It likely isn’t hard for you to picture a sunflower. Picturing lecithin, on the other hand, might prove to be more difficult. Lecithins are amphiphilic fatty substances formed in animal and plant tissues. As a mixture of phospholipids and minor substances like triglycerides and carbohydrates, they are one of the most versatile and multifunctional ingredients on the market (1). With widespread food and beverage applications, lecithins provide a broad range of benefits, including emulsification, wetting, homogenizing, reducing viscosity and crystallization control.
Since its establishment in 1940, the U.S. lecithin industry has most widely accepted the soybean as the optimal source of lecithin. However, a new source has entered the market in the last decade: sunflowers (2). Sunflower lecithin, a proven and promising non-GMO alternative ingredient, is currently in high demand. Producers are due to consider adding this powerhouse ingredient, rich in vitamins and minerals and bursting with benefits, to their roster.
The Global Origins of Sunflower Lecithin
The name “lecithin” originates from the Greek word for egg yolk, lekithos, and is reminiscent of the mid-1800s discovery of the additive in eggs. Modern variants of lecithins now take the form of a fine powder. While soybean has long been the primary source of lecithin worldwide, emerging sources such as sunflower are beginning to stake their claim on the market (2). As one of the most common allergens in humans, soy is losing some of its previously held grip on the market (3). Due in large part to its less gentle extraction process, it is also nearly impossible to manufacture organically (4). In contrast, sunflower lecithin is harvested naturally from crude sunflower oil. The procedure involves dehydrating a sunflower and separating it into oil, gum and solids. The lecithin is taken from the gum and processed through a cold press system. Once in powder form, the ingredient becomes easier to utilize in food manufacturing. Because sunflower oil has a naturally low lecithin content, especially in comparison to sources such as soybean, rapeseed and corn oil, sunflower lecithin is harvested with less frequency than others. While less common than other sources, sunflower-derived lecithin is largely comparable to its counterparts (5) and its source provides fewer allergy-related concerns, giving it an edge as an alternative ingredient.
Sunflower Lecithin Down To A Science
With proven benefits for both producers and consumers, sunflower lecithin has the potential to overcome the hurdles of high cost and low stability that come with other forms of lecithin while also benefiting the health of the end-user (6). The primary benefit of this ingredient lies in its duality – it can combine with water molecules like sugars and proteins while also interacting with hydrophobic substances like hormones and fatty acids (1). The phospholipid concentration in sunflower lecithin also helps to maintain product integrity. Sunflower lecithin possesses a lower viscosity than other varieties, giving it high malleability and making it an ideal ingredient with which to formulate (7). The collection of phospholipids in sunflower lecithin makes it a natural emulsifier, enabling it to combine two incompatible liquids into a suspension and prevent that suspension from mixing with other substances (8). With a high phosphatidylcholine content, sunflower lecithin melts at a low temperature, attributing to its usefulness. Plus, it is naturally free of gluten, soy and dairy, reducing consumer concerns about allergic reactions for themselves and their children. Emerging studies have also shown that sunflower lecithin may be capable of replacing eggs entirely in food formulation (9).
Applying Sunflower Lecithin Across Industries
Sunflower lecithin functions as a nutraceutical and food supplement ingredient (2). Its proven functionality as an emulsifier and stabilizer makes sunflower lecithin a highly preferred ingredient for manufacturers (8). Typical uses of the ingredient include – but aren’t limited to – liposome encapsulation, yellow fat spreads, baked goods, chocolate and animal feed. Bakers worldwide herald sunflower lecithin as their “secret ingredient” in recipes because the substance is ideal for producing homemade plant milk, vegan butter and cookies (7). Once refined and fractionated, sunflower lecithin can also be used in the cosmetic industry. When used in skincare products, lecithin is known to soothe, soften and increase moisture in the skin. While soy lecithin is often cheaper, the use of sunflower lecithin represents a shift to a more holistic approach to manufacturing and removes certain added chemicals often present in soy lecithin (10). Because it is already present in the human body, the natural element of lecithin is appealing to the end consumer as either an added ingredient or supplement.
