As a supplement, lecithin is touted as helpful for protecting cardiovascular health, reversing liver damage, and improving brain function and memory. It is frequently recommended by holistically minded doctors.
Within the food industry, lecithin seems to be in almost everything from dairy foods to chocolate bars!
Because it is literally everywhere in both supplements and processed foods, it is important to understand what lecithin is, how it is properly (and improperly) used, and which types are safe (or not safe) to consume.
What Exactly is Lecithin?
Lecithin is a fat that is essential to every cell in the body. The French scientist Maurice Gobley discovered it in 1806 and named it lekithos after the Greek word for egg yolk. Until the early days of soybean processing in the 1930s, egg yolk continued as the primary commercial source (1).
Today, the word is used to describe a wide variety of yellow brown fatty substances found in both plants and animals. Soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin are the most familiar. Eggs are by far the best whole food source of this nutrient. Foods containing it include:
- Sunflower seeds
- Chickpeas (garbanzo beans).
- Split peas
- Organic meat
- Seeds and nuts
Unique Properties of Lecithin
What makes lecithin so interesting is that it is amphiphilic. This means the substance attracts both water AND fat. This ability to attract both fat and water makes it invaluable in all sorts of foods, from salad dressings to chocolates and desserts.
In short, this nutrient can bind dissimilar ingredients together – perfect for industrialized food!
Lecithin is a rich source of choline, which is important for liver function, nerve function, and muscle movement. It is also critical for optimal development of the human brain. This is one of many reasons why egg yolk is the perfect first food for babies and why those fed deep orange yolks from chicken, goose or duck eggs usually speak in sentences very early.
Lecithin supplements are commonly prescribed by doctors, even holistically minded ones. You can see several popular brands in the picture above.
Know that while a diagnosis of low lecithin may be correct, the use of supplements to remedy the situation may not be. For example, a Naturopathic Doctor (ND) might be completely correct that a patient’s diet is dangerously low in cell protective lecithin. Testing may also reveal low levels of this nutrient.
However, prescribing a supplement is not usually the right course of action. A prescription to eat plenty of quality eggs would be a more constructive dietary tweak. Even after gall bladder surgery, most people can usually eat egg yolks if herbal bitters are used.
Being afraid to eat eggs and using lecithin supplements as the band-aid for being stuck in the dangerous lowfat diet, low cholesterol paradigm will not optimally resolve the health crisis at hand.
Thus, it is important to understand your practitioner’s food worldview in order to understand his/her supplement recommendations. If you can solve a problem with a traditional food instead of supplement pills, that is usually the better way to go!
One of the many problems with most types of lecithin, including soy, is the cultivation and processing. Chemical solvents, high heat, and more are typically the order of the day.
Lecithin derived from Roundup Ready GMO soy is grown under conditions of heavy pesticide (glyphosate) use. Adding insult to injury, it is extracted from GMO soybeans chemically using solvents such as hexane, ethanol, acetone, petroleum ether, benzene and others.
Many health conscious people already know about how food manufacturers use toxic hexane in the processing of soy protein. Research has shown that its residue ends up in the final products.
The same also appears to be true with a lot of the other listed solvents. Some amount remains in the final products, even after additional processing or filtering. Acetone? You may have some in your house, which you use as nail polish remover. Yum. Benzene? Its primary use is in making polystyrene and other plastics.
None of these things are safe for people to consume even in miniscule amounts! Nonetheless, their residue pollutes lots of average products as tiny leftovers from processing other ingredients.
Thus, one of the very first questions to resolve when consuming lecithin whether in pill or food form is where it comes from. If it is of GMO origin, take a pass. Note that GMOs in supplements, just like food, are unlabeled in North America. Find a manufacturer that is transparent and certifies/labels its products GMO-free voluntarily.
How is Lecithin Used in Processed Foods?
Lecithin is a key ingredient in a wide variety of processed foods. Its role as an emulsifier, releasing agent (non-stick), thickener, dispersant, and more mean many modern, shelf stable concoctions wouldn’t exist without it. Like what? Salad dressings, frozen desserts, baked goods, including some breads. Those convenient cooking sprays? Yep, often contain soy lecithin. Enjoying some organic chocolate? You will also be enjoying some nonGMO soy lecithin.
