly because the refinement process leaves it with a low smoke point of 284 degrees. You can, however, use it in low-heat recipes, like oatmeal, marinades, or dressings—or, like coconut oil, blend it into smoothies or coffee. Just don’t expect MCT oil to add any flavor (unless the product specifies that it’s been flavored).
Since it’s produced specifically to maximize the fastest-absorbing fatty acids out there, MCT oil is typically taken as a supplement by people who follow a ketogenic diet, which involves shifting the body’s primary fuel source from sugar to fat, explains Axe. Since MCTs can be used for energy, they can help keto dieters churn out more of the ketone bodies (a.k.a fat fuel molecules) they need to thrive.
While MCT oil has a bit of an edge when it comes to ketone-boosting ability, it’s more expensive than regular ol’ coconut oil, so Axe recommends keto dieters make it an ‘every now and then’ swap-in when they need a little extra oomph. Otherwise, the average healthy eater can still benefit from the MCTs found in coconut oil while enjoying the light flavor it adds to various recipes.
When shopping for a quality coconut oil, look for a label that lists just one ingredient: ‘virgin cold-pressed coconut oil,’ says Axe, who also recommends going for organic when possible. Cold-pressed oils are produced at a lower heat, which preserves more of the nutrients they contain and maintains their natural mild flavor (plnt brand’s Extra-Virgin Cold-Pressed Coconut Oil is a good option). Since coconut oil is solid at temperatures below 76 degrees but starts to melt at warmer temps, don’t be alarmed if the texture of your oil changes with the seasons!
Finding a high-quality MCT oil can be a little trickier. Axe recommends looking for a product that clearly states both the ingredients used and the process by which it was made (low-heat processing is better, while steam distillation and the use of chemical solvents are not so great). The bottle should read ‘cold-pressed and unfiltered,’ and the oil should be a thick, clear liquid. (Bulletproof Brain Octane oil contains just caprylic acid MCTs concentrated from coconut oil.) If you notice an inconsistent texture (lumpy or solid), the MCT oil may be hydrogenated or lesser in quality, he says.
Pin this infographic to make the most of coconut and MCT oils: