Through their oil, coconuts provide robust nutritional food—MCTs

Powerful Weight Control Fats
Long before science, let alone nutritional science, early man searched for ideal
foods, those demonstrating the highest perceived energetic and healing values

By Will Block

There are three stages of scientific discovery: first people deny it is true; then they deny it is important; finally they credit the wrong person.
― Alexander von Humboldt


ong before science, let alone nutritional science, early man searched for ideal foods—those demonstrating the highest perceived energetic and healing values—despite the extreme hardships and limitations of hunting and gathering. During the last 2000 years, prehistoric man pursued whatever could be cultivated for food. Yet, from tens of thousands of wild plants, he was unable to discover any species comparable in value to any one of the staple food-plants selected and domesticated by primeval man.* Indeed, it wasn’t until the 19th century that the origin of cultivated plants became known.

* So wrote the world’s first authority on the origin of cultivated plants, Alphonse de Candolle in his seminal work, Origin of Cultivated Plants, Paris: Bailiere & Cie, 1883.

Starting then with the work of Alexander von Humboldt—whose quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography—and the work of others, at last the progress of nutrient identity and optimization of plant virtues could begin. But it has taken until the 20th century for the birth of nutritional science. While it continues to gather steam into the 21st century, there is long way to go.

The Evolutionary Biology of Coconuts

The influence of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera L.) on the history of human expansion in the humid tropics is matchless in the plant kingdom. According to a recent evolutionary biological study,1 coconuts independently originated as two highly genetically differentiated subpopulations that correspond to the Pacific and Indo-Atlantic oceanic basins. Of great interest, according to this study, the traits that are most clearly associated with selection under human cultivation (dwarf habit, self-pollination, and fruit morphology) occurred only in the Pacific.

Indeed, it wasn’t until the
19th century that the origin of
cultivated plants became known.

However, coconuts that show evidence of genetic admixture between the two oceanic basin groups occur primarily in the southwestern Indian Ocean. This pattern is supportive to human introductions of Pacific coconuts along the ancient Austronesian trade route connecting Madagascar to Southeast Asia. Admixture in coastal east Africa may also reflect later historic Arab trading along the Indian Ocean coastline. The researchers propose two geographical origins of coconut cultivation: island Southeast Asia and southern margins of the Indian subcontinent.

Coconut Enablement for Voyage and Colonization

“As a portable source of both food and water, the coconut played a critical role in the ability of humans to voyage, establish trade routes, and colonize lands in the Pacific Rim and regions throughout the Old World tropics,” wrote the researchers. Because the coconut developed hundreds of uses over time, as a source of food, drink, fiber, construction material, charcoal, and oil (used in cooking, pharmaceuticals, industrial applications, and biofuels), over 12 million hectares of coconut are currently planted across 89 tropical countries. The history of cultivation and dispersal of this species is thus fundamentally intertwined with human history in the tropics. And now it appears that the coconut is fundamentally interwoven with human health. Its edible (cooking) oil is the source of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs).

The Unique Qualities of MCTs

Unlike most other cooking oils, MCTs are extremely stable—they do not readily become oxidized. Removing the palmitic acid and other negative elements present in the coconut oil, the extraction by which they are produced, separates the MCTs. The end product is concentrated in 8-carbon length caprylic acid and 10-carbon length capric acid in a blended ratio of approximately 2 to 1. Glycerin removed in the initial extraction is returned and used to esterify the MCTs.

