Nutrition

Why MCT Oil Is Basically a Scam (According to Science)

Key Takeaways

MCT oil is a kind of fat that many people consume to lose weight, stay in ketosis, and improve their cardiovascular health, exercise performance, and brain function.
Research shows MCT oil can help boost ketone production slightly, but has no significant impact on weight loss, exercise performance, or brain function, and may worsen your cardiovascular health.
MCT oil is overpriced and overhyped and delivers on almost none of the marketing claims commonly used to sell it. Moreover, most of what little it does offer in the way of benefits can be obtained with a much cheaper alternative: coconut oil.

“Lose fat by drinking fat!”

“Turn on the fat-burning power of ketosis with the flip of a switch!”

“Supercharge your brain with this super-oil!”

These are just a few of the many reasons MCT oil peddlers say you should give them your money (and a lot of it—this stuff ain’t cheap).

In fact, according to many of these self-styled gurus and “biohackers,” MCT oil is one of the most effective supplements you can take for upgrading your mind and body. 

Just a few tablespoons per day, they say, and you’ll drop weight, turn on ketosis (which can help you drop more weight), boost exercise performance, and increase your brainpower . . . and that’s just the first week!

Now, how much would you expect to pay for such a privilege? Hundreds? Thousands? BIllions

Well, would you believe that it’ll only set you back a mere $1.60 per ounce!? Yes, that’s right, for just $205 per gallon, you too can basically have superpowers!

You don’t want just any MCT oil, though. You want mine, which is grass-fed, gluten-free, organic, non-GMO, blah blah blah will that be cash or credit?

Okay, so I think you get the point. Here’s the long story short:

The benefits of MCT oil have been wildly inflated by the reigning health and fitness propagandists and their minions and unwitting dupes. As you’ll soon see, it’s more or less just another overpriced, overhyped weight loss supplement that doesn’t work as advertised.

And what little it can do for you can be achieved for far less, through coconut oil.

So, we’re going to break it all down in this article, including . . . 

Why MCT oil has become so popular
Why MCT oil won’t help you lose weight
How MCT oil affects your workout performance
Whether MCT oil can affect brain function
How MCT oil impacts your long-term health
And more . . . 

Let’s get started. 

What Is MCT Oil?

MCT is an acronym that stands for medium chain triglyceride, which is a kind of fat.

To understand what MCTs are, you first need to understand triglycerides. 

A triglyceride is the scientific word for a fat molecule. One triglyceride molecule is made of three fatty acid molecules combined with one molecule of glycerol, and fatty acids are strings of carbon atoms with hydrogen and oxygen atoms attached. 

Here’s an illustration of what this looks like: 


Eie-TRIGLYCERIDE


As you can see, the glycerol molecule serves as a “backbone” or structure that supports the three chains of fatty acids. 

Fatty acids are categorized according to how many carbon atoms they contain. The three primary categories are . . . 

Long-chain triglycerides, which contain 13 or more carbon atoms.
Medium-chain triglycerides, which contain 6 to 12 carbon atoms.
Short-chain triglycerides, which contain 2 to 5 carbon atoms.

Long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) are the most common form of fat found in foods. Examples include the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA (abundant in fish), omega-6 fatty acids like arachidonic acid and oleic acid (abundant in eggs and olive oil, respectively).

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are also found in small amounts in a handful of foods, with the main sources being coconut and palm kernel oil and full-fat dairy.

Short-chain triglycerides (SCTs) can be found in some foods and are thought to have a number of health benefits, but most of us get the majority of our SCTs from fiber, which is broken down in the gut by bacteria.

MCT oil is simply a liquid composed entirely of medium-chain triglycerides, typically isolated from coconut oil or palm oil. Typically, MCT oil is odorless, tasteless, and colorless or slightly brown, like this: 


mct-oil-benefitsmct-oil-benefits


Summary: Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a kind of fat that has 6 to 12 carbon atoms in each fatty acid molecule, and MCT oil is an oil composed entirely of MCTs.

What Is MCT Oil Powder?

MCT oil powder is MCT oil that’s been combined with additives to turn it into a solid.

