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What Are Medium Chain Fatty Acids and Why Are They Important to Your Health?

It is an unfortunate irony that most of us were raised to believe all tropical oils like virgin coconut oil are bad when they have the highest concentrations of medium-chain fatty acids available in our diets, a type of saturated fat that is so good for us. Scientific literature overwhelmingly debunks the link between saturated fat and heart disease. Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils (synthetic, lab-created saturated fats) and excessive carbohydrate intake have been the culprits all along.

What are hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils? Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils in any amount should be strictly avoided. In essence, hydrogenated oils are fake saturated fats, where long chain polyunsaturated fats (found in high quantities in corn, soy, and safflower oils) have been converted into long chain saturated fats. Not only do long chain fatty acids make higher demands on the body for digesting them, the body is not able to easily transform these fake saturated fats with “trans” bonds versus naturally occurring saturated fats with “cis” bonds. Hydrogenated oils precipitated the dramatic increase of seed oil consumption in the American diet at the expense of quality forms of saturated fats and Omega 3s. For a more thorough discussion, I recommend reading Dr Mary Enig’s book, “Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol.”

What is the role of fat in diet? Low-fat diets have been erroneously recommended for reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and have been used in many calorie-reducing regimens. This practice is now under scrutiny by many noteworthy researchers because it presents potentially serious health consequences:

1) Low-fat diets can lead to vitamin deficiency because fat-soluble vitamins, particularly vitamin D, are found only in the fatty (or oily) part of food.

2) Moderate amounts of saturated fat are needed to increase the bio-availability of fat-soluble nutrients and are essential for many critical biological functions.

3) Dietary fat promotes satiation, slowing digestion by triggering the release of the satiety hormone cholecystokinin (CCK) and controlling the metabolism of carbohydrates.

4) Dietary fat is required to support physical and psychological changes during growth and maturation in children.

While too much fat in the diet increases dietary energy density and may compromise weight loss, too little fat results in nutritional deficiencies and feelings of hunger that can lead to overeating – probably overeating carbohydrates. Thus, moderate amounts of carefully balanced dietary fat are critical for healthy, sustainable weight loss.

What are medium-chain fatty acids? MCFAs and oil blends containing MCFAs have received considerable attention for their potential in reducing abdominal obesity and diminishing fat storage, as summarized in this table by Nagao and Yanagita (2010). Both animal and human trials suggest a greater satiating effect of MCFAs compared to long-chain fatty acids (as found in vegetable oils). Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) occur between 6 to 12 carbons long, and  include caprioc (C6:0), caprylic (C8:0), capric (C10:0), and lauric (C12:0) acids. Unlike long chain fatty acids, MCFAs are readily utilized by the liver, which leads to greater energy expenditure and enhancement of thermogenesis. While MCFAs occur naturally at lower levels in milk fat (butter, milk, yogurt, and cheese), the highest quantities are found in coconut and palm-kernel oils.

What is the difference between medium-chain triglycerides and medium-chain fatty acids? Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are obtained from food sources high in MCFAs, usually coconut oil, through lipid fractionation. MCTs are a concentrated form of caprylic (C8:0) and capric (C10:0) acids because they naturally occur in smaller quantities even in coconut oil. The dominant MCFA in coconut oil is lauric acid (C12:0) (found in abundance in mother’s milk), which is converted to monolaurin in the body and has many promising benefits.

For more information on virgin coconut oil, medium chain fatty acids, and why they are so important for your health, please refer to our webpage of downloadable scientific literature.


Amador M, Ramos LT, Morono M, Hermelo MP. 1990. Growth rate reduction during energy restriction in obese adolescents. Exp Clin Endocrinol 96: 73–82.

Dulloo AG, Fathi M, Mensi N, Girardier L. 1996. Twenty-four-hour energy expenditure and urinary catecholamines of humans consuming low-to-moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides: a dose-response study in a human respiratory chamber. Eur J Clin Nutr 50:152–8.

Enig M. 2001. Know Your Fats: The Complete Nutrition Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils, and Cholesterol. Bethesda Press, Bethesda, Maryland.

Ernst SD, Cleeman J, Mullis R, Sooter-Bochenek J, Van Horn L.  1988. The National Cholesterol Education Program: implications for dietetic practitioners from the Adult Treatment Panel recommendations.  J Am Diet Assoc 88:1401-8

Gifford KD. 2002. Dietary Fats, Eating Guides, and Public Policy: History, Critique, and Recommendations. Am J Med 113:S89-S113

Hillier F, Pedley C, Summerbell C. 2011. Evidence-base for primary prevention of obesity in children and adolescents. Bundesgesundheitsbl 54:259–264.

Hite AH, Feinman RD, Guzman GE, Satin M, Schoenfeld PA, Wood RJ. 2010. In the face of contradictory evidence: Report of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans Committee. Nutrition 26:915–924

Kasai M, Nosaka N, Maki H, Suzuki Y, Takeuchi H, Aoyama T, Nakamura M, Suzuki Y, Tsuji H, Uto H, Okazaki M, Kondo K. 2002. Comparison of diet-induced thermogenesis of foods containing medium-versus long-chain triacylglycerols. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo) 48:536–40.

Nosaka N, Maki H, Suzuki Y, Haruna H, Ohara A, Kasai M, Tsuji H, Aoyama T, Okazaki M, Igarashi O, Kondo K. 2003. Effects of margarine containing medium-chain triacylglycerols on body fat reduction in humans. J Atheroscler Thromb 10:290–8.

Rolls B. 2009. The relationship between dietary energy density and energy intake. Physiology & Behavior 97: 609–615.

Siri-Tarino P, Sun Q, Hu FB, Krauss RM. 2010. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J of Clin Nutr 91:535-46

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