Coconut Oil and Medium-Chain
by Bruce Fife, N.D.
All fats and oils are composed of fat molecules called fatty acids.
There are two methods of classifying fatty acids. The one you are most
familiar is based on saturation. You have saturated fatty acids,
monounsaturated fatty acids, and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The second
method of classification is based on molecular size or length of the
carbon chain in the fatty acid. You have short-chain fatty acids (SCFA),
medium-chain fatty acids(MCFA), and long-chain fatty acids (LCFA).
Another term you will often see in reference to fatty acids is
triglyceride. Three fatty acids joined together make a triglyceride, so
you may have short-chain triglycerides (SCT), medium-chain triglycerides
(MCT), or long-chain triglycerides (LCT).
The vast majority of the fats and oils you eat, whether they are
saturated or unsaturated or come from an animal or a plant, are composed
of long-chain triglycerides. Probably 98 to 100% of all the fats we eat
consist of LCT. Coconut oil is unique because it is composed
predominately of MCT. The size of the fatty acid is extremely important
because physiological effects of medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil
are distinctly different from the long-chain fatty acids more commonly
found in our diet. It's the MCT in coconut oil that make it different
from all other fats and for the most part gives it its unique character
and healing properties. Almost all of the medium-chain triglycerides
used in research, medicine, and food products come from coconut oil.
Have you or someone you know ever been in a serious car accident? I mean
serious enough that you had to be rushed to the hospital and spend time
in the intensive care unit. Or maybe you've come down with a
life-threatening illness. Or perhaps due to age you've been hospitalized
to treat some degenerative condition. In any of these situations,
whether you lived or died depended on the care you received in the
hospital. Often this required you to be fed intravenously or through a
tube. In the intensive care unit there would be others, some suffering
from complications from genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis or
epilepsy and perhaps even premature infants struggling to survive their
first few weeks of life. In each of these cases you and these other
patients can give some of the credit for your recovery to coconut oil.
Yes, in one form or another, coconut oil was part of your treatment.
Regardless of the condition, recovery requires good nutrition. Food
scientists have long noted the nutritional benefits of medium-chain
triglycerides. MCT from coconut oil are used in hospital formulas to
feed the very young, the critically ill, and those who have digestive
problems. It makes up a vital part of the solutions fed to patients
intravenously or through a tube inserted down the throat. If you were
ever given formula as a baby you took advantage of the health-promoting
properties of coconut oil. MCT from coconut oil have been added to baby
formula for decades.
MCT are easily digested, absorbed, and put to use nourishing the body.
Unlike other fats, they put little strain on the digestive system and
provide a quick source of energy necessary to promote healing. This is
important for patients who are using every ounce of strength they have
to overcome serious illness or injury. It's no wonder why MCT are added
to infant formulas. Actually, whether you were breast or formula fed as
an infant you consumed MCT. Why? Because MCT are not only found in
coconut oil but are natural and vital components of human breast milk.
MCT are considered essential nutrients for infants as well as for people
with serious digestive problems like cystic fibrosis. Like other
essential nutrients, you must get them directly from the diet.
One of the first scientifically recognized benefits of MCT is the unique
manner in which they are digested and utilized by the body. These fats
provide nutritional benefits that can improve overall health of both the
sick and the well, the young and the old. Even athletes are now using
them to boost performance and control weight. Unfortunately, few foods
nowadays contain MCT; the best source is coconut oil. By adding coconut
oil to your diet you can literally eat your way to better health.
Digestion and Nutrient Absorption
For at least five decades researchers have recognized that the MCT were
digested differently than other fats. This difference has had important
applications in the treatment of many digestive and metabolic health
conditions and since that time MCT have been routinely used in hospital
and baby formulas.
The digestive health advantages of MCT) over LCT are due to the
differences in the way our bodies metabolize these fats. Because the MCT
molecules are smaller, they require less energy and fewer enzymes to
break them down for digestion. They are digested and absorbed quickly
and with minimal effort.