MCT oil powder is made by mixing MCT oil with an absorbent substance such as maltodextrin, soluble corn fiber, cocoa powder, soy lecithin, or sodium caseinate. 

During the mixing process, the oil is converted into small droplets that are covered with the absorbent additives, giving it a powder-like consistency.

Then, the mix of oil and the additives are spray dried to remove any remaining water, leaving a powder roughly the consistency of whey protein powder.

Generally, MCT oil powder contains around 70 to 80% MCT oil and 20 to 30% additives.

Often, you’ll see companies advertise their MCT oil powder as “additive free,” but this isn’t true. Pure MCT oil is always clear or opaque, tasteless, odorless, and liquid at room temperature, and to be transformed into a powder it must be combined with various additives.

Typically, additional substances are added to MCT oil powder prevent it from clumping or absorbing moisture, such as silicon dioxide.

Some marketers say MCT oil powder is easier on your stomach than MCT oil, though there’s little evidence this is true. The oil is also separated from the additives during digestion, so the end result is going to be more or less the same. 

Due to the additives in MCT oil powder, it also generally raises insulin and blood glucose levels slightly, especially if you eat a large amount. This can cause problems if you’re trying to follow a ketogenic diet.

MCT oil powder also costs anywhere from 50 to 100% more than regular MCT oil—which is already quite expensive—by weight.

As MCT oil powder is basically just a dry form of MCT oil, I’ll refer to them both as simply “MCT oil” for the rest of this article. 

What Are the Benefits of MCT Oil?

MCT oil has been used medicinally for several decades, but in the last decade or so, it has gained prominence as a health and fitness supplement.

For reasons you’ll learn in a moment, MCT oil was originally created to nourish people who had trouble absorbing other forms of fat. For example, it was often given to people who had digestive infections, gallbladder surgery, or other medical issues that prevented them from properly digesting long-chain triglycerides. 

Most people supplement with MCT oil for to . . . 

Lose weight
Increase ketone production
Improve cardiovascular health
Increase athletic performance
Improve brain function

And unfortunately for them, the scientific evidence isn’t on their side.

Let’s find out why.

MCT Oil and Weight Loss

MCT oil is often marketed as a weight loss aid, and the pitch is simple enough: 

Just eat or drink a few tablespoons of this goop daily, and you’ll lose body fat. Just like that.

Others claim that it won’t necessarily help you lose body fat faster but instead is a “calorie-free” type of fat your body doesn’t store as body fat.

YouTube quacks and gurus love to support such claims with whiteboard full of intricate diagrams of various physiological processes, and their spiel usually boils down to this: 

MCTs bypass the normal digestive processes that lead to fat storage, and are instead shuttled directly into the mitochondria—the energy-producing power plants of cells—where they’re burned for energy.

In other words, the idea is MCTs are preferentially used for immediate energy production rather than fat storage.

While this is technically true—MCTs are rarely stored as body fat—this isn’t unique to MCTs and doesn’t mean they can’t lead to fat gain.

As you may know, the laws of energy balance dictate that your body burns some of the calories you eat for energy and stores some for future energy needs in the form of body fat. This occurs after every meal, regardless of what you eat.

What does change based on what you eat, though, is which foods are preferentially burned for energy and which ones are stored as body fat. 

Some macronutrients, such as protein and alcohol, are digested and used for energy right away, because the body has no easy way to store large amounts of these substances. 

In the case of protein, this is because the body has no efficient way to store large amounts of protein. In the case of alcohol, this is because high concentrations of alcohol in the body are toxic and must be disposed of quickly.

This is also partly true of carbohydrate. When you eat carbs, your body taps into them for immediate energy and then stores leftovers in the form of glycogen. Only after glycogen stores are topped off will the body convert carbs into body fat, and even then, the process is rather inefficient.

Dietary fat is an outlier in this regard, however, in that it’s preferentially and readily converted into and stored as body fat. If your body doesn’t need to burn dietary fat right away for energy (because it has carbs, protein, or alcohol to burn instead), any dietary fat you eat will be immediately stored as body fat.

