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What is MCT?

MCT (Medium Chain Triglycerides)

MCT originally became popular as an energy and fat loss boosting supplement but fell out of favour when studies to support these claims failed to deliver solid evidence. However, new research suggests we shouldn’t be too hasty in discounting their potential benefits.

What are MCT?

MCT  are a class of fatty acids occurring naturally in some foods such as coconut and palm oils, milk fat and human breast milk. Like all triglycerides, MCT consist of a glycerol “backbone” with 3 fatty acids molecules attached.
However while the bulk of the fat in food is composed of triglycerides whose fatty acid carbon chains are around 18 carbons long (Long Chain Triglycerides – LCTs), in MCT, the fatty acid carbon chains are much shorter – typically around 6-12 carbons long. This shorter fatty acid chain length in MCT alters the biochemical properties of these oils; they require far less energy for uptake and storage in the body and as a result, they’are easier to digest and absorb than ordinary fats.
A few foods are naturally rich in MCT. One good natural source is coconut oil, although palm oil contains small amounts too, as does milk fat.
The role of MCT  in improving nutrition in hospitalised patients, particularly those with critical or malabsorption conditions, has long been documented. However, it wasn’t long before sports scientists began to wonder if MCT  could offer a performance edge to athletes. This is because MCT are more rapidly absorbed by the body than LCT and more effeciently converted into fuel for immediate use by organs and muscles.

Why Could MCT Help Fat Loss?

It is not clear why MCT supplementation seems to help fat loss, but one possible explanation comes from a US study on in vitro fat cells. The scientists discovered that when they incubated the cells with octanoate (an MCT), the basal rate of fat break down increased. They also discovered that the MCT treated cells also showed similar biochemical changes to fat cells undergoing starvation – ie that the MCT were able to induce changes in patterns of fat breakdown that closely mimicked the effects of starvation.

Table 1: Approximate fatty acids content of some commonly used oils
Food Approximate gms per 100g of different chain length fatty acids
short & MCTs LCTs
4 6 8 10 12 14 16 18+
Coconut Oil 0.6 7.5 6.0 44.0 16.0 8.2 2.8
Coconut Cream 0.1 1.4 1.1 8.4 3.0 1.1 1.2
Butter 3.2 2.0 1.2 2.5 2.6 7.4 22 34
Palm Oil 0.2 3.3 3.7 47 16.4 8.1 14.0
Olive Oil 12.5 83.5

Table Source – USDA Nutrient Database, Release 20,2008
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