Lecithin: Wikis


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An example of a phosphatidylcholine, a type of phospholipid in lecithin.

Lecithin is a generic term to designate any group of yellow-brownish fatty substances occurring in animal and plant tissues, and in egg yolk, composed of phosphoric acid, choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, triglycerides, and phospholipids (e.g., phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, and phosphatidylinositol).

The word lecithin was originally coined in 1847 by French chemist and pharmacist Theodore Nicolas Gobley to designate pure phosphatidylcholine. Gobley originally isolated lecithin from egg yolk—λέκιθος (lekithos) is egg yolk in ancient Greek—and established the complete chemical formula of phosphatidylcholine in 1874; in-between he had demonstrated the presence of lecithin in a variety of biological matters including venous blood, bile, human brain tissue, fish eggs, fish roe, chicken and sheep brain.

Lecithin can easily be extracted chemically (using hexane) or mechanically from readily available sources such as soy beans. It has low solubility in water. In aqueous solution its phospholipids can form either liposomes, bilayer sheets, micelles, or lamellar structures, depending on hydration and temperature. This results in a type of surfactant that is usually classified as amphipathic. Lecithin is sold as a food supplement and for medical uses. In cooking, it is sometimes used as an emulsifier and to prevent sticking, for example in non-stick cooking spray.


In biology

Phosphatidylcholine occurs in all cellular organisms, being one of the major components of the phospholipid portion of the cell membrane.


Commercial lecithin, as used by food manufacturers, is a mixture of phospholipids in oil. The lecithin is obtained by degumming the extracted oil of the seeds. The lecithin is a mixture of various phospholipids, and the composition depends on the origin of the lecithin. A major source of lecithin is soybean oil. Because of the EU-requirement to declare additions of allergens in foods, in addition to regulations regarding Genetically Modified Crops, a gradual shift to other sources of lecithin (e.g., sunflower oil) is taking place. The main phospholipids in lecithin from soya and sunflower are phosphatidyl choline, phosphatidyl inositol, phosphatidyl ethanolamine, and phosphatidic acid. They are often abbreviated to PC, PI, PE, and PA, respectively. To modify the performance of lecithin, i.e., to make it suitable for the product to which it is added, it may be hydrolysed enzymatically. In hydrolysed lecithins, a portion of the phospholipids have one fatty acid removed by phospholipase. Such phospholipids are called lyso-phospholipids. The most commonly-used phospholipase is phospholipase A2, which removes the fatty acid at the SN 2 position. Lecithins may also be modified by a process called fractionation. During this process, lecithin is mixed with an alcohol, usually ethanol. Some phospholipids have a good solubility in ethanol (e.g., phosphatidylcholine), whereas most other phospholipids do not dissolve well in ethanol. The ethanol is separated from the lecithin sludge, after which the ethanol is removed by evaporation, to obtain a phosphatidylcholine-enriched lecithin fraction.

Properties and applications

Lecithin has emulsification and lubricant properties, and is a surfactant.Lecithin can be totally metabolized by humans, so is well tolerated by humans and non-toxic when ingested; some emulsifiers can only be excreted via the kidneys.

Lecithin is used for applications in human food, animal feed, pharmaceutical, paint, and other industrial applications.

Applications listed by one manufacturer in addition to food applications include[1]:

  • In the pharmaceutical industry it acts as a wetting, stabilizing agent and a chlorine enrichment carrier, helps in emulsifications and encapsulation, and is a good dispersing agent. It can be used in manufacture of intravenous fat infusions and for therapeutic use.
  • In animal feed it enriches fat & protein and improves pelletization.
  • In the paint industry it forms protective coatings for surfaces with painting and printing ink, has antioxidant properties, helps as a rust inhibitor, is a colour intensifying agent, catalyst, conditioning aid modifier, and dispersing aid; it is a good stabilizing and suspending agent, emulsifier, and wetting agent, helps in maintaining uniform mixture of several pigments, helps in grinding of metal oxide pigments, is a spreading and mixing aid, prevents hard settling of pigments, eliminates foam in water-based paints, and helps in fast dispersion of latex-based paints.
  • Lecithin can also be used as a release agent for plastics, an anti-sludge additive in motor lubricants, an anti-gumming agent in gasoline, and an emulsifier, spreading agent, and antioxidant in textile, rubber and other industries.