MCT are broken down almost immediately by enzymes in the saliva and
gastric juices so that pancreatic fat-digesting enzymes are not even
essential.1 Therefore, there is less strain on the pancreas and
digestive system. This has important implications for patients who
suffer from digestive and metabolic problems. Premature and ill infants
especially whose digestive organs are underdeveloped, are able to absorb
MCT with relative ease, while other fats pass through their systems
pretty much undigested. People who suffer from malabsorption problems
such as cystic fibrosis, and have difficulty digesting or absorbing fats
and fat soluble vitamins, benefit greatly from MCT. They can also be of
importance to people suffering from diabetes, obesity, gallbladder
disease, pancreatitis Crohn's disease, pancreatic insufficiency, and
some forms of cancer.
As we get older our bodies don't function as well as they did in earlier
years. The pancreas doesn't make as many digestive enzymes, our
intestines don't absorb nutrients as well, the whole process of
digestion and elimination moves at a lower rate of efficiency. As a
result, older people often suffer from vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
Because MCT are easy to digest and improve vitamin and mineral
absorption they should be included in the meals of older people. This is
easy to do if the meals are prepared with coconut oil.
In the digestive system MCT are broken down into individual fatty acids
(MCFA). Unlike other fatty acids, MCFA are absorbed directly from the
intestines into the portal vein and sent straight to the liver where
they are, for the most part, burned as fuel much like a carbohydrate. In
this respect they act more like carbohydrates than like fats.2
Other fats require pancreatic enzymes to break them into smaller units.
They are then absorbed into the intestinal wall and packaged into
bundles of fat (lipid) and protein called lipoproteins. These
lipoproteins are carried by the lymphatic system, bypassing the liver,
and then dumped into the bloodstream, where they are circulated
throughout the body. As they circulate in the blood, their fatty
components are distributed to all the tissues of the body. The
lipoproteins get smaller and smaller, until there is little left of
them. At this time they are picked up by the liver, broken apart, and
used to produce energy or, if needed, repackaged into other lipoproteins
and sent back into the bloodstream to be distributed throughout the
body. Cholesterol, saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and
polyunsaturated fat are all packaged together into lipoproteins and
carried throughout the body in this way. In contrast, medium-chain fatty
acids are not packaged into lipoproteins but go to the liver where they
are converted into energy. Ordinarily they are not stored to any
significant degree as body fat. Medium-chain fatty acids produce energy.
Other dietary fats produce body fat.
Because of the above advantages, coconut oil has been a lifesaver for
many people, particularly the very young and the very old. It is used
medicinally in special food preparations for those who suffer digestive
disorders and have trouble digesting fats. For the same reason, it is
also used in infant formula for the treatment of malnutrition. Since it
is rapidly absorbed, it can deliver quick nourishment without putting
excessive strain on the digestive and enzyme systems and help conserve
the body's energy that would normally be expended in digesting other
fats. Medium-chain triglycerides comprise a major ingredient in most
infant formulas commonly used today.
Metabolism and Energy
Eating foods containing MCT is like putting high octane fuel into your
car. The car runs smoother and gets better gas mileage. Likewise, with
MCT your body performs better because it has more energy and greater
endurance. Because MCFA are funneled directly to the liver and converted
into energy, the body gets a boost of energy. And because MCFA are
easily absorbed by the energy-producing organelles of the cells,
metabolism increases. This burst of energy has a stimulating effect on
the entire body.
The fact that MCT digest immediately to produce energy and stimulate
metabolism has led athletes to use them as a means to enhance exercise
performance. Studies indicate this may be true. In one study, for
example, investigators tested the physical endurance of mice who were
given MCT in their daily diet against those that weren't. The study
extended over a six-week period. The mice were subjected to a swimming
endurance test every other day. They were placed in a pool of water with
a constant current. The total swimming time until exhaustion was
measured. While at first there was little difference between the groups
of mice, those fed MCT quickly began to out-perform the others and
continued to improve throughout the testing period.3 Tests such as this
demonstrated that MCT had the ability to enhance endurance and exercise
performance, at least in mice.
