The length is in reference to how long its aliphatic tail is – a chain of carbon atoms. Short are between 6 and 12, while the long are 13 to 21.
Is lauric acid saturated or unsaturated? If the latter, is it monounsaturated or polyunsaturated?
The answer is the first choice – it’s a saturated fat – which many believe to be the worst type. It is true that most saturated sources are terrible for your health, but that’s in reference to the long chain forms.
The medium chains – which are rare in the Western diet – are digested quite differently. They’re good for you and appear to offer benefits for dieting, skin, and possibly other purposes.
In a nutshell, they’re digested right away. Unlike the long forms, they bypass the time-consuming absorption process which takes place in the lymphatic system for absorbing long chains (1) (2). By hitting your bloodstream quickly, they provide fuel for energy like a carb, but without the usual blood sugar spike.
Recently, we did a piece on the benefits of MCT oil which is sold as a dietary supplement. That’s a highly refined product containing 100% medium chain triglycerides (MCT). Most of them are in the form of coconut oil lauric acid.
There’s nothing wrong with using 100% MCT. However, many people – especially those on a whole food diet – prefer to eat natural foods that contain lauric acid. That brings us to the question or which natural sources are highest?
Probably not the ones you’ve been hearing about. Or at least, not all of them.
Fact vs. fiction
There are a lot of myths being perpetuated online about this type of fat and what foods contain it. Even major health and nutrition websites are writing lies, though we assume (hope) it’s unintentional.
For example, there’s no such thing as olive oil lauric acid. Whether it’s extra virgin or made with organic olives does not change the answer. Don’t take our word for it though, just look at the USDA’s full report for this food and you will see 0.000 on the line corresponding to 12:0 (3). That’s lauric and the 12 references its 12-carbon atom chain.
Is grass fed butter’s lauric acid content higher? Nope, that’s another myth. Likewise for ghee/clarified butter. While tested samples can vary from one another, overall the trend suggests that conventional, grassfed, and organic dairy products all have comparable lipid profiles.
Speaking of grassfed, don’t listen to the nonsense that bison and buffalo meat contains it. You can name just about any meat source – conventional or grassfed – and most have less than 0.25% of their fat content in this form.
Why people are claiming that meat is a good source is quite strange, because you don’t have to search hard to find the answer. Historically the USDA has heavily promoted meat and dairy usage. In their National Nutrient Database, all of the first foods they added – as evidenced by their report number – are for milk, meats, and cheeses.
In their database you can look up turkey, steak, salmon, seafood, you name it. Just for chicken alone, you will find hundreds of different entries covering the gamut including breasts, thighs, white meat, dark meat, fried, grilled, broiled, and so forth. More types than you even knew existed… and none of them contain much of this.
Do egg yolks contain any? Nope and neither do egg whites. According to USDA measurements, there is 0.000 grams in a fresh, whole raw egg (28).
There are multiple reasons why breastfeeding a baby is ideal, assuming the mother is able to safely do so. Does breast milk contain lauric acid? Yes this one is true and it’s a rich source at 5.5% of the fat content. That’s 50% more than how much lauric is in cow’s milk (4).
Furthermore, when a baby is born prematurely, it has been found that the mother’s body doubles down on the concentration and it can rise up to 10% (5). It’s further evidence that this unique lipid must be beneficial for human health.
Though unless you’re an infant, obviously human breast milk is not a food source relevant to your diet! So let’s take a look at the other highest oils and foods, ranked according to what percent of their lipids are in this specific form.
25 highest food/oil sources
|Common Name(s)||Plant Species (if applicable)||Percentage||Source|
palm oil, Indaiá oil
oil, cusi oil
palm oil, corozo, coquito, coco de aceite
palm kernel oil, pejibaye palm oil
|8.||Ghee, creamery butter (cow)||6.18%||(12)|
|9.||Buffalo ghee, creamery butter||5.93%||(12)|
|10.||Desi buffalo ghee||5.67%||(12)|
|11.||Kombo butter, African nutmeg butter||Pycnanthus
|13.||Buffalo ghee, direct cream||5.31%||(12)|
|14.||Desi ghee (cow)||4.80%||(12)|
|19.||Ghee, direct cream (cow)||3.55%||(12)|
|20.||Grassfed yogurt (cow)||3.40%||ESHA Research’s Food Processor Nutrition Analysis Version 10.12.0 (not online)|
|21.||Grassfed cheddar cheese||3.18%||(17)|
|25.||Grassfed milk (cow)||2.50%||ESHA
Research’s Food Processor Nutrition Analysis Version 10.12.0 (not online)
|Note: All values represent the full fat version of a given food. Reduced fat versions will have less. When a source provided a range or multiple readings, the average was used.|
Foods vs. derivative forms
Remember, this is a fat we are talking about.