Use with food, and health effects

Its non-toxicity leads to the use of lecithin with food, as an additive or in food preparation. It is used commercially in foods requiring a natural emulsifier or lubricant. In the food industry it has multiple uses: In confectionery it reduces viscosity, replaces more expensive ingredients, controls sugar crystallization and the flow properties of chocolate, helps in the homogeneous mixing of ingredients, improves shelf life for some products, and can be used a coating. In emulsions and fat spreads it stabilizes emulsions, reduces spattering during frying, improves texture of spreads and flavour release. In doughs and bakery it reduces fat and egg requirements, helps even distribution of ingredients in dough, stabilizes fermentation, increases volume, protects yeast cells in dough when frozen, and acts as a releasing agent to prevent sticking and simplify cleaning. It improves wetting properties of hydrophilic powders (e.g. low-fat proteins) and lipophilic powders (e.g. cocoa powder), controls dust, and helps complete dispersion in water[1]. It can be used as a component of cooking sprays to prevent sticking and as a releasing agent.

For example, lecithin is the emulsifier that keeps cocoa and cocoa butter in a candy bar from separating. In margarines, especially those containing high levels of fat (>75%), lecithin is added as an 'anti-spattering' agent for shallow frying.

It is approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration for human consumption with the status "Generally Recognized As Safe." Lecithin is admitted by the EU as a food additive, designated by E number E322. There are studies that show soy-derived lecithin has significant effects on lowering cholesterol and triglycerides, while increasing HDL ("good cholesterol") levels in the blood [2][3]. However, studies on soy lecithin have been inconsistent and contradictory since the 1920s[4].


Compatibility with special diets

A proven benefit and suggested use for lecithin is for those taking niacin to treat high cholesterol. Niacin treatment can deplete choline, necessitating an increased amount of lecithin or choline in the diet. There is evidence to suggest that lecithin itself can lower cholesterol.[5] [6] [7] [8] Egg-derived lecithin may be a concern for those following some specialized diets. Egg lecithin is not a concern for those on low-cholesterol diets, because the lecithin found in eggs markedly inhibits the absorption of the cholesterol contained in eggs.[9] There is no general agreement among vegetarians concerning egg-derived lecithin, since it is animal-derived; Jains, vegetarian Hindus (like Brahmins) and vegans choose not to consume it[citation needed].

Jewish religious restrictions

Most major religions have no dietary restrictions on the use of lecithin.

For Jews who observe kashrut (kosher) egg lecithin, although not explicitly mentioned by name, under some interpretations may be eaten together with either meat or dairy products in the same way as eggs if it is deemed pareve (neutral) by a reliable kosher certifying agency.[10]

Soy-derived lecithin is considered by some to be kitniyot (essentially grain) and prohibited on Passover when many grain-based foods are forbidden, but not at other times.[11]

Related articles


  1. ^ a b Supplier's website with lecithin applications
  2. ^ Iwata T, Kimura Y, Tsutsumi K, Furukawa Y, Kimura S (February 1993). "The effect of various phospholipids on plasma lipoproteins and liver lipids in hypercholesterolemic rats". J. Nutr. Sci. Vitaminol. 39 (1): 63–71. PMID 8509902. 
  3. ^ Jimenez MA, Scarino ML, Vignolini F, Mengheri E (July 1990). "Evidence that polyunsaturated lecithin induces a reduction in plasma cholesterol level and favorable changes in lipoprotein composition in hypercholesterolemic rats". J. Nutr. 120 (7): 659–67. PMID 2366101. http://jn.nutrition.org/cgi/pmidlookup?view=long&pmid=2366101. 
  4. ^ Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN (Winter 2003). "Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit". Wise Traditions in Food, Farming, and the Healing Arts 4 (4). http://www.westonaprice.org/soy/lecithin.html. 
  5. ^ British Journal of Nutrition (1996), 75:471-481 Cambridge University Press, Cholesterol-lowering effect of soyabean lecithin in normolipidaemic rats by stimulation of biliary lipid secretion
  6. ^ Iowa State University Animal Industry Report 2006, Soy Lecithin but Not Egg Lecithin Decreased the Plasma Cholesterol Concentration in Golden Syrian Hamsters
  7. ^ Life Sciences, Volume 67, Issue 21, 13 October 2000, Pages 2563-2576, Dietary polyenylphosphatidylcholine decreases cholesterolemia in hypercholesterolemic rabbits: Role of the hepato-biliary axis.
  8. ^ J Pharm Pharmacol. 2005 Jul;57(7):889-96, Phytostanol tablets reduce human LDL-cholesterol.
  9. ^ Kansas State University, 29-Oct-2001, Why Eggs Don't Contribute Much Cholesterol To Diet.
  10. ^ OK Kosher Certification, Meat, Dairy, and Pareve. Retrieved on Sept 10, 2008.
  11. ^ OK Kosher Certification, Keeping Kosher for Pesach. Retrieved on Sept 10, 2008.

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