When consumed as cooking and salad oils, MCTs are absorbed directly into the portal circulation and do not suffer from re-esterification in intestinal cells. Then, they are transported to the liver where they are predominantly metabolized by β-oxidation (a multi-step process by which fatty acids are broken down by various tissues to produce energy).2 In contrast, long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), commonly found in Western diets, are absorbed in the intestine and incorporated to chylomicrons. Within the bloodstream, lipoprotein lipases hydrolyze the LCTs into smaller molecules, such as monoglycerides and fatty acids, or they can be captured by diverse tissues such as muscle tissues and undergo oxidation, or be stored in adipose tissue.3

† Chylomicrons are lipoprotein particles that consist predominately of triglycerides, with smaller amounts of phospholipids, cholesterol, and proteins. They transport dietary lipids from the intestines to other locations in the body. Chylomicrons are one of the five major groups of lipoproteins [chylomicrons ; Very Low Density Lipoproteins (VLDL); Intermediate Density Lipoproteins (IDL); Low Density Lipoproteins (LDL); High Density Lipoproteins (HDL)] that enable fats and cholesterol to move within the water-based solution of the bloodstream, where they undergo re-esterification to reach the bloodstream via the lymphatic system.

In addition to faster metabolism and less storage in adipocytes (fat cells), MCTs promote increased total energy outlay or expenditure in the individual.4 Thus, the development of preparations with a greater content of these triglycerides may aid in control of body weight and reduce the harmful effects of obesity. Obesity is a state in which excessive fat accumulates in the body due to energy intake exceeding energy expenditure greatly.

MCTs Literature Review

A recent systematic review on the influence of the dietary intake of MCTs on body composition, energy expenditure, and satiety has just been published.5 Conducted at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil—there are a lot of coconuts in Brazil!—the findings were informative, and bring together much of what has been learned about MCTs. Prefacing the Brazilian study were the following assertions:

  • Increased prevalence of obesity is associated with the growth of chronic degenerative diseases
  • One of the main factors associated with this increase is the change in nutritional status of individuals
  • MCTs are rapidly metabolized and less stored in the adipose tissue, being a possible tool for weight control

In order to analyze the influence of consumption of MCT lipids on satiety, body composition and energy expenditure (EE), a literature review was performed of controlled clinical studies reported in PubMed and Elsevier§ between the years 2000 and 2010. Fourteen articles were selected presenting short and long-term intervention. Of these:

  • Six showed a decrease in body mass of individuals, with consequent loss of weight
  • One showed a positive effect on satiation
  • Four showed an increase in EE

‡ PubMed is a free database accessing primarily the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. The United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health maintains the database as part of the Entrez information retrieval system. PubMed publishes over 500,000 articles a year in over 5000 journals.

§ Elsevier B.V. is a Dutch medical and scientific publishing company started in 1580 and based in Amsterdam. The modern company was founded in 1880. Elsevier publishes over 250,000 articles a year in over 2,500 journals.

The researchers propose two
geographical origins of coconut
cultivation: island Southeast Asia and
southern margins of the Indian

While the researchers findings do not exhaust all of the clinical studies found in PUBMED and ELSEVIER and do not mention many other worthy papers, they summarize some of the most significant findings to date. And while the results do not reach the conclusiveness of the “gold standard”—the bell that is ringable only by an entity with the promise of great investment returns (such a huge pharmaceutical company)—there are needs for further controlled studies with standardized amounts of MCTs. However, MCTs use can now seriously be considered an important nutritional tool in the armamentarium for obesity.

MCTs Alter Body Composition

Studies evaluating the effect of MCTs on body composition showed a positive effect related to the body mass index (BMI) of the participants. Of the six studies in which this effect was observed, most were performed with overweight (BMI = 25–29.9 kg/m2) or obese individuals (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2). Of the four studies in which the positive effect on EE was observed, two showed a positive correlation with body composition, both being performed in overweight individuals.

MCTs Increase Energy Expenditure

Longer studies with MCTs have also been performed, but with different objectives in mind. Canadian researchers focused on energy expenditure in individuals maintained on either MCTs- or LCTs-enriched diets; they investigated the impact that MCTs had on 12 non-obese premenopausal women over a 2-week period.6 For 14 straight days, all the women were fed the same types of food, but one group’s meals were prepared with LCTs, while the other group’s meals were prepared with MCTs. That was the only difference, and the total amount of food served was the same for both groups.