When viewed through this lens, MCTs behave similarly in the body to carbs in that under normal circumstances, they’re burned for immediate energy instead of being stored as body fat.

They can still contribute to fat gain in two ways, though: 

By shutting down fat burning in the body and increasing the storage of dietary fat as body fat.
By being stored as body fat when in a calorie surplus.

In other words, when you eat MCTs, the body behaves exactly as you’d expect according to the first law of thermodynamics: 

If you’re eating more calories than you burn, you’ll gain weight, and if you’re eating fewer calories than you burn, you’ll lose weight.

That’s true whether you’re eating MCTs or fat from olive oil, bacon, cheese, or anything else.

MCTs do have one metabolic magic trick up their sleeves, though: 

They have a higher thermic effect than other kinds of fats, of about 10 to 15% (versus 0 to 3% for regular fats). IThis means that about 10 to 15% of the calories contained in MCTs are burned during digestion and processing, which means they have closer to 8 calories per gram versus 9 calories per gram for regular fat.

While this is interesting, it’s not going to make any noticeable difference in your weight loss efforts.

For example, let’s say you normally eat 50 grams of fat per day, and you decide to replace half of your daily fat calories with MCTs. 

By doing this, you’d be going from about 450 calories of fat per day to 425 calories of fat per day. In other words, a negligible reduction in calorie intake that equals about 5 minutes of walking at a moderate pace.

Still skeptical? Let’s see what the scientific evidence says about MCTs and weight loss in living, breathing people.

One of the best clinical studies on the effects of MCT oil on weight loss was conducted by scientists at Columbia University. 

The researchers divided 49 overweight men and women aged 19 to 50 into two groups: 

Group one consumed 18 (women) to 24 (men) grams of MCT oil every day for four months.
Group two consumed 18 (women) to 24 (men) grams of olive oil every day for four months.

Both groups were required to maintain their weight for six months before the study to ensure they weren’t already losing or gaining weight when they began the experiment. 

During the study, the men were instructed to eat 1,800 calories per day and the women were instructed to eat 1,500 calories, with the intention of producing rapid weight loss. Everyone was taught how to track and prepare their meals by a dietitian and met with a member of the research team every week to have their waists and weights measured. 

Additionally, the researchers used a DXA scan to measure the body composition of the participants before and after the study.

And the results? 

Group one lost 5 pounds of fat and group two lost 1.5 pounds of fat and both groups reduce their waist circumference the same amount. 

Now, if I were trying to sell you MCT oil, I’d leave it at that, drop the mic, and pitch you on my patent perpetually pending pots of placebo potions, pills, and powders.

I’m just a humble muscle merchant, though, so let’s take this discussion a bit further.

Those results would be impressive if the study lasted two weeks, but they’re far less meaningful considering the study lasted four months.

That means the group consuming MCT oil lost about a quarter pound more fat per month—an amount that was statistically significant in this case but more or less trivial in terms of bottom line results.  

It’s also highly likely these people weren’t accurately tracking their food intake, because if they were, they would’ve lost 4 to 10 times as much weight as they did. If that’s true, then it follows that group one’s superior weight loss was likely due to better dietary habits, not MCT oil.

This was one of the best studies we have on MCT oil, too, and if we look at other similar research, it paints an even bleaker picture. 

For instance, studies conducted by researchers at McGill University found MCT oil produced even less fat loss under similar conditions.

Similarly, a review study conducted by scientists at Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro looked at all of the controlled scientific studies on MCT oil and weight loss from 2000 to 2010. 

The researchers narrowed the field to 14 studies that met their quality criteria and found that six studies showed moderate improvements in body weight, eight failed to show any change in body weight, one showed an improvement in satiety, and four showed a small increase in energy expenditure (but little to no weight loss).

In other words, the vast majority of strong scientific evidence shows MCT oil simply doesn’t help with weight loss to any significant degree. 

Summary: Eating MCT oil will help you burn slightly more calories than eating normal fats, but this effect is too slight to help you lose weight.

MCT Oil and Ketone Production


mct oilmct oil


You’ll often see MCT oil advertised as a supplement for ketogenic dieters.

