Sources of Food Ingredients: Lecithin
- What is lecithin?
Lecithin is a naturally occurring substance derived from several sources, including egg yolks, soybeans, sunflower, canola, corn and others. Lecithin is a multi-purpose ingredient that is often used as an emulsifier in foods, but it can also be used as an antioxidant and flavor protector. Lecithin has been used in human food since the 1800’s.
Lecithin can be prepared in fluid and de-oiled forms. Fluid lecithin products are blends of phospholipids and vegetable oils. De-oiled lecithin products have almost no vegetable oil and have a high concentration of high polyunsaturated fatty acids that comes in both granular and powdered forms.
- How is lecithin made?
Lecithin can be sourced from the tissues of plants and animals, most commonly from crops such as soybeans, sunflower seed, and maize.
Lecithin starts with crude lecithin, often a bi-product of vegetable oil production. From there, lecithin goes through a process of filtration, deodorization, fractionization, and removal of oil residues before being dried (for de-oiled lecithin).
- Why is lecithin in my food?
Lecithin is often used as an emulsifier in foods, which helps improve the texture and quality of products. It can also be used as an antioxidant and flavor protector.
De-oiled lecithin is free of oil, which provides more concentrated phospholipids for enhanced dispersion in water and easier handling.
- What foods and beverages contain lecithin?
Lecithin occurs naturally in a number of foods, including organ meats, red meat, seafood, eggs, and various vegetables and legumes.
Lecithin is used in beverages, powdered mixes, frozen desserts, nutritional drinks, meats, sauces, soups, and gravy mixes.
- Is lecithin permitted for use in the U.S. and in other countries?
Lecithin is affirmed as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, in the United States.
The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/Word Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), Health Canada, the European Commission, the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ), and other regulatory agencies also recognize the use of lecithin as a multi-functional, safe food additive.
- Can lecithin be used in foods marketed as organic, vegetarian, halal or kosher?
Lecithin can be used in products labelled vegetarian and can be certified kosher and halal. In the U.S., de-oiled lecithin is also permitted in foods marketed as organic.
- How does lecithin benefit my health?
Lecithin is a rich source of phosphatidylcholine which provides the main source of choline in the diet. Choline is an essential nutrient because natural human production levels of choline are not enough and can’t prevent choline shortages.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has acknowledged the importance of choline function in humans in its approval of health claims related to its contribution to normal lipid metabolism, maintenance of normal liver function, maintenance of normal brain function, and brain development.
Lecithin can be added to foods to supplement choline content.
- Why is lecithin necessary in foods and beverages?
Lecithin is often used as an emulsifier, improving the texture and shelf-stability of food products. For example, lecithin helps ensure that salad dressing has a consistent creamy texture and prevents cheese slices from sticking together in the package.
Lecithin also enhances the elasticity and quality of baking dough. De-oiled lecithin is free of oil for enhanced dispersion in water and easier handling (e.g., dry seasoning, sauce, and/or soup mixes). Lecithin can also help replace less healthy fats without changing the texture of the food.
- How does the production and use of lecithin impact the environment
Because crude lecithin is often sourced as a bi-product of vegetable oil production, it reduces waste by utilizing more of the original plant.
- How does lecithin make food more affordable?
Lecithin makes food more affordable because it is easily sustainable, cheap to grow, and effective in a multitude of food products. It also improves shelf-stability, cutting down on food waste.
- Does lecithin contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?
No, most forms of lecithin do not contain genetically modified organisms. Lecithin can be also derived from non-GMO sources of soybeans and canola that have been Identity Preserved (IP).
- Is lecithin safe for children?
Lecithin is safe for children. Those with sensitivity or allergy to soy, however, should be cautious.
- How long has lecithin been used in foods?
Maurice Gobley, a French scientist, discovered lecithin in egg yolk in 1846, and since then it has been regularly used in food products.