Nutrition Myths
Lauric acid - is it medium or long chain?

SUMMARY

  • Lauric acid belongs to the medium chain fatty acid category because it shares similar physiological properties as other medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs).
  • A classification that excludes lauric acid from MCFAs is based on commerce, rather than science.
  • Most scientific studies on the effects of medium chain triglycerides either don’t mention lauric acid or place it under the medium chain category.
  • However, a small number of studies suggest that lauric acid behaves like long chain fatty acid because a large portion of it is sent to the lymphatic system.
    These studies usually analyze the effects of large intakes of MCTs which is not part of the natural food or a normal diet.
Advertisement

ON THIS PAGE

Lauric acid – is it medium or long chain?

This article describes some common myths related to categorizing lauric acid as long chain, and explains why it is actually a medium chain fatty acid.

Why do we care if lauric acid is a medium or a long chain fatty acid?

Medium chain fatty acids are associated with a wide range of health benefits, due to their quick absorption, metabolism and rapid energy production.

On the other hand, long chain fatty acids are sent through the lymphatic and blood systems to be stored as body fat, and have a negative health connotation.

Promoters of products rich in lauric acid, such as coconut or kernel oil, understandably favor the view that lauric acid belongs to the medium chain rather than the long chain fatty acid group.

Since the popularity of coconut oil has skyrocketed in the last few decades, the debate also intensified, with promoters of competing products advocating the view that lauric acid is a long chain fatty acid.

Here are some other major common arguments that add to the confusion:

MYTH 1: Lauric acid is absorbed and metabolized like LCTs

FACT: In a normal diet, most lauric acid is sent via the portal vein to the liver, while under certain lab conditions, or where large amounts of medium chain triglycerides is used, a large portion may be sent to the lymphatic system.

Generally, most of the longer fatty acids, of 14 carbons or more, are sent via the lymphatic system, and most of the fatty acids, of 12 carbons or less, pass through the portal vein. (1)

The proportion of the MCFAs sent to the portal vein, is also diet dependent. In a diet that contains a variety of fats naturally occurring in foods, most MCFAs pass through the portal veins.

However, when the diet is altered and mainly MCFAs are used (in place of other fats), part of the medium chain fatty acids gets sent through the lymphatic system.

Various studies on animals have also shown that when large amounts of MCTs are administered, a large portion of the lauric acid is sent through the lymphatic system rather than to the liver.

Since the priority to travel via the portal vein channel is given to shorter chains, lauric acid is left behind.

In summary, while the general rule is that MCFAs are directed towards the portal veins, the body  is able to adjust, depending on the diet variations and the composition of fats in a meal.

MYTH 2: Lauric acid is not part of MCT oil and, therefore, must be long chain

FACT: MCT Oils contain mostly C8 and C10 acids, due to commercial reasons.

MCT Oil is a synthetic extract from coconut or kernel oil and consists mainly of C8 and C10 triglycerides (about 97%). It is the best source of medium chain fatty acids.

Since MCT Oil virtually excludes lauric acid, an assumption has been made that lauric acid must be a long chain fatty acid.

However, the reasons for not including lauric acid are, in fact, unrelated to the above assumption.

Since about the mid-20th century, coconut and kernel oils have been used to extract two commercially important products with specific uses in various industries.

Lauric acid is highly valued in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries and CMT Oil is used as an energy substitute for people with lipid absorption disorders and type 2 diabetics.

Therefore, lauric acid is not a significant part of MCT oil, simply due to practical and commercial reasons.

MYTH 3: Chemists decided at random what a medium fatty acid is

FACT: MCFAs and LCFAs were defined by scientists based on the physiological effects these fats have on the body.

Fatty acids were categorized in 1982 by Bach and Babayan into three groups after an extensive review of the physiological effects they exert in the body. These groups are: short (<6C), medium (6-12C) and long (>12) chain fatty acids. (1)

Lauric acid was included in the medium chain fatty acids group, because of similar physiological properties to 6, 8 and 10 carbon fatty acids.

For example, under a normal diet, medium chain fatty acids are distributed through the portal vein to the liver for energy production, rather than through the lymphatic system.

However, as mentioned before, in some circumstances the lauric acid distribution via the lymphatic system increases. 

In summary, there was nothing random in this classification.

MYTH 4: Nearly every study on MCTs effects says that lauric acid is a LCT

FACT: There is an overall misinterpretation of the scientific studies.

My observations after reviewing the studies on MCTs are:

  • Overall, if mentioned at all, most scientific material on medium chain triglycerides refers to lauric acid as a medium chain fatty acid. (1)
  • Many studies on MCTs don’t mention lauric acid at all, because they simply focus on the specific properties of C8 and C10.
  • However, a small number of studies place lauric acid between medium and long chain, due to its inconsistent path of transport in the body, which is dependent on how MCTs are administered.
  • Very few studies suggest that lauric acid is a long chain, showing that it is transported via the lymphatic system like LCFAs. These studies are done in specific lab conditions, where an unusual amount and combination of fatty acids are administered to animal subjects. (2)

Overall, what currently happens is if a study on MCFAs doesn’t mention lauric acid, it is assumed that lauric acid must be a long chain fatty acid. This assumption is incorrect.

Some references also point to short abstracts that don’t mention lauric acid, but the full article, which sometimes is not accessible to the public, clearly states that lauric acid is medium chain.

NUTRITION FACTS VS NUTRITION MYTHS

You will find a summary of the most common nutrition myths and evidence-based nutrition facts here.

Related Posts

Why do fats melt at different temperatures? Different fats melt at different temperatures. This is mainly due to the fatty acid’ characteristics.
Medium chain triglycerides – all about MCTs Find out what are medium chain triglycerides, their properties, benefits, and what is their association with coconut oil, palm kernel oil and MCT Oil.
Advertisement
Advertisement

Get updates

Receive regular updates on nutrition myths, facts and curiosities. All based on the latest scientific evidence.