In another study using humans, conditioned cyclists were used. The
cyclists pedaled for three hours. During the last hour they were each
given a beverage to drink. Those who received beverages containing MCT
out performed the others. Because of studies like these many of the
sports drinks and energy bars sold at health food stores contain MCT to
provide a quick source of energy.
It's easy to see why athletes would be interested in gaining greater
endurance and energy, but what about non-athletes? MCT can do the same
for them. If eaten regularly MCT can provide a boost in energy and
performance of daily activities. Would you like to increase your energy
level throughout the day? If you get tired in the middle of the day or
feel you lack energy, adding coconut oil to your daily diet may provide
you with a much needed boost to help carry you through.
Besides increasing your energy level, there are other very important
benefits that results from boosting your metabolic rate: it helps
protect you from illness and speeds healing. When metabolism is
increased, cells function at a higher rate of efficiency. They heal
injuries quicker, old and diseased cells are replaced faster, and young,
new cells are generated at an increased rate to replace worn-out ones.
Even the immune system functions better.
Several health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and osteoporosis
are more prevalent in those people who have slow metabolism. Any health
condition is made worse if the metabolic rate is slower than normal,
because cells can't heal and repair themselves as quickly. Increasing
metabolic rate, therefore, provides an increased degree of protection
from both degenerative and infectious illnesses.
Nature's Perfect Food
Among all the foods in nature there is one that stands head and
shoulders above all the rest. That food is mothers' milk. Milk was
designed by nature to supply all the nutrients a baby needs for the
first year or so of life. It contains a perfect blend of vitamins,
minerals, proteins, and fats for optimal growth and development. Without
question breast milk is one of the wonders of nature.
Children who are breastfed not only take in important nutrients from the
milk, but they also receive antibodies and other substances necessary to
protect them against childhood illnesses such as ear infections, later
in life. Breastfed children are healthier than those who are not. They
have better teeth and jaw formation, they are less prone to allergies,
have better digestive function, and are better able to fight off
infectious disease. Research suggests that breastfed children may even
develop higher intelligence. Recognizing the superiority of nature,
scientists have attempted to make baby formula match mother's milk as
closely as possible.
An important component of breast milk is medium-chain fatty acids,
principally lauric acid. Lauric acid is also the primary saturated fatty
acid found in coconut oil. Apparently nature thought it essential to the
baby's health to include it. Nature has a reason for everything it does.
It doesn't do things, such as putting MCT in milk, just for the fun of
Some of the important reasons medium-chain fatty acids are included in
milk are improved nutrient absorption and digestive function. As noted
earlier, pancreatic enzymes aren't even necessary to digest them. They
also help to regulate blood sugar levels. Another very important
function is that medium-chain fatty acids protect the baby from harmful
microorganisms. The baby's immature immune system is supported by the
antibacterial, anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-parasitic properties of
these vital fatty acids. In fact, without these unique saturated fats,
the baby would probably not survive long. It would become malnourished
and highly susceptible to a myriad of infectious diseases.
Milk Quality and MCT
Milk that is rich in medium-chain fatty acids is vital for the healthy
growth and development of the child. For this reason, MCT are added to
most, if not all, baby formulas. Yet, these fatty acids are not exactly
the same as those found naturally in mother's milk.
Just as the fatty acid content and quality of formula can be altered, so
can human breast milk. Breast milk is, without question, the best choice
of food for babies. Not all breast milk is the same however. The quality
of the milk is influenced by the mother's health and diet. Breast milk
is made from the nutrients the mother consumes. If she doesn't eat the
right amount of nutrients, her body will pull them out of her own
tissues. If the mother is deficient in these vital nutrients herself,
then the milk she produces will also be deficient. Similarly, if she
eats foods containing toxins (such as trans fatty acids) her milk may
contain them as well. Eating wisely is very important for pregnant and
nursing women and their babies.
The mammary glands produce small amounts of all the medium-chain fatty
acids, vital components in human breast milk. They are there because
they are easy for an infant's immature digestive system to absorb and
utilize. They help give the baby the nutrients and energy it needs to
grow and develop properly. Because they also have antimicrobial
properties they give the infant some degree of protection against
viruses such as HIV and herpes, bacteria such a chlamydia and H. pyloris,
fungi such as Candida and protozoa such as giardia.