How is such a tiny molecule so useful? The reason is the structure is very similar to triglycerides – the most common form of fat in food and our bodies. Each triglyceride molecule contain a glycerol backbone with 3 fatty acids attached. All three are oil soluble which means they dissolve in oil, but not water. The molecular structure of lecithin if very similar to a triglyceride, except that one of the three fatty acids dissolves in water, but not oil. Thus, a lecithin molecule has the incredibly unique property of dissolving into mixtures that contain water and/or oil. (2).
But is something so useful worth the health risks of how it is derived and processed?
Allergies to Some Types of Lecithin
The growing prevalence of soy allergies today means that even tiny amounts of soy lecithin in an otherwise organic processed food can trigger an immune response.
Soy lecithin not only contains residues from the solvents and pesticides used in its production, but also, still contains soy proteins.
For example, FDA labeling regulations require that gluten be less than 20 parts per million (ppm) to be worthy of the gluten free label. Unfortunately, analysis of six soy lecithin samples found that four contained sufficient residual protein to trigger an immune response in individuals with a soy allergy. The testing revealed no detectable protein in the other two samples. (3)
As a result, GMO soy is not the only type of lecithin to avoid. Organic soy lecithin, while not a a problem for most people, can trigger a reaction for those sensitive or allergic to soy.
Fortunately, some forward thinking food manufacturers are moving toward another source: sunflower lecithin.
Sunflower Lecithin Benefits
Sunflowers are, overall, a very positive plant, producing prolific amounts of protein and fat, while helping improve ecosystems. The use of sunflower oil especially the high oleic kind by the processed food industry is for the most part a positive development.
A leftover from sunflower oil processing is sunflower lecithin. One of the benefits of sunflower lecithin is that it’s easy to extract mechanically rather than chemically. This makes it a much greener source environmentally speaking. This is very important, as even some organic lecithin supplements on the market are extracted chemically! Buyer beware!
In fact, sunflower is the only kind of lecithin that is raw and chemical free. No wonder forward thinking food and supplement companies are switching to it.
Unfortunately, because sunflowers are not as rich a source of this nutrient, sunflower lecithin is more expensive to procure. A single gallon requires many more sunflowers than soybeans to make it. (4)
Add to that the billions of dollars of government subsidies that go to growing soy in the US. No wonder the growth of sunflower lecithin as an alternative to soy lecithin has been slow. Overseas, the traction is much greater as of this writing.
The Biggest Drawback to Sunflower Lecithin
At the moment, the only thing that gives one pause is the lack of research or writing on sunflower lecithin.
As of this writing, sunflower sourced lecithin is the direction the industry is going despite the lack of research data. This is likely due to consumer pressure and avoidance of soy lecithin. This is a very positive development given that nearly all soy lecithin is of GMO origin. In addition, the fact that it can be produced via cold extraction sets sunflower apart from all other lecithin sources.
Lecithin: Friend or Foe?
In summary, certified organic sunflower lecithin is the optimal source for this nutrient whether as supplement or food additive.
An increasingly easy option is to go with foods that are lecithin free as more companies produce foods without it. Equal Exchange chocolate is organic, fair trade with no added lecithin. Numerous other companies and or product lines are now available for those who want to avoid any and all soy derived sources. While small in number and mostly from non-US companies, a few manufacturers are now making products with 100% sunflower lecithin. Expect more of these types of healthier product options in the coming decade.
With regard to supplementation, a cold pressed, certified organic sunflower lecithin brand is the optimal source if you truly need it. Otherwise, eating quality eggs on a regular basis provides substantial whole food amounts with no need for supplemental pills, powders or liquids.
John Moody is an author, speaker, farmer, homesteader, and Real Food activist. Most importantly, he is husband to an amazing wife and five awesome kids. John speaks nationally at a wide range of events, along with writing for numerous publications and consulting for farmers, homesteaders, and food businesses.
He recently published his first book, The Frugal Homesteader: Living the Good Life on Less.