All pure fats – regardless of whether they are plant or animal derived – are around 100 to 120 calories per tablespoon. That holds true whether you’re talking about butter, coconut, or olive oil.
That means any food that is reduced calorie or altered to be low fat will also contain less. Yes, low fat and skim milk probably remain the best choices since they have fewer calories and cholesterol. Unfortunately though, it also means you are reducing how much of this beneficial nutrient you get.
Does coconut milk have lauric acid? Yes a little, because depending on the brand you buy, most of the calories in it are coming from lipids. However, something like unsweetened So Delicious coconut milk will be 45 calories per 8 ounce serving, with 40 calories of that from fat (89% fat).
In terms of mg or g, that’s around 2/3rds less than how much fat there is in 1 tablespoon of refined or unrefined virgin coconut oil. So how much lauric fat you’re getting with the milk pales in comparison.
With Vita Coco, Zico, and C2O the answer will be even more of a letdown. Does coconut water contain lauric acid? Nope, there’s zero or only trace amounts. Look at the ingredient label and you will see the calories are coming from sugars, not fats. That means it’s impossible for these expensive coconut waters to be a good source.
Speaking of H2O, lauric acid is not soluble in water. That means even if it was in Vita Coco or a similar beverage, the bioavailability of it probably would not be very good. This is a reason why lauric acid foods in their whole form remain a good choice, as part of a balanced diet.
Too much lauric acid?
It’s possible to overdose on plain water. Anything in excess can have devastating side effects and the same holds true for this.
Since the toxicology studies have not shown any harmful side effects specific to this 12 carbon lipid, it appears the dangers are comparable to eating too much of any fat (21). In excess, even a healthy unsaturated source is bad for you. The same can be said about this healthy saturated form.
The hazards of lauric acid in high amounts will have more to do with the other fatty acids you’re getting along with them… the bad types. Yes, they may be in the minority, but they’re still in there.
With ghee, butter, and milk sources, even eating moderate amounts will possibly be giving you too much cholesterol.
In India, the name desi ghee is a label used to describe the regular form made using dairy, to differentiate it from cheaper vegetable ghee (which is not authentic).
If you ate 2 tablespoons of ghee per day, that would represent about 10% of your calories.
In a study with rats fed the equivalent (10% of calories), over a period of just 4 weeks, their cholesterol levels shot up substantially versus a standard diet (22). See the chart.
Even though it’s hailed as a superfood, gobbling up ghee to get your medium-chains may not be the best idea. This is perhaps the biggest side effect with these foods… as Americans, we love too much of a good thing.
Vegan food sources won’t be a problem in terms of cholesterol, since plants contain none whatsoever.
Setting aside the harm of going overboard with them, this is a very unique nutrient. Because of how they are digested, they can be utilized for energy quite easily by our body.
That obviously is preferable to the digestion speed of long chains like oleic and linoleic acid. You might consume them at dinner from the olive oil in your pasta, but your body may not be absorbing them until your sound asleep at 2 am… not exactly a time you need an energy boost, right?
When we have energy we can’t use, it builds up as fat stores on our body. And there’s nothing to love about love handles, right?
Most of the clinical trials are looking at if there are weight loss benefits of lauric acid. It would be easy to cherry-pick some great studies and quote them, but the best way to communicate the message would be to quote a meta-analysis.
That’s a single study which compiles the results of multiple studies and analyzes them as a whole. That way, the data is being looked at in its entirety.
