(This blog was originally posted in July but is now updated with new information.)
Lauric acid is the most abundant medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA) in virgin coconut oil. It's a powerful "super ingredient" that provides a wide range of health benefits for pets, including the power to boost the immune system, protect the skin and coat, and keep the gastrointestinal tract healthy.
But despite the fact that it's such a beneficial ingredient, there's a lot of controversy regarding lauric acid in coconut oil. In today's post, we'll dive into the lauric acid debate and clear up some common misconceptions. We'll also take an in-depth look at how MCFAs are metabolized by the body.
What's the Difference Between LCFAs, MCFAs, & SCFAs?
Saturated fatty acids can be grouped into three main categories: long-chain, medium-chain, and short-chain fatty acids. Both the length of the carbon chain of the fatty acid and the degree of hydrogen saturation determine the fatty acid’s properties and their effects on health.
Long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs) have chains of 14-22 carbon atoms. The long-chain, saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil are palmitic acid (C:16), myristic acid (C:14), and stearic acid (C:18). Because of their long carbon chain length, LCFAs are larger fat molecules compared to MCFAs, and they require a longer and more complex metabolic process than MCFAs. This means that they put more strain on the digestive system and internal organs such as the liver and pancreas, requiring pancreatic lipase and biliary acids to be broken down into usable energy.
LCFAs are also often stored as fat, and if an excess is consumed, it can increase the risk of health problems like obesity and heart disease. Dairy fats, animal fats, fish oil, as well as corn, sunflower, flaxseed, avocado, and olive oils are other examples of long-chain fatty acids.
Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) have chains of 6-12 carbon atoms. Some of the most common MCFAs in this group are lauric acid (C:12), capric acid (C:10), caprylic acid (C:8), and caproic acid (C:6). Unlike palmitic acid and myristic acid, these fatty acids do not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, they have been proven to benefit overall health thanks to the way they are processed by the body (more on this in a moment). Virgin coconut oil and breast milk are the richest sources of MCFAs.
Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) contain fewer than 6 carbon atoms. Some of the most common are butyric acid (4 carbon atoms long), propionic acid (3 carbon atoms long), and acetic acid (2 carbon atoms long). SCFAs are the end products of intestinal microbial fermentation of fiber. This means that, unlike LCFAs and MCFAs, they are mainly produced by the body. Research has shown that SCFAs have an important role to play in supporting gut health. They are also thought to promote overall health and decrease the risk of inflammatory diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes.
Is Lauric Acid a MCFA or LCFA?
Some people state that despite its chemical structure, lauric acid (C:12) really "functions" as a LCFA and uses the same metabolic pathways as long-chain triglycerides. By saying this, they infer that like a LCFA, lauric acid needs to be broken down by pancreatic lipase then transported via chylomicrons (a low-density lipoprotein) through the lymphatic system and to other organs in the body. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
The truth is that lauric acid (also known as dodecanoic acid) is a saturated fat with a 12-carbon atom chain. It is classified as a MCFA, has many properties of medium-chain fatty acids, and as we’ll show you in various studies below, the body metabolizes lauric acid as a MCFA. The most abundant natural source of lauric acid is virgin coconut oil (which has an average of 50% lauric acid). The only other abundant source found in nature is human breast milk.
A 2014 study published in the Philippine Journal of Science sheds further light on the unique properties of lauric acid. According to lead researcher Dr. Fabian M. Dayrit,
"Based on biochemical and nutritional evidences, lauric acid (C12) has distinctive properties that are not shared with longer-chain saturated fatty acids: myristic acid (C14), palmitic acid (C16), and stearic acid (C18)." The study goes on to explain that, "lauric acid makes up approximately half of the fatty acids in coconut oil; likewise, medium-chain triglycerides which contain lauric acid account for approximately half of all triacylglycerides in coconut oil."
For these reasons, Dr. Dayrit concludes that coconut oil should be classified as a medium-chain vegetable oil. He also points out that there is no link between lauric acid and high cholesterol.
The value of lauric acid is widely known, and there are over 2,000 published studies on the health benefits it provides. It has powerful antimicrobial properties that make it useful as a treatment for a variety of diseases. A number of viral infections, including colds, flu, and herpes, respond to treatment with it. Lauric acid has been shown to reduce the viral load of HIV/AIDS patients. It is also useful for killing bacteria that cause diseases such as chlamydia, MRSA, and bronchitis.
How Are MCFAs Metabolized by the Body?
In this section of the post, we'll take a look at the unique way in which MCFAs are metabolized by the body. Here's what happens when you eat coconut oil, a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) that's rich in beneficial medium-chain fatty acids including lauric acid:
1) The medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) in coconut oil are absorbed through the small intestines. They do not need pancreatic lipase for digestion.
2) MCFAs then travel through the portal vein directly to the liver, instead of through the blood or lymphatic system. They do not get stored in fatty adipose tissues.
3) The liver metabolizes the MCFAs without the need for bile acids, and releases it as energy. This is why coconut oil is considered a thermogenic oil!
