What is Lecithin?
Lecithin, an essential fat for all body cells, is a high-performing emulsifier and stabilizer. While found naturally in many foods, such as soybeans or egg yolk, it is produced commercially on a wide scale. Today it is found in most packaged foods and baked products.1
When taken naturally, or as a health supplement, it can help improve memory and brain activity, liver and gallbladder health, cholesterol, and the skin. Lecithins are also present in most cosmetic products, such as lipsticks and creams.
Commercially produced Lecithin is mainly derived from eggs or soybeans.6 However, there are a number of other natural sources, including: brain tissues, beef liver, steak, peanuts, avocado, cauliflower, oranges, corn and sunflower oils (mixture of natural lips, phospholipids, and vegetable oil),7 milk, and whole grains.
Lecithin is an encompassing name for an assembly of phosphatidylcholine compounds including phosphatidyl ethanolamine, phosphatidyl serine and phosphatidyl that combine with fatty acids and carbohydrates.2 On the molecular level, it is part hydrophilic and part hydrophobic—meaning it both repels and attracts water. It forms rings around hydrophilic ingredients, giving body and thickness to baked products. This allows it to stabilize polar and non-polar ingredients, such as water and oil. Lecithin’s HLB Level is between 8 and 10.
The interaction improves the texture of goods, creating smoother icings or creamier chocolate. It creates light, fluffy foams out of water-based liquids as well. Lecithin works as an accelerating agent, viscosity modifier, dispersant and lubricant in baked goods.
Lecithin come from the Greek word “Lekithos”– a reference to egg yolk. It was discovered by French scientist Maurice Gobley in 1846 from egg yolks.3 Synthetic production has grown since then, as it is now a staple additive in many shelf stable foods.
Commercially, it’s made from a mixture of phosphatides of choline, ethanolamine and inositol, along with small amounts of other lipids. There are bleached varieties available. It can be commercially bought in powder or liquid form. Standard soybean lecithin usually comes in a translucent fluid, with a viscosity of 100s-1 or 10 poise max.4
Lecithin is used in baked goods,5 cheese productions, confections, dairy products, icings, frostings, instant foods, margarine and release agents. For packaged goods, it also improves shelf life.
It is optimal at a pH level over 4.0. It will disperse best in warm or room temperature liquid. For mixing ratios, a concentration of around 2% (dry flour weight) is best for optimal baked goods texture. When creating airs or froths, use a concentration between 0.2 to 1.0%.
Too much can hurt the texture of the end product. It will often be clumpy when first added to the recipe, so mixing is important. Mixing is also crucial for getting the perfect texture. If the baked good ends up too grainy, blend it in with other fats, and for a longer time. If another emulsifier is added, it may also counteract against lecithin if too much is used.
Though most commercial kinds are derived from soybeans, it has become less popular for use in the natural food industry due to the rising popularity of GMO free and allergen free ingredients. Plant derived versions, such as sunflower are a popular choice for vegetarian and vegan foods.
Store it sealed in cool, dry place to keep from binding into a liquid or becoming lumpy.
Not all lecithin uses are FDA approved. However, under current manufacturing practices, it is recognized as GRAS in food production. Soy lecithin is required to be labeled as an allergen when used as release agent that makes contact with surfaces.
- Kamel, B. S., and Clyde E. Stauffer. “Lecithin and Phospholipids in Baked Goods.” Advances in Baking Technology. London: Blackie Academic & Professional, 1993. N. pg
- Lecithin. Review of Natural Products. facts and comparisons 4.0 [online]. 2005.
- Luz, Palacios, and Wang Tong. “Extraction of egg-yolk lecithin.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 82.8 (2005): 565-569
- Lambourne, David, Geoff H. Covey, Eugene Chai, and David Dunstan. “Lecithin Gum Rheology and Processing Implications.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society J Amer Oil Chem Soc 76.1 (1999): 67-72. Web.
- Selmair, Patrick L., and Peter Koehler. “Role of glycolipids in breadmaking.” Lipid Technology 22.1 (2010): 7-10.”
- Fangbo, Liu, Liu Yuanfa, Liu Xiaojun, Shan Liang, and Wang Xingguo. “Preparation of Deoiled Soy Lecithin by Ultrafiltration.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 88.11 (2011): 1807-1812.
- J., Holló, Perédi J., Ruzics A., Jeránek M., and Erdélyi A. “Sunflower lecithin and possibilities for utilization.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 70.10 (1993): 997-1001.