Reaping the Benefits of Sunflower Lecithin
The introduction and popularization of sunflower lecithin come with the global increase in demand for non-GMO lecithin (2). Sunflower lecithin is typically rich in the following nutrients: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron, choline, inositol, mega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. With those nutrients naturally occurring in the ingredient, the need for artificial additives greatly decreases. Not only is it beneficial for preventative health initiatives, but also, the substance is proven to, in some cases, reduce symptoms for various health concerns. For example, studies show that consumers with a high lecithin intake experience improved digestive health, fewer arthritis symptoms, lower blood pressure (11) and boosted brain health due to high choline content (12). In fact, according to the Office of Dietary Supplements, lecithins are often used to treat neurological conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (13). Lecithin-rich diets have also been proven to significantly reduce cholesterol levels – up to 42 percent in some cases – for end-users (14). Additionally, lecithin is known to reduce the viscosity of breastmilk, aiding nursing mothers and babies in the breastfeeding process and reducing the likelihood of clogged milk ducts and mastitis (15). Those fringe benefits are highly appealing to the end user, and come at no added cost to the manufacturer. Incorporating the ingredient into your products adds extreme potential value for consumers and requires little to no additional labor on behalf of the manufacturer. Experiments to determine whether sunflower lecithin can fit the same bill as traditional lecithins have shown that the ingredient may indeed be the perfect non-GMO alternative, offering almost identical benefits (6).
The demand curve for sunflower lecithin is trending upwards for both producers and consumers, meaning there is no better time to enter the market than now. As research and development continue, producers should thoughtfully consider incorporating the additive into their ingredient lineup.
- Madoery, R., Diehl, B. W. K., & Tomás, M. C. (2012). Emulsifying Properties of Different Modified Sunflower Lecithins. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 89(2), 355–361. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-011-1915-8
- List, G. R. (2015). 1 – Soybean Lecithin: Food, Industrial Uses, and Other Applications. In M. U. Ahmad & X. Xu (Eds.), Polar Lipids (pp. 1–33). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-63067-044-3.50005-4
- Savage, J. H., Kaeding, A. J., Matsui, E. C., & Wood, R. A. (2010). The natural history of soy allergy. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 125(3), 683–686. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaci.2009.12.994
- Lončarević, I., Pajin, B., Petrović, J., Zarić, D., Sakač, M., Torbica, A., Lloyd, D. M., & Omorjan, R. (2016). The impact of sunflower and rapeseed lecithin on the rheological properties of spreadable cocoa cream. Journal of Food Engineering, 171, 67–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jfoodeng.2015.10.001
- Guiotto, E. N., Tomás, M. C., & Diehl, B. W. K. (2015). 3—Sunflower Lecithin. In M. U. Ahmad & X. Xu (Eds.), Polar Lipids (pp. 57–75). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-1-63067-044-3.50007-8
- Peng, S., Zou, L., Liu, W., Liu, C., & McClements, D. J. (2018). Fabrication and Characterization of Curcumin-Loaded Liposomes Formed from Sunflower Lecithin: Impact of Composition and Environmental Stress. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 66(46), 12421–12430. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jafc.8b04136
- Nieuwenhuyzen, W. V. (1976). Lecithin production and properties. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 53(6Part2), 425–427. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02605737
- Cabezas, D. M., Diehl, B. W. K., & Tomás, M. C. (2009). Sunflower Lecithin: Application of a Fractionation Process with Absolute Ethanol. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 86(2), 189–196. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11746-008-1336-5
- Lončarević, I., Pajin, B., & Petrović, J. (2016). Influence of sunflower and rapeseed lecithin on physical properties of fat filling. https://open.uns.ac.rs/handle/123456789/2515
- Holló, J., Perédi, J., Ruzics, A., Jeránek, M., & Erdélyi, A. (1993). Sunflower lecithin and possibilities for utilization. Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, 70(10), 997–1001. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02543026
- Stremmel, W., & Gauss, A. (2013). Lecithin as a therapeutic agent in ulcerative colitis. Digestive Diseases (Basel, Switzerland), 31(3–4), 388–390. https://doi.org/10.1159/000354707
- Poly, C., Massaro, J. M., Seshadri, S., Wolf, P. A., Cho, E., Krall, E., Jacques, P. F., & Au, R. (2011). The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort1234. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94(6), 1584–1591. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.110.008938
- Office of Dietary Supplements—Choline. (n.d.). Retrieved June 2, 2021, from https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Choline-Consumer/
- Mourad, A. M., de Carvalho Pincinato, E., Mazzola, P. G., Sabha, M., & Moriel, P. (2010). Influence of Soy Lecithin Administration on Hypercholesterolemia. Cholesterol, 2010. https://doi.org/10.1155/2010/824813
- Lavigne, V., & Gleberzon, B. J. (2012). Ultrasound as a treatment of mammary blocked duct among 25 postpartum lactating women: A retrospective case series. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, 11(3), 170–178. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jcm.2012.05.011