What is soy lecithin?
Lecithin is a chemical with many names, like lecithinum ex soya, soy lecithin, alpha-phosphatidylcholines, and soy lecithin. Often seen but not really understood, soy lecithin is an ingredient that serves unknown purposes. There is little scientifically backed, unbiased data out there on this food ingredient. That said, there are some things we know about the properties of this ingredient.
Lecithin is a common term used to describe multiplex blends of lipids like fatty acids, triglycerides, sterols, and phospholipids. It gives function and structure to many plant and animal cell membranes. It's common in most living things, but its physical and chemical features can vary greatly, depending on the origin and processing.
Lecithin is composed of the lipid bilayer of cell membranes. It's a complex mix of phospholipids, and it's used for lipid replacement therapy. This is the repair of damaged cell membranes by the administration of phospholipids. This treatment has been shown to help with symptoms of fatigue.
Soybeans are a well-known allergenic food. The allergens of the soybean are found in the protein portion. The majority of protein is removed during the manufacturing process of soy lecithin. Trace amounts of soy protein are found in soy lecithin, which can carry soy allergens. But soy lecithin does not have enough residue from the soy protein to cause an allergic reaction in most consumers with soy allergies. Many doctors don't even tell their patients with allergies to avoid soybean lecithin when it's an ingredient in food products.
Organic soy lecithin occurs naturally as a lipid in most living things. It can be mixed and used as an emulsifier, conditioning agent, or cosmetic product thickener. It's a safe and naturally occurring product. With organic soy lecithin, no solvents other than water are used during the extraction process. Soy lecithin is trans fatty acid-free, nonhydrogenated, and biodegradable.
Where can you find lecithin naturally?
Though lecithin is available in liquid, granules, and capsules, it can also be found naturally in some foods. These include:
- Wheat germ
- Egg yolks
Types of lecithin
Lecithin can also come in the form of supplements. These come from eggs, sunflower seeds, or soybeans. Sometimes fish, animal fat, and corn are used. But soy is the most common ingredient used to make lecithin supplements. Though soybeans may be genetically modified (GMO) in large-scale production, sunflower seeds are not. The extraction process for sunflower lecithin is more gentle. Harsh chemicals are not required to extract lecithin from the sunflower seed.
Though soybean lecithin usually comes in a granulated capsule, other types, like sunflower lecithin, come in liquid and powder forms. Though it's not as common, many people prefer sunflower lecithin because they're trying to avoid genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in their food.
Benefits of lecithin
Heart health improvement: Soy lecithin can help improve cardiovascular health. This is especially true if you're at high risk of heart disease or high blood pressure, according to studies of soy lecithin additives. But soy is harder to digest because it takes the body longer to break down. This helps some people to feel fuller after taking it.
Helps new moms with breastfeeding: Many breastfeeding experts tell moms to take lecithin to help with clogged milk ducts. The Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation suggests taking 1,200 milligrams four times a day to see results. The working theory is that lecithin decreases breast milk viscosity, which in return lessens its tendency to clog your breast milk ducts. Though this can help, it's not a treatment. Other recommendations include massage, extra pumping, application of warm compresses, draining the breast well, or seeing a lactation consultant for more suggestions.
Could help fight dementia symptoms: One of the chemicals the brain uses to communicate is choline. Lecithin contains choline. Some research shows that diets with high levels of choline help with memory retention and diseases like Alzheimer’s. Foods with choline can help functional pathways. Evidence at this time is lacking and conflicting, but it's possible that lecithin can help people with nervous system conditions, and more research is needed.
Can help with choline deficiency: Soy lecithin has choline in the form of phosphatidylcholine. It's an essential nutrient. Choline is part of acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter. It's found in a lot of foods. If you don’t have enough choline in the diet, you can get fatty liver, muscle damage, or organ dysfunction. Increasing soy lecithin in your diet could help with a choline deficiency.
Skin moisturizing and soothing: Some skin care products contain lecithin. It's commonly used as an emollient. Emollients hydrate the skin and help make it smooth. Hydrogenated lecithin is the form used in most skin care products. Some people use it alone for the treatment of acne and eczema. There's not much evidence supporting it, but hypothetically, lecithin capsules could improve the skin. It can stimulate and tone other parts of the body as well.
Improvement in digestive health: Lecithin has emulsifying qualities that help with a reaction process to increase mucus in the intestine. This makes digestion easier and also protects the lining of your stomach and intestines. It's been found to improve symptoms in people with ulcerative colitis. Even for those who don’t have colitis, lecithin can help with irritable bowel syndrome and other conditions that affect digestion. Lecithin accounts for over 70% of all phospholipids in the mucous layer of the intestine and maintains a hydrophobic barrier, stopping invasions of bad bacteria.
Decrease in bad cholesterol: Using lecithin is popular and proven method of lowering cholesterol. Studies show that soy lecithin can help raise good cholesterol, or HDL. It can also help to lower bad cholesterol, or LDL. Soy protein is effective at treating cholesterol issues because of the numerous benefits of soy.
If you have soy or egg allergies, you should carefully check the origin of your lecithin supplements to minimize your risk of allergic reactions. Lecithin is found in many products that are common in the American diet. Lecithin that naturally occurs in food has no risk. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not monitor supplements or their quality. So, there could be effects that are not yet known. You shouldn't supplement more than 5,000 milligrams a day.
Even with regular does, you may still get side effects. Stomachaches, diarrhea, and other gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms can happen. It's unknown what taking too much lecithin might do, but too much lecithin may exaggerate other GI symptoms. If you're breastfeeding or pregnant, you should get advice from your doctor before taking any supplements. Fortunately, there are no foods or medicines known to react with lecithin.
Overall, soy lecithin is a low-risk supplement to add to your diet for health maintenance. But vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients are best when you get them directly from food. With numerous benefits and few known risks, soy lecithin can be used to improve cholesterol and organ function. Always talk to your doctor before adding a new supplement to your diet.
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Canadian Breastfeeding Foundation: "Lecithin."
Clinical Chemistry and Laboratory Medicine: "Choline-containing phospholipids: relevance to brain functional pathways."
Digestive Diseases: "Lecithin as a Therapeutic Agent in Ulcerative Colitis."
Eating Behaviors: Changes in cardiovascular risk factors with participation in a 12-week weight loss trial using a commercial format."
Environmental Working Group: "Lecithin."
Cosmetics: "Lecithins from Vegetable, Land, and Marine Animal Sources and Their Potential Applications for Cosmetic, Food, and Pharmaceutical Sectors."
Nutrients: "Beyond the Cholesterol-Lowering Effect of Soy Protein: A Review of the Effects of Dietary Soy and Its Constituents on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease."
Nutrition Journal: "Effect of soy lecithin on fatigue and menopausal symptoms in middle-aged women: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study."
University of Rochester Medical Center: "Lecithin."
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology: "Soybeans and Soy Lecithin."
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