Unlike most other cooking oils, MCTs
are extremely stable—they do not
readily become oxidized.

On days 7 and 14 of the trial, the researchers recorded the women’s total EE and basal metabolism rate. On day 7, both measures were significantly higher in the MCTs group: the basal metabolism rate had increased by 4.4%, and the total energy expenditure had increased by 3.1%.

To put this in perspective, the amount of energy expended increased by 52 and 45 Calories per day, respectively.** Over the 7-day period, women on the MCTs diet burned over 350 more Calories than those on the LCTs diet. This increased caloric output was due solely to differences in the dietary fat, not to any other factor, such as increased exercise. On day 14 of the study, the total energy expenditure in the MCTs group continued to be higher than that in the LCTs group, but the increase was not as dramatic as that observed on day 7.

** If you remember your high school science, 1000 physical calories = 1 nutritional calorie, the unit of measure used to rate foods. Scientists abbreviate nutritional calorie to Calorie (or just Cal) with a capital C to differentiate it from the physical calorie, but laymen don’t usually bother with this distinction. In the context of nutrition, one can assume that the spelling calorie means Calorie.

MCTs Help Suppress Appetite

The “I’m full” signal is triggered more effectively by some foods than others. In general, fats are the most effective dietary ingredients for inducing the production of PYY (peptide YY) and CCK (cholecystokinin), thus reducing the desire to eat. PYY and CCK are produced toward the end of a meal and are responsible for giving you that satisfied, full feeling. Not all fats are equally effective in suppressing appetite, however. MCTs, for example, appear to be more effective than the far more common LCTs when it comes to ratcheting down those hunger pangs. The inclusion of MCTs in your diet—in the form of salad oil or cooking oil—can thus offer yet another aid in your battle for weight control.3

MCTs are different from most dietary fats. Compared with LCTs, which likely account for most or all of your current fat intake, MCTs have a lower caloric content; they typically don’t get stored in fat cells; and they stimulate thermogenesis (energy output in the form of heat) by raising the body’s basal metabolism rate, which is a measure of the amount of energy expended in performing basic involuntary functions, such as breathing, digestion, and heartbeat.

MCTs Increase Satiety

MCTs work by several different mechanisms to help you rein in your weight. One has to do with satiety, the feeling of satisfaction brought on by a full stomach. Researchers in France fed different groups of people breakfasts that were either low in fat or rich in one of several types of fat: MCTs, saturated LCTs (e.g., lard), and unsaturated LCTs (e.g., olive oil); they then observed behavioral and metabolic responses to these different meals.7

Obesity is a state
in which
excessive fat accumulates
in the body due to energy intake
exceeding energy expenditure greatly.

During the study, all the subjects were restricted to rooms that contained no time cues: they were kept under artificial light, with no windows and no time-keeping devices, and they were allowed to request food when they were hungry again. The length of time before the next meal requests (lunch and dinner) was monitored, as was the amount of food (Caloric content) consumed at each of those meals.

When consumed as
cooking and salad oils,
MCTs are absorbed directly into the
portal circulation and do not suffer
from re-esterification
in intestinal cells.

The researchers found that the low-fat breakfasts resulted in significantly shorter time intervals between meal requests than did the fat-rich breakfasts. This is not surprising, considering that fats are best at triggering the satiety response. It follows that diets with the most fat would induce the greatest satiety and allow the subjects to remain food-free for the longest intervals.

MCTs Result in Less Food Intake

With respect to breakfasts rich in either MCTs or LCTs, there was no difference in the time intervals between breakfast and lunch. However, the amount of food consumed by the MCTs group at lunch was significantly less than the amounts consumed by either the LCTs group or the low-fat group. The total caloric content of the lunch consumed by the MCTs group was 18.4% lower than that of the saturated-LCTs group, 16.5% lower than that of the low-fat group, and 5.4% lower than that of the unsaturated-LCTs group. The authors concluded that MCTs modified food intake in these subjects via a “postabsorptive mechanism” that enhanced satiation and decreased food consumption at the next meal.