Both animal and human studies have shown MCT to be an important
component in mother's milk for the proper growth and development of
their offspring. For example, when pregnant and lactating pigs were fed
diets containing either long-chain fatty acids (vegetable oil) or
medium-chain fatty acids (coconut oil) there was a pronounced difference
in the survival and growth rates. The piglets whose mothers received the
MCT grew faster and healthier and had a survival rate of 68% compared to
32%. This was particularly true with piglets which were born
The same thing appears to happen in humans. For example, coconut oil was
added to the formula of 46 very low-birthweight babies to see if
supplementation was capable of enhancing their weight gain. The group
with the coconut oil gained weight quicker. The weight gain was due to
physical growth and not fat storage.6 The babies gained more weight and
grew better with the coconut oil because their bodies were able to
digest it easily. The vegetable oils, to a great extent, passed through
their digestive tracts undigested and thus deprived them of the fat
calories they needed for proper development. MCT not only allow infants
to absorb needed fats but they improve the absorption of fat-soluble
vitamins, minerals, and protein.7,8
Human milk fat has a unique fatty acid composition. The primary fat is
saturated, comprising about 45-50 percent of the total fat content. The
next most abundant fat is monounsaturated which makes up about 35
percent of the milk fat. Polyunsaturated fat comprises only 15-20
percent of the total. A significant portion of the saturated fat in
human breast milk can be in the form of MCT. Sadly, many mothers produce
very little. This can have dramatic consequences on the health of their
If breast milk does not contain enough MCT, an infant can suffer from
nutritional deficiency and become vulnerable to infectious illness.
Therefore, it is important that mother's milk contain as much MCT as
nature will allow. This can be done with diet. Given an ample supply of
food containing medium-chain fatty acids, a nursing mother will produce
a milk rich in these health-promoting nutrients.9 While cow's milk and
other dairy products contain small amounts, the foods richest in
medium-chain fatty acids are the tropical oils, principally coconut oil.
The levels of these antimicrobial fatty acids can be as low as 3 to 4
percent, but when nursing mothers eat coconut products (shredded
coconut, coconut milk, coconut oil, etc.) the levels of MCT in their
milk increase significantly. For instance, eating 40 grams (about 3
tablespoons worth) of coconut oil in one meal can temporarily increase
the lauric acid in the milk of a nursing mother from 3.9% to 9.6% after
14 hours.10 The content of caprylic and capric acids are also increased.
"This gives an important benefit," says Mary G. Enig, Ph.D. an expert in
lipid chemistry and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition. "The
milk has increased amounts of the protective antimicrobials lauric acid
and capric acid, which gives even greater protection to the infant." If
the mother consumes coconut oil every day while nursing, the
medium-chain fatty acid content will be even greater.
Preparation by the mother should start before the baby is born. Pregnant
women store fat to be used later in making their milk. After the baby is
born the fatty acids stored in the mother's body and supplied by her
daily diet are used in the production of her milk. If she has eaten and
continues to eat foods which supply ample amounts of MCFA, particularly
lauric acid and capric acid (the two most important antimicrobial
medium-chain fatty acids), her milk will provide maximum benefit to her
baby. These mothers can have as much as 18 percent of the saturated
fatty acids in their milk in the form of lauric and capric acids.
If the mother did not eat foods containing MCT and does not eat them
while nursing, her mammary glands will only be capable of producing
about 3 percent lauric acid and 1 percent capric acid. Her child will
lose a great deal of the nutritional benefits as well as the
antimicrobial protection the infant could have otherwise had.
Protection from Illness
One of the major characteristics of human breast milk is its ability to
protect infants from a myriad of infectious illnesses during a time when
their immune systems are immature and incapable of adequately defending
themselves. The protective antimicrobial substances in milk that protect
the child from a world teaming with infectious germs and parasites are
the MCFA. There are some illnesses that even an adult with a healthy
immune system may have difficulty fighting off. If the baby is not
protected with an adequate amount of MCT in his or her milk, exposure to
such an infection could result in serious illness.