The ketogenic diet involves eating little to no carbs, which forces the body to produce and burn ketones for fuel instead of glucose. 

Ketones are produced by breaking down dietary or body fat. Some fats, though, are more easily converted into ketones than others, including MCTs. 

Keto zealots claim that this helps you lose fat faster, but science disagrees.

First of all, such an assertion assumes the ketogenic diet produces more and faster fat loss than a regular, balanced diet, which isn’t true

Second, simply raising ketone levels doesn’t increase fat burning, either.

You can learn more about the ketogenic diet in this article: 

The Definitive Guide to the Ketogenic Diet

Summary: Drinking MCT oil will increase ketone production temporarily, but this doesn’t increase fat burning or cause weight loss.

MCT Oil and Cardiovascular Health

Many MCT peddlers say it can help lower cholesterol levels and improve cardiovascular health.

The truth of the matter, though, is the evidence on the matter is a mixed bag. 

For example, a study conducted by scientists at Boston University found that giving diabetics 18 grams of MCT oil per day helped boost their HDL cholesterol levels (good) and reduce their LDL cholesterol (also good) by a small margin.

These people also lost weight, though, which can improve cholesterol levels, so it’s impossible to say whether it was the MCT oil or the weight loss that produced the benefits.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the people’s triglyceride levels—another important marker of cardiovascular health—didn’t change at all.

On the other hand, a study conducted by scientists at The Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University found quite different results.

They had 17 young men follow both of these diets: 

Replace daily fat intake with 70 grams of MCT oil for 21 days.
Replace daily fat intake with 70 grams of high-oleic sunflower oil (basically colorless, tasteless olive oil) for 21 days.

Everyone followed both of these protocols, with a two week break between each diet. The researchers took blood tests of everyone’s total cholesterol, LDL, HDL, and VLDL cholesterol (a kind of LDL closely associated with heart disease), triglycerides, and glucose levels before and after each dietary intervention.

The MCT oil performed terribly. Compared to the sunflower oil, it . . .

Increased total cholesterol by 11%
Increased LDL cholesterol by 12%
Increased VLDL by 32%
Increased their triglycerides by 22%
Slightly increased resting glucose levels

In other words, replacing their daily fat intake with MCT oil wrecked their blood results. 

Another study conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt University found that overfeeding people with MCT oil tripled their triglyceride levels in three days, whereas long-chain triglycerides (in the form of soybean oil) had no effect on triglyceride levels. 

So, as you can see, the jury is still out on whether or not MCTs are good, neutral, or bad for our cardiovascular health.

Given the current weight of the evidence, however, it’s probably best to play it safe and only consume small to moderate amounts of MCTs.

Summary: It’s not clear if MCT oil is bad, good, or neutral for cardiovascular health, but several studies have found that it can significantly increase LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, so it’s probably best to limit intake.

MCT Oil and Athletic Performance

High-fat diets are fashionable right now, and among athletes in particular who hope to improve their performance as well as enhance their overall health and well-being.

As MCT oil is a rapidly digested source of pure fat, it’s not surprising it has caught on in this crowd, but there’s more—many high-fat dieters also believe it directly enhances physical performance regardless of whether your diet is high-fat or high-carb.

Is this true, though? 

Well, the main way MCTs can purportedly accomplish this is by reducing glycogen usage during exercise.

Glycogen is a form of carbohydrate stored in the muscles and liver that’s gobbled up during exercise, especially endurance exercise, and when it runs low performance inevitably declines.

As a result, anything that can help preserve glycogen stores can potentially improve physical performance, and there’s some evidence to support this theory.

For instance, proponents of MCT oil will often point to studies like this one, conducted by scientists at Kyoto University. 

The researchers found that feeding mice a diet containing large amounts of MCT oil for six weeks allowed them to swim significantly longer than mice fed a diet of LCTs. 

Interesting, but far from conclusive as, wait for it…we humans aren’t merely big mice.

On the other hand, the majority of similar studies with humans have found MCT oil either doesn’t improve performance or actually decreases it. 

The best study to date on this topic is a review conducted by Miriam Clegg, PhD at the University of Oxford. 