MCTs Induce Thermogenesis

In a double-blind cross-over study, 20 subjects consumed a liquid meal made with 14 g of canola oil (LCTs, long-chain triacylglycerols) or medium- and long-chain triacylglycerols (MLCTs, containing about 12% MCTs).8 Oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production were measured by indirect calorimetry. Resting energy expenditure was determined. The increase in diet-induced thermogenesis after ingesting the liquid meal with MLCTs during 6 hours was significantly greater than with LCTs. These results suggest that the substitution of MLCTs for cooking oil is useful to control body weight and fat in subjects, and that thermogenesis may be a key explanation to how MCTs work.

MCTs Help Prevent Fatty Liver

Researchers at Japan’s Kyoto Prefectural University set out to investigate the effects of dietary MCTs on liver lipids that accumulation in growing rats with protein malnutrition.9 Rats in the weaning process were either fed a low-protein diet (3%) or control protein diet (20%), in combination with or without MCTs.

Rats were fed each experimental diet for 30 days, and four weeks later, the respiratory quotient was higher in the low-protein without MCTs diet than in the low-protein plus MCTs diet or either of the control protein diets.

Liver triglyceride content increased in the low-protein groups compared with the control-protein groups. However, liver triglyceride content in the low protein plus MCTs group was significantly decreased compared to the low-protein without MCTs group.

Also, measures of carnitine palmitoyltransferase (CPT) activity were significantly decreased in the livers of the low-protein without MCTs group, as compared with corresponding CPT activity of the other groups. The ingestion of a low-protein diet can cause fatty liver in growing rats. Conversely, when rats were fed the low-protein diet plus MCTs, liver triglyceride deposition was reduced, and CPT activity was preserved at the levels of rats fed control protein diets. Fatty liver was inhibited.

Rats Run Farther with MCTs than LCTs

In a recent study, short-term consumption of a high-fat diet impairs exercise capacity in both rats and humans, and increases expression of the mitochondrial uncoupling protein, (UCP3), in rodent cardiac and skeletal muscle via activation of the transcription factor, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor α (PPARα).10 Unlike LCTs however, MCTs do not activate PPARα and do not increase muscle UCP3 expression. The researchers therefore investigated exercise performance and cardiac mitochondrial function in rats fed a chow diet (7.5% kcal from fat), an LCTs-rich diet (46% kcal from LCTs) or an MCTs-rich diet (46% kcal from MCTs). Rats fed the LCTs-rich diet for 15 days ran 55% less far than they did at baseline, whereas rats fed the chow or MCTs-rich diets neither improved nor worsened in their exercise capacities. Moreover, consumption of an LCTs-rich diet increased cardiac UCP3 expression by 35% and decreased oxidative phosphorylation efficiency, whereas consumption of the MCTs-rich diet altered neither UCP3 expression nor oxidative phosphorylation efficiency. The results suggest that the negative effects of short-term high-fat feeding on exercise performance are predominantly mediated by LCTs rather than MCTs, possibly via PPARα-dependent upregulation of UCP3.

MCTs Enhance Memory in Dogs

[With credit to Durk Pearson & Sandy Shaw; see the December 2010 issue for their article “How Your Old Dog Can Learn New Tricks”]

“A very interesting new paper reports that supplementation with MCTs in aged beagle dogs resulted in significantly better cognitive performance in most of the different test protocols than the aged control beagle dogs and, most interestingly, performance of the more difficult tasks showed greater effects of supplementation than that of the easier tasks.11

