Coconut, Palm, and MCT Oil

Patient Expert

The fats that our bodies can burn most easily are the ones that have medium-length chains of carbons, as I discussed in "The Best Saturated Fats." This is especially important for those of us who have diabetes when we transition to a very low-carbohydrate diet, which gives us almost all of our energy from fats.

These fats are those that we call medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. But what are the best MCT fats for us to use? If MCT fats are good for us, then shouldn't we be using pure MCT?

Coconut oil has the highest proportion of MCT of any common oil, Ron Rosedale, M.D., told me when I interviewed him for my article, "The Trouble with Saturated Fats." Two-thirds of the saturated fat in coconut oil is MCT, according to the USDA National Nutrition Database.

Among the common oils, palm kernel oil ranks a close second. But it is much harder to find in our stores and on the websites. I have bought red palm oil at my local Whole Foods Market. But I don't know if it's the same as palm kernel oil, and I don't like its taste anyway.

I love the taste of coconut oil, particularly when it is extra virgin, which means that it has the least processing. But for some people the strong taste of extra virgin coconut oil can be a problem. Dr. Rosedale says that people who don't like the coconut taste might want to consider virgin coconut oil, which tastes less like coconut.

The coconut and red palm oils I have bought are natural and organic. That's important to many of us, myself included.

A less common oil has an even higher proportion of MCT than coconut and palm kernel oil has. Pure MCT oil is available. It might be better, but since it has to be processed, it's not natural. And it's not organic.

Pure MCT oil has a bland taste that people who don't like the taste of coconut or palm oils might prefer. I was surprised to find that I had no problem with its taste, because I had read several years ago that it tasted bad.

At that time I was investigating pure MCT oil for my late wife. She had lost most of her small intestines, and some experts said that MCT oil was the only oil that she could digest. So I asked Dr. Rosedale what he thought about pure MCT oil.

"Certainly nothing is wrong with it," he replied. "A number of health food stores carry pure MCT oils."

Dr. Rosedale told me that it is only a little more expensive than coconut oil. My subsequent research confirmed this.

But be careful that the MCT oil you buy is really pure. The first brand that I found in a natural foods store had a lot of added carbs. None of the brands that I've seen say what the source is. But MCT oil is almost entirely just two fats, about three-fourths caprylic acid and one-fourth capric acid. "This is a major drawback because it contains little or no lauric acid, which is probably the most important MCFA [MCT]," writes Bruce Fife in his 2001 book,  The Healing Miracle of Coconut Oil.

You also need to be careful when you shop for coconut oil. Don't get confused by a couple of similar sounding products. Some experts whom I respect recommend snacking on coconut butter. But it contains carbohydrates.

And don't confuse coconut oil with coconut sugar. It is high in carbohydrates.

My next article in this series about coconut, palm, and pure MCT oils will consider some myths about them. If you have been hesitant until now to use these wonderful oils, the problem could have been believing these myths.