The most recent meta-analysis published on medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) and weight loss was in 2015. They only included randomized controlled trials in their review. Here’s what they had to say after analyzing them (23):
“Replacement of LCTs with MCTs in the diet could potentially induce modest reductions in body weight and composition without adversely affecting lipid profiles. However, further research is required by independent research groups using large, well-designed studies to confirm the efficacy of MCT and to determine the dosage needed for the management of a healthy body weight and composition.”
That might not be the only way they can help your appearance.
There have been several recent studies which have found that uses of lauric acid might include topical acne treatments in the future.
A study at UCSD said the acid has “strong bacterial properties” against Propionibacterium acnes (P. acnes). That’s a type of bacteria which is known to be associated with inflamed cystic acne. It takes advantage of the pimple’s presence, sets up a home there, and then creates worse inflammation and skin redness (24).
In their study, they infected the ears of mice with the P. acnes bacteria and then looked at what happened to it when lauric acid was used.
A = What the mice ears looked lik 24 hours after being injected with both lauric acid and acne provoking bacteria. There appears to be almost no inflammation present.
B = Mice ears 24 hours after getting just the bacteria. Extremely inflamed, bacteria present.
C = Stained, cross-section of ear showing how P. acnes decreased in the presence of lauric.
Another study published in 2015 proposed the idea of taking a prescription acne vulgaris medicine, retinoic acid, and combining it with this particular medium chain for greater effectiveness (25).
When it comes to hair care, the use of lauric acid in shampoo and conditioner have already become popular choices among consumers. Often they use refined coconut oil lauric acid. Some include more exotic but non-edible oils like jojoba, but be aware that and most others don’t contain any medium chains.
If it wasn’t made using a type of palm kernal, chances are the plant oil contains little to none. Likewise for essential oils, which actually don’t contain fixed oils like the ones we eat.
If they help hair topically, the mechanism of benefit is quite different since it’s not being digested. One study claims this is why they work (26):
“…has a high affinity for hair proteins and, because of its low molecular weight and straight linear chain, is able to penetrate inside the hair shaft.”
It has not been studied much at all for joint health, but one lab study did suggest it might help with the fatty acid transport in articular cartilage (27).
The best natural sources?
If you’re looking to increase your consumption, the clear winner will be those which are plant based.
Not to say they don’t have drawbacks in their own regard, but any bad fats they contain will be better than the same bad fats plus the cholesterol you are getting with virtually any dairy source, whether from a cow, sheep, donkey, camel, or other four-legged creature.
How much lauric acid in coconut oil there is – 42% on average – makes it a solid choice. Not only is it a rich food source, but it’s also widely available for sale and quite affordable at that. You can buy Nutiva coconut oil and similar brands at GNC, Whole Foods, Walmart, and most supermarkets.
Both refined and unrefined coconut will be good choices. When an oil is refined, it’s not much different nutritionally. The only difference is that colors and odors caused by trace compounds have been removed through further refinement. Either way, both refined and unrefined are still processed. You actually can’t make culinary oils without doing so.
If you only want what’s good for you – and want to leave off what’s bad – then it will mean your best option are MCT oils or supplement capsules of it. Yes, they are more processed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to an edible oil, as long as toxic solvents and other potentially harmful production methods weren’t used to make them.
If you want to stick with the natural sources of lauric acid, without the extra refinement, yet still do better than coconut, your most feasible option will be babassu oil. It’s the 2nd highest source.
Only bacuacu palm has more and a trivial amount at that; 55.8% versus 54.7%. It’s a South American palm which isn’t really commercialized. On the other hand, babassu oil is (at least to some extent).
Can you eat babassu oil? That’s the catch-22.
With over 30% more lauric acid content than coconut, it definitely seems like an undiscovered hidden superfood. Growing in the Amazon region of South America, this oil which is extracted from babassu palm seeds is used for cooking, cleaning, and skin care uses.
However we haven’t seen it for sale in Los Angeles (our local area) and can only find it online. There, we only see the non-food sources being sold, for beauty and skin care purposes.
While reviews rave about it making hair shiny and smooth when applied topically, trying to eat it would not be safe because it’s not food grade. That means it might have been made with petroleum based solvents and other chemicals which you don’t want to be ingesting.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.