Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and coconut oil are two oils that have a variety of uses. Although similar, they both have their own benefits and health risks.

MCT oil is a concentration of MCTs from one of several sources, while coconut oil comes from coconuts and contains a good source of MCTs. MCT oil may be more beneficial for boosting weight loss and providing energy, while coconut oil is useful for cooking and beauty applications.

This article will cover the differences between MCT oil and coconut oil, as well as their health benefits and risks.

Pieces of coconut, from which a manufacturer can extract coconut oil.Share on Pinterest
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MCT oil is a dietary supplement made up of 100% MCTs. The fats that make up MCT oil are present in coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and dairy products. Manufacturers produce MCT oil by refining coconut or palm oil to create pure concentrated MCT oil.

MCTs are a form of saturated fat. However, MCTs have a shorter chain of carbon atoms than some other saturated fats. Due to their shorter length, MCTs are rapidly digested and transported directly to the liver for use as energy.

Additionally, the body can convert MCTs into ketones, which are substances created by the liver when it breaks down a lot of fat. The body can use ketones as a source of energy for the brain in place of sugar or glucose.

There are four types of MCTs, each with a different number of carbon atoms:

  • caproic acid, which has 6 carbon atoms
  • caprylic acid, which has 8 carbon atoms
  • capric acid, which has 10 carbon atoms
  • lauric acid, which has 12 carbon atoms

Although it is an MCT, lauric acid behaves like a long-chain triglyceride (LCT) in terms of digestion. LCTs are saturated fats that have more than 12 carbon atoms. This means that the body digests lauric acid in the same way as other saturated fats.

Coconut oil comes from the dried flesh of the coconut. Coconut oil contains roughly 90% saturated fat. MCTs accounts for about 50% of the saturated fats in coconut oil. Of the remaining fats in coconut oil, 9% are unsaturated fats.

The main MCT in coconut oil is lauric acid, which makes up around 50% of the oil’s MCTs.

As coconut oil has a high amount of MCTs, it has some similar properties to MCT oil.

People can use both MCT oil and coconut oil to follow a ketogenic diet. Ketogenic diets are high in fats and low in carbohydrates. MCT oil and coconut oil are both high in fat and contain no carbohydrates. MCT oil and coconut oil may help a person feel full for longer.

However, researchers from 2017 found that MCT oil had a much greater effect on feelings of fullness in people studied compared to coconut oil. These results indicate that it is the MCT in the coconut oil that helps a person feel fuller.

The potential benefits of MCT oil may include:

Lowers ‘bad’ cholesterol

In 2018 researchers found that MCTs reduced LDL cholesterol levels while improving “good” high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels in mice.

It is important to note, however, that researchers used MCTs and not MCT oil. Further research is still necessary to see how it may affect cholesterol in humans.

Improves brain function and memory

A person gets most of their brain’s energy from glucose. However, according to the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation, the brains of people who have Alzheimer’s cannot use glucose as effectively anymore.

Research from 2016 found that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s were able to use ketones at the same level as people without Alzheimer’s. Ketones, therefore, can provide an alternative energy source for the brains of people with Alzheimer’s.

However, the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation notes that there is no research to state that MCTs aid long-term brain health.

Weight loss

A study from 2014 discovered that MCT oil increased the level of hormones responsible for feelings of fullness in males who had obesity. This feeling of decreased appetite led to participants in the study eating less food.

However, only males participated in this study, so further research is necessary to confirm this effect.

Another study from 2015 found that replacing LCTs with MCTs in a person’s diet could possibly lead to modest weight reductions. Researchers note that further study is necessary to confirm this effect.

The potential benefits of coconut oil may include:

Stress reduction

Researchers in 2015 found that virgin coconut oil appeared to reduce stress from exercise and a chronic cold in mice. However, researchers state that the beneficial properties of the virgin coconut oil may be due to the MCTs it contains.

Further research is necessary to confirm these stress reducing effects in humans.

Promotes healthy skin and hair

A 2021 study suggest coconut oil may be beneficial for hair strength. Researchers found that, after applying coconut oil to hair swatches overnight, the tensile strength of twisted hair was significantly increased.

A review from 2018 noted that coconut oil may be useful in preventing hair damage due to grooming or ultraviolet (UV) light exposure. However, the author notes that further studies are necessary to confirm this effect.

The review also stated that coconut oil may be beneficial as a treatment for atopic dermatitis. A study from 2019 found that virgin coconut oil has anti-inflammatory properties when applied to the skin. The virgin coconut oil also helped improve the skin’s protective barrier.

Helps to prevent liver disease

Researchers in 2017 fed rats with liver disease a high glucose diet, with some rats also getting coconut oil. After a month, rats who ate coconut oil had better liver health than those who did not. More research is necessary to replicate this result in humans.

Dental health

Oil pulling is a technique used to improve oral health. Oil pulling involves a person swishing oil around their mouth to remove bacteria and reduce plaque. Coconut oil is one of the oils a person can use for oil pulling.

Research from 2017 found that oil pulling with coconut oil was effective in treating oral thrush. Oil pulling can also help improve gingivitis and reduce cavities in a person’s mouth.

Although both MCT and coconut oil have their benefits, they are still very high in saturated fats.

Saturated fat can increase a person’s levels of “bad” low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol if eaten in amounts that are too high. The American Heart Association recommends that a person have around 13 grams of saturated fat per day.

Research from 2020 found that coconut oil consumption resulted in higher levels of LDL cholesterol in people when compared to other vegetable oils.

Additionally, certain studies into the benefits of coconut oil may use 100% MCT coconut oil, when most coconut oils contain 13⁠–⁠14% MCTs. This means a person would have to eat far more than the recommended amount of coconut oil to gain these benefits.

It is worth nothing that many of studies into the benefits of MCT oil and coconut oil are small or on rodents. More research into the effects of MCT oil and coconut oil on humans is necessary.

MCT oil is available as a liquid, or in capsule form. People can add liquid MCT oil to many foods and drinks, including coffee, tea, smoothies, or soups.

Coconut oil is available in liquid, solid, or capsule form. People can use coconut oil to cook food, or as an ingredient in certain recipes. People can also use coconut oil on their hair or skin as a treatment.

Some people may also use coconut oil for oil pulling, which might help to improve oral health.

MCT oil and coconut oil are oils that are high in saturated fats. MCT oil is a concentration of MCTs, while coconut oil comes from coconuts and naturally is a good source of MCTs.

Coconut oil and MCT oil have similar properties, although both have their own benefits and risks. It is important that a person not consume too much MCT oil or coconut oil, as they are both high in fats.

People can use both MCT oil and coconut oil in a variety of ways. Research suggests that MCT oils may be better for aiding weight loss, while people can use coconut oil for beauty applications.