She parsed through decades of literature on MCT oil and exercise performance, and after reviewing boatloads of data, concluded “the effect of MCT feeding on exercise or performance has not been positive. . .”

She was being considerate.

Of the 17 studies examined, 10 found MCT oil did absolutely nothing. Furthermore, in one of the studies, scientists ensured the subjects’ glycogen stores were fully depleted before testing the effects of the oil, which gave it the best chances of boosting performance. It failed.

Five studies found that MCT oil reduced performance due to gastrointestinal discomfort (a common side effect of consuming lots of it).

Finally, just two studies found that consuming large amounts of MCT oil reduced glycogen usage during exercise, but even then, there was no improvement in performance. 

You can find similar results in studies on high-fat diets and endurance exercise.

Scientists have known for decades that consuming large amounts of dietary fat increases the amount of fat you burn during exercise, but it also impairs your ability to burn carbohydrate. 

Overall, this has a negative effect on performance because functioning optimally in most sports requires your body to be able to burn carbohydrate efficiently.

Now, as far as more high-intensity forms of exercise like weightlifting, sprinting, and the like, there’s no evidence MCT oil helps with any of them and there’s no good reason to think it would.

In fact, Clegg went so far as to conclude that scientists should stop wasting time and money studying MCT oil’s effects on exercise performance because it’s clearly a failure.

Summary: MCT oil doesn’t improve endurance, strength, explosiveness, or exercise performance in any way, and it may actually reduce exercise performance.

MCT Oil and Brain Function

Many marketers claim MCT oil improves brain function, concentration, and energy levels. 

As MCT oil is absorbed more rapidly than other fats, they say this makes it the perfect brain food, boosting cognition.

This is silly.

First of all, simply eating more food—whether it’s fat, carbs, or protein—doesn’t acutely “boost” brain function, regardless of how quickly or slowly it’s processed. 

Like every other organ in the body, the brain requires a certain amount of energy to function optimally, and simply providing more doesn’t further boost performance. Those additional calories either get stored or burned or a combination of both.

Additionally, your brain never truly gets “low” on energy, even when you go for extended periods without food. In this case, your body continues to break down body fat to provide your brain (and the rest of your body) with a steady stream of energy. Therefore, even if you hadn’t eaten in, let’s say, a week, slurping down some MCTs wouldn’t make a significant difference in your brain function.

(Of course, starving yourself can make you feel tired, but that has more to do with changes in hormones than your brain running low on energy.)

Second, as far as energy sources go, MCT oil is a fairly slow-burning fuel compared to other foods.

For example, simple carbs like sugar enter the bloodstream within 20 to 30 minutes of being consumed. There’s very little research on how long it takes MCT oil to digest, but it’s likely significantly longer than this as the digestion process is more involved

Finally, and for the reasons just given, there’s simply no evidence that MCT oil offers any cognitive benefits whatsoever. Everything you read, hear, or see about MCT oil affecting brain function is based on mechanistic meandering and specious speculation. 

In other words, such claims have never been scientifically tested and there’s little reason to think they would pan out in clinical research. 

They’re yet another example of unscrupulous marketers taking a relatively unexciting physiological fact (MCTs digest faster than other fats) and spinning it into a sales pitch (“MCTs are high-octane brain fuel!”). 

Don’t fall for it.  

Summary: MCT oil is absorbed faster than other forms of fat, but there’s no evidence it boosts brain function, cognition, focus, or energy levels.

MCT Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Which Is Better?


mctmct


Most MCT oil is extracted from either palm kernel oil or coconut oil, which are high in MCTs. 

This has led many people to wonder: if these foods are naturally so high in MCTs, why not just eat coconut oil or palm kernel oil instead? 

The answer has to do with the fatty acid composition of these oils. As coconut oil is more readily available than palm kernel oil, let’s look at its fatty acid breakdown.

Coconut oil is . . . 

48% lauric acid
16% myristic acid
10% palmitic acid
8% decanoic acid
7% caprylic acid
6.5% oleic acid
5% other forms of fatty acids

As you can see, the predominant fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has 12 carbon atoms per fatty acid molecule, barely qualifying it as an MCT (we recall that MCTs have a carbon chain of between 6 to 12 carbon atoms).

