Soy lecithin is extracted from soybean oil and is generally used as a natural emulsifier or stabilizer in various food applications.
Lecithin is a combination of naturally-occurring phospholipids, which are extracted during the processing of soybean oil. The soybeans are tempered by keeping them at a consistent temperature and moisture level for approximately seven to 10 days. This process hydrates the soybeans and loosens the hull. The soybeans are then cleaned and cracked into small pieces and the hulls are separated from the cracked beans. Next, the soybean pieces are heated and pressed into flakes. Soybean oil is extracted from the flakes through a distillation process and lecithin is separated from the oil by the addition of water and centrifugation or steam precipitation1. Lecithin is utilized in a wide variety of food and industrial applications. The French scientist, Maurice Gobley, first discovered the substance in 1850, and named it "lekithos," the Greek term for egg yolk. At the time, eggs provided a primary source of commercially-produced lecithin. Today, the majority of lecithin used in food applications is derived from soybeans.
Soy lecithin offers a multifunctional, flexible and versatile tool. It is probably best known for its emulsifying properties, which help promote solidity in margarine and give consistent texture to dressings and other creamy products. Lecithin is also used in chocolates and coatings and to counteract spattering during frying. Additionally, its unique lipid molecular structure makes lecithin useful for pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications and various industrial uses such as paints, textiles, lubricants and waxes.
Lecithin provides an excellent source of choline, which is essential to every living cell in the body and is one of the main components of cell membranes. Not only is dietary choline important for the synthesis of the phospholipids in cell membranes, it is also necessary for methyl metabolism, cholinergic neurotransmission, transmembrane signaling, and lipid-cholesterol transport and metabolism2. Without choline, the cell membranes would harden, prohibiting important nutrients from entering and leaving the cell. Scientists believe lecithin and choline may aid in memory and cognitive function, cardiovascular health, liver function, reproduction and fetal development and physical and athletic performance.
Soys healthy image extends beyond soyfoods and carries over to byproducts of the bean itself, such as soybean oil and lecithin. The discovery of specific health benefits continues, making soy a welcome sight on ingredient labels. Not only does soy present a potential marketing advantage, but the abundant supply of soybeans guarantees that ingredients such as lecithin are readily available and cost effective.