In 1845 a unique substance was discovered by French chemist Theodore Gobley in egg yolk. He called this molecule lecithin after the Greek word Lekithos for egg yolk. Lecithin went on to become a widely used substance in the food industry due to its prized ability to act as an emulsifier. Lecithin can also be found in wheat germ, peanuts, soy and organ meats.
Attention science geeks
An emulsifier is a molecule that has one side that is attracted to water (the hydrophilic side) and another side that in contrast repels water (the hydrophobic side). This unique “bipolar” property helps liquids and fats effortlessly mix together in what is called an emulsion. Simply put, the reason you can enjoy a nut butter without the oil floating on top, or a smooth dressing or hollandaise sauce is thanks to emulsifiers like lecithin!
Emulsifiers for digestion
In the same way lecithin helps oil and water mix in food products, it also helps with the digestion and transport of fats in the body. Did you know that your liver manufactures its own emulsifier called bile? After being produced, bile is dumped into your digestive tract to help emulsify dietary fats. Dietary lecithin may also help suspend your dietary fats in liquid and therefore contribute to digestion. For example, studies suggest that lecithin may increase our absorption of MCT oils, a popular choice for those on the keto diet or looking for general support to maintain a healthy weight.
Cells and shuttles
Lecithin’s emulsifying properties are due to its phosphatidylcholine content. Phosphatidylcholine, also known as a phospholipid, comprises the bulk of our cellular membranes. This unique membrane allows for the strict regulation of the passage of molecules in and out of each cell. In the liver, phosphatidylcholine is important for the transportation of fats and cholesterol. Phospholipids are an important building block of lipoproteins, a “shuttle bus” if you will. These shuttles help remove excess fats from the liver and also help remove excess cholesterol from the blood.
The key to smooth protein shakes
If you like to take your meals to go in the form of a protein shake, you may often have to deal with the unpleasant separation of your ingredients. They come out of the blender looking smooth and delicious, but soon separate. Lecithin is the perfect solution! Simply add a tablespoon to your current recipe and even those hard to mix coconut oils will stay suspended all day long.
Do we need more?
While lecithin can be built in our liver from B vitamins inositol and choline, with the assistance of vitamin B6 and magnesium, based on preliminary studies, some experts argue that in order to take full advantage of some of its benefits, such as the ability to lower cholesterol or to assist with a fatty liver, we may benefit from consuming more.
Thalia Charney, MA
Nutrition and Health Education Manager, Puresource
Thalia Charney is a former naturopath as well as an author, educator and speaker. She is also the Nutrition and Health Education Manager for the NOW® Brand in Canada. Thalia brings a wealth of experience from her many years as a health care provider as well as her insights gained from having authored Canada’s most comprehensive book on navigating food products: The Confident Food Shopper: The Guide to Food Labels and Fables. She uses these as a springboard to bring a balanced, broad and insightful perspective to any health topic. Asked about her opinion on any topic and the answer is more often than not… “it depends”. With wisdom comes nuance and she enjoys sparking debate and thought as much as imparting educational tidbits.