The shorter the carbon chain, the faster the fatty acid is digested, so lauric acid isn’t processed as quickly as caprylic acid, with only 8 carbon atoms per fatty acid molecule. This is why many of the studies on MCT oil have used caprylic acid instead of lauric acid. 

Looking back to the coconut oil, myristic, palmitic, and oleic acid, which make up 33% of the fat in it, are LCTs, and don’t have any of the special properties of MCTs. Thus, if you’re primarily consuming coconut oil for the MCTs, 33% of it is just tag-along calories. 

Then there are caprylic and decanoic acid, which have 8 and 10 carbon atoms in each fatty acid molecule, respectively, making these the real winners as far as MCTs go. 

The downside here, then, is obvious: the “best” MCTs in coconut oil only make up about 15% of its fat content. Therefore, you’d have to eat 100 grams of coconut oil (1,000 calories!) just to get 15 grams of caprylic and decanoic acid.

And even if you include lauric acid as an MCT, you’d still need to eat 25 grams of coconut oil (225 calories) to get 15 grams of MCTs.

Considering everything we’ve discussed so far, however, none of this really matters because there’s no good reason to go out of your way to consume high amounts of MCTs unless you’re particularly excited about the small amount of additional energy required to digest them.

If that’s the case, coconut oil is cheap and tastes and smells good, so I’d recommend it over an overpriced bottle of MCT oil.

Summary: MCT oil contains 100% MCTs, whereas coconut oil only contains around 15 to 74% MCTs, depending on which types of fatty acids you’re most interested in. While there’s no good reason to consume high amounts of MCTs, if you want to dabble in it, at least coconut oil is cheap and tastes and smells good.

Are There Any Side Effects of Taking MCT Oil?

The primary side effects of consuming MCT oil are nausea, indigestion, and diarrhea. 

This typically occurs when large amounts are consumed in a short period of time (think oil shots or a very fatty meal). 

As mentioned earlier, it’s also possible that consuming large amounts of MCT oil might increase your LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels, which could have negative long-term effects on your cardiovascular health.

If you consume it willy nilly, the only other side effect to worry about would be weight gain, as MCT oil is still calorie dense and easy to over-consume compared to other foods.

The Bottom Line on MCT Oil

Like collagen protein, MCT oil has quickly become a major cash cow for health and fitness shysters and gurus, which is an immediate red flag.

Whenever you see a supplement of any kind, let alone a weight loss supplement, hitting the scene with widespread fanfare, you should be very skeptical because chances are it’s just another scam. 

And that’s the case with MCT oil.

MCT oil is a liquid composed of medium-chain triglycerides, typically isolated from coconut oil or palm kernel oil. 

Although many people claim MCT oil can help you lose weight and improve your cardiovascular health, athletic performance, and brain function, research shows eating MCT oil:

Won’t help you lose weight faster than other fats, despite slightly boosting ketone production and energy expenditure.
Doesn’t improve your cardiovascular health and may raise your LDL cholesterol and triglycerides if eaten in large amounts.
Doesn’t improve your endurance, strength, explosiveness, or exercise performance in any way, and it may reduce exercise performance by upsetting your stomach.
Doesn’t improve cognition, focus, or energy levels.

That said, there are a few well-established effects associated with eating large amounts of MCT oil that you may want to know about:

Nausea
Indigestion
Diarrhea

Thus, at the end of the day, MCT oil is merely another overpriced, overhyped, and utterly ordinary alternative to other kinds of oils. 

Do yourself and your wallet a favor and don’t buy it. 

If I’ve failed to convince you, however, and you’re still resolved to see if supplementing your diet with MCTs can do anything for you, go with coconut oil unless you’re also resolved to waste as much money as possible.

You can pay up to $1.60 per ounce or more for MCT oil or 30 to 50 cents per ounce for coconut oil. MCT marketers will claim the extra cost is justified by the fatty acid composition of MCT oil (“100% caprylic acid!”), but this is negligible in the scheme of things.

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