Medium-Chain Fatty Acids

coconut oil
Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides. Jessica Boone/The Image Bank/Getty Image

Definition: One way to classify fats is by how saturated they are (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or saturated). Another way is by how long the molecule is, or, more accurately, how many carbon atoms are in the chain at the center of the molecule. Each of these molecules is called a fatty acid, and different fatty acids are used by the body in different ways. This means that, while we tend to think of, for example, saturated fats, as "all one thing", all the different saturated fats, from 3 carbon atoms all the way up to 36 carbon atoms, act differently in our bodies.

(The monounsaturated and polyunsaturated also have different chain lengths, but none that fit in the "medium-chain" or "short-chain" categories.)

Medium-chain fatty acids have approximately 8 to 12 carbon atoms in the chain (some sources say 6 to 12). When they are "packaged" three together with a glycerol "backbone", that makes a triglyceride molecule known as a medium-chain triglyceride.

Medium-chain fats are more easily absorbed into the bloodstream during digestion and are readily used for energy by the body. When they are metabolized, ketones are generated, which can be used by the brain, heart, and other tissues in the body.

There is some evidence that medium-chain triglycerides may be antimicrobial, and also that they may help with weight control and some neurological conditions.

Sources of Medium-Chain Fats

Coconut oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut milk are by far the foods with the highest amounts of medium-chain fats.

Chocolate is also a source of medium-chain fats. MCT oil is made by extracting the medium-chain triglycerides from coconut and/or palm oil, so it is a more concentrated form of this type of fat.

Examples: Lauric acid and decanoic acid are examples of medium-chain fatty acids.

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