“The authors were motivated to do their trial by research investigating the declines in cerebral glucose metabolism that start around middle age and contribute importantly to cognitive decline associated with aging and age-associated diseases such as Alz­heimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and type 2 diabetes in humans and experimental animal models.12,13 The brain is highly dependent on glucose as a fuel for the production of energy (ATP), but is also capable of using ketones as an alternative fuel.14 MCTs are converted to ketone bodies by the liver and, to a lesser extent, by the brain (astrocytes).11 In a study of Alzheimer’s patients,15 MCTs supplementation was reported to improve cognitive function in a subset of patients who were negative for the apoE4 allele. (As you may recall, having an apoE4 allele increases the risk in humans of Alzheimer’s disease, as well as increasing brain damage from trauma; having two apoE4 alleles is associated with an even greater increased risk.) The researchers also found that cognitive improvement was correlated positively with brain levels of beta-hydroxy­butyrate, a ketone body, which was increased by consumption of MCTs. A study of type 1 diabetics16 showed that MCTs injection could reverse impairment of cognition by hypoglycemia as measured by diverse tests.

“Other studies have also reported neuroprotection and cognitive improvement in patients with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease or animal models of these diseases by treatment with ketone bodies (such as beta-hydroxybutyrate that is produced during the metabolism of MCTs).17-19

“The performance of the “landmark discrimination learning protocol” used in the aged beagle dog study11 was reported previously by the same authors in two separate studies20,21 to be sensitive to age as well as to “a variety of interventions, including maintenance on an antioxidant diet and treatment with a combination of lipoic acid and acetyl-L-carnitine.”

“Some of these tests were quite complex. For example, in one version, the dogs are trained to select the odd item out of three objects. In this study, this test was used with the addition of up to three other “distractor” objects to make the discriminations even more difficult. The dogs made fewer errors in a later test when the same single distractor object was used in an earlier test. The control aged dogs performed more poorly in this test when there were two or three distractors in the same and different tasks.

MCTs use can now seriously
be considered an
important nutritional tool in
the armamentarium for obesity.

“The MCTs supplement was provided as 5.5% of the test diet (roughly equivalent to 1 to 2 tablespoons of MCTs oil per day for a human); the controls had the same diet (regular dog kibbles) but without the MCTs. At this level of supplementation, the production of ketones was well below the ketone levels induced by chronic starvation in dogs.11 MCTs oil makes a very stable oil for salads and baking that is not readily oxidized and has a high smoking point; its boiling point is too low to use for frying, though.) Unlike most edible oils, MCTs oil is mostly burned for energy rather than being converted into body fat [reference #s altered].”

Are MCTs the Best Fat?

There are a lot of good fats, and among these are omega-3s (preferable from a good fish oil), monounsaturated fats (as found in olive oil, or better yet in high oleic oils), and some saturated fats (a category that includes MCTs). The key to a healthy diet is to keep them in proportion. The American Heart Association recommends limiting dietary fat to 30% of total calories, but that may vary depending on your goals, the amount of exercise you do, your mental energy output, and many other factors. Durk & Sandy recommend 1–3 tablespoons of MCTs per day, used as a butter substitute (sprinkle Butter Buds® on your hot morning cereal or atop cooked vegetables, fish, or meat).

MCTs represent an exciting new frontier in health and nutrition promising a true “fatless fat.” MCTs benefits include:

  • Fast energy—Converts to energy much faster than regular oils
  • Less fat storage—Little gets stored in fat cells
  • Helps stabilize brain waves
  • Works to control harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi inside the body
  • Metabolized without bile—Gives gallbladder a rest
  • Maintains LDL levels
  • Lower caloric content (8.7 calories per gram)
  • May increase HDL levels
  • Improves absorption of Vitamin E, calcium, and magnesium
  • And more (read the contents of this article)

Altogether, MCTs are a delicious and healthful addition to your diet. Remember (and they may help in that regard too) very little MCTs get converted into body fat because MCTs are rapidly burned for energy. Studies indicate that MCTs will not increase serum cholesterol levels.


