What is lecithin?
Lecithin is a natural substance in humans, plants and animals that contains fat-soluble and water-soluble components. Lecithin is one of the most important food additives and is added as an emulsifier (E 322) because it prevents the separation of fat and water. This is important, for example, for the production of mayonnaise or chocolate. Lecithin contains omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, phospholipids and vitamin E. It is light yellow in color and has been sold for decades as a dietary supplement, mostly in the form of granules or powders.
The fats in our diet are made up of three fatty acids, which are bound to glycerol and which are called triglycerides. In lecithin, one of these fatty acids is replaced by a phospholipid. These phospholipids can increase phosphatidylserine (PS), phosphatidylcholine (PC) and phosphatidylinositols (PI) in the body. Of the phospholipids in lecithin, about 3 percent are PS, 30 percent PC and 17 percent PI. Our body can make lecithin from phosphorus and fats with the help of B vitamins. Lecithin is abundant in the body in the brain, nerves, heart, kidneys and liver. The germ layer of our skin, which is responsible for the formation of new skin cells, also contains a lot of lecithin. Furthermore, lecithin is part of the pulmonary vesicles. The so-called “L/S ratio” (lecithin-sphingomyelin ratio) is used to assess lung maturity in unborn babies.
How does lecithin work?
Phospholipids in lecithin are known in medical literature as effective against heart disease, inflammation and cancer. But has this also been studied specifically for lecithin? Lecithin itself has been researched for a long time, and there are thousands of studies on it. Most studies are still small. Much remains to be confirmed in follow-up studies, but there is strong evidence of the following effects:
- Lowering LDL cholesterol
A study showed that even one capsule of 500 milligrams per day lowered LDL cholesterol levels by 40 to 42 percent and total cholesterol by 42 to 56 percent. Lecithin is rich in phytosterols. These plant sterols reduce the absorption of cholesterol from food. Lecithin also stimulates the production of “good” HDL cholesterol.
- Supports Brain and Memory
Research shows that lecithin is able to improve memory and protect against the breakdown of nerve cells and Alzheimer’s. This is partly due to the fact that lecithin is a rich source of choline and thus the nerve messenger acetylcholine in the brain increases. Acetylcholine is important for good concentration and memory function.
- Inhibits Inflammation
The mucous membrane of the intestinal wall consists of 70 percent of lecithin, so taking lecithin can reduce inflammation in the colon. In combination with Boswellia serrata (Indian incense), lecithin also relieves irritable bowel syndrome. In a 2009 study, there was evidence that lecithin also relieves inflammation in rheumatoid arthritis.
- Promotes mental stability
Lecithin contains phosphatidylinositol, which studies have shown to combat panic attacks. In a small study of manic patients, it was reported that most of them felt psychologically better by lecithin. A meta-analysis recommends investigating lecithin for efficacy in bipolar disorder.
- Supports the liver
The ducts in the liver through which the bile flows can become inflamed and damaged. In mice, lecithin caused less damage to these channels. Especially people with a choline deficiency run an increased risk of liver damage. In addition, choline in lecithin improves the absorption of fats in the liver.
- Promotes regeneration in sports and muscle pain
Choline and Phosphatidylserine can help combat stress provoked by overtraining. With prolonged training, the choline level drops quickly. Phosphatidylserine accelerates regeneration because, among other things, it lowers the stress hormone cortisol.
- Improves the uptake of fat-soluble substances
Phosphatidylcholine in lecithin provides better absorption of turmeric, Indian incense (Boswellia serrata), silymarin (marien thistle) and grape seed extract. The active plant substances from green tea are also better absorbed with lecithin.
Furthermore, there is still weak evidence that lecithin works in the following diseases:
- Breast inflammation
The Canadian Brestfeeding Foundation advises breastfeeding women with chest infections to take lecithin. Researchers acknowledge that this is a common remedy for this problem, but there is no conclusive evidence of effectiveness. The idea is that the emulsifying effect of lecithin reduces the viscosity (toughness) of the milk, which allows the milk to flow freely and prevents blockage of the milk ducts. An animal study shows that too much lecithin is unreasonable because of the abundant choline. In this study, lecithin accounted for 2 to 5 percent of food. A small amount daily is unlikely to cause any problems.
- Weak immune system
Some sources report that lecithin strengthens the immune system. Whether that is the case remains to be proven. The medical literature reports that lecithin in rats with diabetes increases the number of white blood cells by 92 percent, which improves the immune system.
- Damage caused by bile salts
Gall salts are produced by the liver and then stored in the gallbladder. If the bile level rises too much, body cells can be damaged as bile begins to digest the high-fat cell walls. Lecithin binds to bile and can protect the cells.
Many sources report that lecithin fights cancer. In fact, a 2011 study concluded that lecithin lowers the risk of breast cancer. However, this has not yet been further researched or confirmed. Furthermore, there is evidence that lecithin fights liver and bowel cancer.
Natural sources of lecithin
According to measurements, our diet today contains only one third of the amount of phosphatidylcholine compared to the beginning of the last century. Rich sources of lecithin are eggs (especially egg yolks), soybeans, beef and peanuts. Leafy vegetables, potatoes and fruit contain little lecithin. Generally, animal products contain more lecithin, such as fish and liver. Many people take lecithin preparations, which are mainly made from soya.
Lecithin from soy
Most lecithin comes from soybeans. This form can act like a herbal estrogen (phytoestrogen), which is not always desirable. Lecithin can also be extracted from soya via a chemical solvent such as hexane. This hexane can then remain as a residue, albeit in very small amounts. To avoid this, it is necessary to use organic lecithin, as chemical substances are not desirable in the biological food chain. Some people are allergic to soy and should not consume this type of lecithin. Soy is often genetically modified, so when choosing soy lecithin, you should always opt for non-GMO products.
Standardized dietary supplement
If you want to buy lecithin, read the labels. There is always a certain percentage on the packaging, usually 98 percent. This means that the lecithin is standardized to 98 percent phosphatide. Granules are almost always made from soy lecithin.
Studies mostly use dosages of 500 milligrams to two grams. Positive effects have been demonstrated at these doses. The granules are usually taken per 6.5 grams (about one teaspoon). This can be mixed with oatmeal, muesli, (plant) milk or raw food.
Lecithin is abundant in the egg yolk. This is why the recipe for mayonnaise explicitly mentions the egg yolk: so that the fat (olive oil) and the liquid (vinegar, lemon juice, etc.) mix to a uniform emulsion. If you don’t like egg yolks as much, or are allergic to it, you can also choose liver as a source of lecithin. Since many people, including vegetarians and vegans, don’t like that either, choosing a dietary supplement is a good option. Organic soy granules (non-GMO) is a good choice, but recently there has also been lecithin obtained from sunflower seeds. This is usually available in the form of a powder and can be easily mixed with food and drinks.