When a nursing mother is infected with such an illness, her child is
also vulnerable. Mothers infected by certain viruses can pass the
infection on to their infants through breastfeeding. In these cases
breastfeeding is not recommended. This is particularly true when the
mother is infected with a dangerous virus such as HIV. Recent research
has shown that mothers who include a source of lauric acid, such as
coconut oil, in their diets have lower risk of infecting their nursing
infants. The presence of the MCT in the milk lowers the level of the
virus in the milk and thus helps lower the risk of transmission of the
While HIV-infected mothers are usually advised not to breastfeed their
young for fear that the virus may be transferred, there is no feasible
option in some parts of the world. Many women in resource-poor areas do
not have the financial means to buy infant formula. Breastfeeding is
really their only option. Adding coconut products and coconut oil to the
mother's diet is the only practical defense these women have against
passing the AIDS virus to their children.
It has been recommended that HIV-infected mothers who are breastfeeding
consume 24-28 grams/day of lauric acid and 3-4 grams/day of capric acid
to prevent the transfer of the virus. Since coconut oil is nearly 48
percent lauric acid and 7 percent capric acid, this requirement would be
met if the mother ate about 50-55 grams of coconut oil each day. A
tablespoon is equivalent to 14 grams. So 31/2 tablespoons of coconut oil
a day would provide the recommended amount of both lauric and capric
Other viral infections such as those that cause measles, herpes,
mononucleosis, and such are also a threat to nursing infants. Pregnant
women and nursing mothers can help protect their children by eating an
abundant amount of coconut oil or products that contain coconut oil,
such as shredded coconut or coconut milk.
Any mother or expectant mother who desires a healthy, well-developed
baby should consider adding coconut oil to her diet. She will not only
assure better health for her children but will benefit greatly herself.
MCFA are vital nutrients and protectors found naturally in human milk.
They are deadly enough to kill the AIDS virus yet gentle enough to
nourish a premature infant to health. As we grow to adulthood and
beyond, our bodies begin to wear down. MCFA can help nourish and protect
us, as it does infants, from infectious and degenerative disease. It
appears that coconut oil provides many health benefits to those who are
very young and those who are very old and all those in between!
1. Thampan, P.K. 1994. Facts and Fallacies About Coconut Oil. Asian and
Pacific Coconut Community, p.8
2. Kiyasu G.Y., et al. 1952. The portal transport of absorbed fatty
acids. Journal of Biological Chemistry 199:415
3. Fushiki, T. and Matsumoto, K. 1995, Swimming endurance capacity of
mice is increased by chronic consumption of medium-chain triglycerides.
Journal of Nutrition 125:531
4. Applegate, L. 1996. Nutrition. Runner's World 31:26
5. Azain, M.J., 1993. Effects of adding medium-chain triglycerides to
sow diets during late gestation and early lactation on litter
performance. J. Anim. Sci. 71(11):3011
6. Vaidya, U.V., et al. 1992 Vegetable oil fortified feeds in the
nutrition of very low birthweight babies. Indian Pediatr. 29(12):1519
7. Tantibhedhyangkul, P. and Hashim, S.A., 1978. Medium-chain
triglyceride feeding in premature infants: effects on calcium and
magnesium absorption. Pediatrics 61(4):537
8. Jiang, Z.M.,Et al. 1993. A comparison of medium-chain and long-chain
triglycerides in surgical patients. Ann. Surg. 217(2):175
9. Francois, C.A., et al. 1998. Acute effects of dietary fatty acids on
the fatty acids of human milk. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 67:301
Copyright © 2003, Bruce Fife. All rights
This website is for informational purposes only, and is educational in
nature. Statements made here have not been evaluated by the FDA. Nothing
stated on this website is intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent
"Coconut oil is the healthiest oil on
earth."-Bruce Fife, N.D.
"Coconut oil is the healthiest oil
you can use."-Joseph Mercola, D.O.
Coconut oil is the world's only
natural low-calorie fat.
Why has coconut oil had a bad
reputation in the past? It's not what you might think. The reason has
nothing to do with science or with health.