In regards specifically to lauric acid (C12), Dr. Dayrit provides an overview of how it is metabolized by the body in a separate paper from 2014, published in the Journal of the American Oil Chemist Society:
"Detailed studies have shown that the majority of ingested lauric acid is transported directly to the liver where it is directly converted to energy and other metabolites rather than being stored as fat. Such metabolites include ketone bodies, which can be used by extrahepatic tissues, such as the brain and heart, as an immediate form of energy. Studies on the effect of lauric acid on serum cholesterol are contradictory. Among saturated fatty acids, lauric acid has been shown to contribute the least to fat accumulation."
Source: Philippine Journal of Science
Vol. 143 No. 2, December 2014. Printed with permission by Dr. F. Dayrit
Figure 1 shows the two main metabolic pathways of LCFA (left side) and MCFA (right side). When lipids are broken down via lipase hydrolysis, individual fatty acids are released, which are then channeled towards either the portal vein then directly to the liver, or repackaged into chylomicrons and brought to the lymphatic system. LCFAs are carried by lymph vessels, which line the gastrointestinal tract in the intestine to the lymphatic system, which is then transported throughout the blood circulation packaged as chylomicrons. On the other hand, MCFAs are directed into the hepatic portal vein that links the gastrointestinal tract directly to the liver.1
In experiments using rat intestine, it was observed that saturated fatty acids were directed towards the portal vein in decreasing quantities according to carbon number: C12 (72%) >C14 (58%) > C16 (41%) > C18 (28%) (McDonald et al. 1980). In another study, which gave similar results, C12 was not detected in lymph lipids from rats at 8 hours after administration of the test dietary fats, while C14 and longer saturated fatty acids were detected (Porsgaard & Høy 2000).
When consumed, lauric acid converts to monoglyceride monolaurin, a beneficial substance that's scientifically proven to be antibacterial and antimicrobial. This means that it helps support the immune system and protects against disease. Dr. Mary Enig, a Ph.D. nutritionist/biochemist and one of the world's leading authorities on fats and oils, explains:
"Lauric acid in coconut oil is formed into monoglyceride monolaurin in the human or animal body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human or animal to destroy lipid coated viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus, influenza, various pathogenic bacteria including listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, and protozoa such as giardia lamblia. Some studies have also shown some antimicrobial effects of lauric acid."
As we've mentioned throughout this post, lauric acid is the most abundant MCFA in virgin coconut oil. Therapeutic-grade oil such as CocoTherapy Virgin Coconut Oil contains high levels of lauric acid (at least 53% compared to an average of 45% in grocery store brands). It is also a good source of capric acid and caprylic acid, which provide a number of health benefits.
The combination of the three MCFAs (Lauric, Capric, and Caprylic Acids) in virgin coconut oil provide powerful and long-lasting health benefits for both people and pets. MCFAs, including lauric acid, are primary components of animal milk. They are essential for proper growth and development. Based on biochemical, physiological, and nutritional evidence, Lauric Acid has distinctive properties of a MCFA and is not metabolized in the same way as LCFAs. To say that lauric acid is dangerous and is processed in the body as a LCFA is unfounded and contrary to the published research.
Before introducing coconut oil to your pet's diet, make sure to choose a high-quality, natural product. CocoTherapy therapeutic-grade virgin coconut oil is safe, unrefined, and packed full of the wonderful health benefits that make it a true "superfood."
Could your pet benefit from the healing power of therapeutic-grade virgin coconut oil? Find out why CocoTherapy coconut oil is the very best choice for your pet by checking out our reviews.
[1 ] Dayrit, F. 2014. Lauric Acid is a Medium-Chain Fatty Acid, Coconut Oil is a Medium-Chain Triglyceride. Philippine Journal of Science. 143 (2): 157-166, December 2014 ISSN 0031 - 7683
Jian, T., et al. 2014. The Role of Short-Chain Fatty Acids in Health and Disease. PMID: 24388214 DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-800100-4.00003-9
Dayrit, F. 2014. Lauric Acid is a Medium-Chain Fatty Acid, Coconut Oil is a Medium-Chain Triglyceride. Philippine Journal of Science. 143 (2): 157-166, December 2014 ISSN 0031 - 7683
Dayrit, F. 2014. The Properties of Lauric Acid and Their Significance in Coconut Oil. Journal of the American Oil Chemist Society. AOCS 2014 Vol. 92, Issue 1, J Am Oil Chem Soc (2015) 92:1-15. DOI 10.1007/s11746-014-2562-7 First pub: 15 November 2014
PORSGAARD T, HØY CE. 2000. Lymphatic Transport in Rats of Several Dietary Fats Differing in Fatty
Acid Profile and Triacylglycerol Structure. J Nutr 130:1619-1624.
MCDONALD GB, et al. 1980. Portal Venous Transport of Long-Chain fatty Acids Absorbed From Rat intestine. Amer J Physiol - Gastroint Liver Physiol 239:G141-G150.
Yudai, N., et al. 2016. Lauric Acid Stimulates Ketone Body Production in the KT-5 Astrocyte Cell Line. PMID: 27430387 DOI: 10.5650/jos. ess16069