So, you've been keto for a short time- or you're thinking about getting started- and you see all these references to fatty coffee made with MCT oil.
What the heck is that?
That's what we aim to answer.
What Is It?
The acronym MCT stands for Medium Chain Triglyceride. The nutshell is that this is a type of fatty acid that has between 6 and 12 carbon atoms in a "chain." For reference, a short-chain triglyceride has less than 6 carbon atoms, and a large-chain triglyceride has more than 12 carbon atoms. The main sources of bottled MCT oil, worldwide, are derived from coconut oil and palm kernel oil. Most of the MCT oils available commercially in the United States are made primarily from coconut oil.
It's Not Just Coconut Oil
Most of us are familiar with coconut oil, and the reason why it is recommended so highly on the ketogenic protocol is because it's a great source of three strains of MCT as well as lauric acid, which is the longest of the MCT chains at 12 carbon atoms (of note: there is ongoing debate in the scientific community as to whether the longer chain of lauric acid, as well as it's other properties makes it a true MCT). MCTs are very easily absorbed and utilized by the body for energy, and in the case of lauric acid they may have healing and/or antimicrobial properties.
So what's the difference between MCT oil and coconut oil, and why would you buy one over the other? That largely depends on why you're using it.
For general health, as well as to utilize the maximum of potential health benefits, coconut oil would seem to be the better (and more economical) choice. If you're using cold-pressed, organic virgin coconut oil, you're getting as close to the whole food, in as close to its natural state as possible. Many doctors and experts recommend taking up to four tablespoons of coconut oil a day for general health, and quite a few people have reported seeing improvements in skin, teeth, gut health, and even lowered cholesterol and increased weight loss with just two tablespoons a day. Some people have had great success in improving oral health by using coconut oil to "oil pull," which is essentially swishing a small amount of the oil in the mouth for up to twenty minutes a day. It may also be used as a moisturizer or conditioner via topical application for the hair, skin, and nails.
On the other hand, if energy is your sole concern, MCT oil seems the way to go. MCT oil is essentially coconut oil with some of the MCTs stripped out, leaving one or two chains behind (usually the 8 and/or 10 atom chains in various ratios depending upon the brand). While the lauric acid, which makes up almost half of the fat in coconut oil, may have healing properties, neither lauric acid not the 6 atom chain are as easily absorbed or utilized for energy as the 8 or 10 atom chains. There is evidence that the 8 and 10 atom chains are more readily absorbed and easily utilized by the body, especially by the brain, which explains why some people experience very strong mental clarity, increased energy, or maybe even get jittery when consuming MCT oil. It is generally believed that the most efficient MCT is the 8 atom chain, thus your more expensive brands will contain either the 8 atom chains exclusively, or it will be present in much greater concentration than the 10 atom chains.
Which Should I Buy?
When making purchasing decisions, you should also note the drawbacks for any products you may consume. Coconut oil is generally less expensive and can be bought in many warehouse-type stores in bulk for reasonable prices. However, it doesn't have as much in the way of concentrated 8 and 10 carbon chains, and so the energy boost you will receive may not be as noticeable. It is also known for being a bit of a laxative and so many people have to begin consuming coconut oil in very small quantities and gradually increase the amount per day as their gut and bowel better tolerates it. Some never manage to develop a sufficient tolerance to coconut oil and must avoid it. Also, if you have an allergy to coconut you may not be able to consume coconut oil at all.
The drawbacks to MCT oil also include potential gastric distress, and it is advisable to start small and gradually increase daily intake. As with coconut oil, some people never tolerate it well and eventually must abandon it completely. It is also significantly more "processed" than coconut oil, as it must go through a centrifuge to isolate and concentrate the proper MCT chains. The quality of MCT oil can also vary greatly by brand, and it tends to be pricy. The more concentrated the 8 atom chains, the more expensive MCT oil will generally be. Also of note is that some people report significantly more gastric trouble with MCT oil than with plain old coconut oil. MCT oil has also been reported as the cause of the "jitters" in some, which is a similar effect to consuming too much caffeine. There is ongoing debate as to whether someone with a coconut allergy can consume MCT oil, and it may be largely dependent upon what part of the coconut is troublesome to the individual. If you have an allergy, it may be best to avoid MCT oil altogether.
Regardless of which oil you choose, both products are a great source of fat and energy for those living a ketogenic lifestyle.
Addendum: We get a lot of questions about cooking with MCT oil. After doing a little digging, we found that MCT oil is not an ideal oil to use under heat. It has a smoke point of 320° F, which is the same as extra virgin olive oil. What this means is that MCT oil starts breaking down and oxidizing at that temperature, and when that happens you lose a lot of the positive aspects of the oil and start venturing into carcinogenic territory.
Like extra virgin olive oil, this lower smoke point makes MCT ideal for cold or room temperature applications, and even some lower-heat stuff (like a frothed fatty coffee), but not so great for cooking proper. You can probably get away with using it over low heat, but for any serious cooking you are better off picking something like avocado oil, which has a smoke point of 520° F (making it an ideal oil for frying).