  1. Gunn BF, Baudouin L, Olsen KM. Independent origins of cultivated coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) in the old world tropics. PLoS One 2011;6(6):e21143.
  2. Ooyama K, Kojima K, Aoyama T, Takeuchi H. Decrease of food intake in rats after ingestion of medium-chain triacylglycerol. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol 2009; 55: 423-7.
  3. St-Onge MP, Jones PJH. Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity. J Nutr 2002; 132: 329-32.
  4. Yago-Ayerdi SG, Vaquero MP, Schultz-Moreira A, Bastida S, Sánchez-Muniz FJ. Utilidad y controversias del consumo de ácidos grasos de cadena media sobre el metabolismo lipoproteico y obesidad. Nutr Hosp 2008;23:191-202. [Translation]
  5. Rego Costa AC, Rosado EL, Soares-Mota M. Influence of the dietary intake of medium chain triglycerides on body composition, energy expenditure and satiety: a systematic review. Nutr Hosp 2012 Jan-Feb;27(1):103-8.
  6. White MD, Papamandjaris AA, Jones PJH. Enhanced postprandial energy expenditure with medium-chain fatty acid feeding is attenuated after 14 d in premenopausal women. Am J Clin Nutr 1999;69:883-9.
  7. Van Wymelbeke V, Himaya A, Louis-Sylvestre J, Fantino M. Influence of medium-chain and long-chain triacylglycerols on the control of food intake in men. Am J Clin Nutr 1998;68:226-34.
  8. Ogawa A, Nosaka N, Kasai M, Aoyama T, Okazaki M, Igarashi O, Kondo K. Dietary medium- and long-chain triglycerides accelerate diet-induced thermogenesis in humans. J Oleo Sci 2007;56(6):283-7.
  9. Kuwahata M, Kubota H, Amano S, Yokoyama M, Shimamura Y, Ito S, Ogawa A, Kobayashi Y, Miyamoto K, Kido Y. Dietary medium-chain triglycerides attenuate hepatic lipid deposition in growing rats with protein malnutrition. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 2011;57(2):138-43.
  10. Murray AJ, Knight NS, Little SE, Cochlin LE, Clements M, Clarke K. Dietary long-chain, but not medium-chain, triglycerides impair exercise performance anduncouple cardiac mitochondria in rats. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2011 Aug 1;8:55.
  11. Pan et al. Dietary supplementation with medium-chain TAG has long-lasting cognition-enhancing effects in aged dogs. Br J Nutr <2010;103:1746-54.
  12. Sato et al. Insulin, ketone bodies, and mitochondrial energy transduction. FASEB J 1995;9:651-8.
  13. Constantini et al. Hypometabolism as a therapeutic target in Alzheimer’s disease. BMC Neurosci 2008;9(suppl 2):S16.
  14. Mingrone and Castagneto. Medium-chain, even-numbered dicarboxylic acids as novel energy substrates: an update. Nutr Rev 2006;64(10):449-56.
  15. Reger et al. Effects of Beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiol Aging 2004;25:311-4.
  16. Page et al. Medium-chain fatty acids improve cognitive function in intensively treated type 1 diabetic patients and support in vivo synaptic transmission during acute hypoglycemia. Diabetes 2009;58:1237-44.
  17. Henderson. Ketone bodies as a therapeutic for Alzheimer’s disease. Neurotherapeutics 2008;5(3):470-80.
  18. Kashiwaya et al. D-beta-hydroxybutyrate protects neurons in models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 2000;97(10):5440-4.
  19. Gasior et al. Neuroprotective and disease-modifying effects of the ketogenic diet. Behav Pharmacol 2006;17(5-6):431-9.
  20. Milgram et al. Landmark discrimination learning in the dog: effects of age, an antioxidant fortified diet, and cognitive strategy. Neurosci Behav Rev 2002 26:679-95.
  21. Milgram et al. Acetyl-L-carnitine and alpha-lipoic acid supplementation of aged beagle dogs improves learning in two landmark discrimination tests. FASEB J 2007;13:3756-62.

Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.

FREE Subscription

  • You're just getting started! We have published thousands of scientific health articles. Stay updated and maintain your health.

    It's free to your e-mail inbox and you can unsubscribe at any time.
    Loading Indicator