“Lecithin” is a broad term describing a fatty substance that occurs in amphiphilic animal and plant tissues. A combination of phospholipids and other minor substances like triglycerides and carbohydrates, lecithins are often used for emulsifying, smoothing food textures, homogenizing liquid mixtures and repelling sticking material.1
Originally found in eggs in 1846, the name “lecithin” is derived from the Greek word for egg yolk, lekithos. Lecithin is now one of the most versatile and valuable byproducts of the oilseed industry. Established around 1940, the U.S. lecithin industry has grown noticeably in the last few decades as lecithin has become a more prevalent nutraceutical and food supplement ingredient, noted the book, “Polar Lipids.”
Sunflower lecithin has recently made a name for itself in the food and beverage ingredient world, specifically in the form of powder. Sunflower lecithin is a promising alternative to the more common soybean lecithin, and could face increased demand from suppliers as a non-GMO product.
Examining sunflower lecithin
Sunflower lecithin comprises a collection of phospholipids which makes it a natural emulsifier. Its ability to force two immiscible liquids—such as oil and water—to combine in a suspension makes sunflower lecithin a multifunctional ingredient in the food industry. According to the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, due to its high phosphatidylcholine (PC) and essential fatty acid (EFA) content, sunflower lecithin can be utilized as an additive in food and feedstuffs.2 But the use of sunflower lecithin doesn’t end with the food industry. After refinement and fractionation, its utilization can be further extended to cosmetics.3 However, according to “Polar Lipids,” sunflower lecithin production occurs in smaller quantities than other types of lecithin worldwide because of the relatively low lecithin content of crude sunflower oil.
Sunflower lecithin uses
While sunflower lecithin powder is largely undiscovered by the masses, some avid bakers claim it as their “secret ingredient” in recipes. Since sunflower lecithin works as an emulsifier—suspending fats and oils and keeping them from mixing with other substances4—it is ideal for homemade plant milk, vegan butter and even cookies. Applications for sunflower lecithin include food supplements and pharmaceuticals—more specifically: liposome encapsulation, yellow fat spreads, baked goods, chocolate and animal feed.5
One should not assume, though, that all sunflower lecithin applications have already been discovered. Researchers mentioned in “Polar Lipids” reported lecithin modification under industrial conditions with adequate analysis techniques may be useful in evaluating the potential applications of sunflower byproducts to the production of new emulsifiers.
The proven benefits of sunflower lecithin
Studies show that a lecithin-rich diet can help lower cholesterol levels by up to 42%;6 improve digestive health, especially for those with conditions like ulcerative colitis;7 and boost brain health, thanks to its high choline content.8
A choline fact sheet from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) states choline is an essential nutrient that helps the brain and nervous system regulate memory, mood, muscle control and other functions. Lecithin is also known for aiding in the breastfeeding process, as it can reduce the viscosity of breastmilk, decreasing the potential for clogged milk ducts, and therefore mastitis.9
The book “Food Industry” pointed out sunflower lecithin has been heavily researched—with experiments determining characteristics such as its phospholipid composition and its fractionation process with both absolute ethanol and ethanol-water mixtures. The emulsifying properties of different sunflower lecithins are often tested in oil-in-water (O/W) emulsions. Research has shown that commercial plant-based lecithins, such as sunflower lecithin, might be a solution to problems associated with using liposomes in the food industry, such as high cost and poor stability.10
Sourcing sunflower lecithin
Sourced from the oil-bearing sunflower kernel, sunflower lecithin is created by dehydrating a sunflower and separating it into three parts—oil, gum and solids.5 The lecithin comes from the gum and is processed through a cold press system. Following extraction, the substance is often turned into a powder, making it easy to utilize in food technology. This product holds an exceptionally high importance in countries producing large amounts of sunflower oil—namely the Ukraine and Russia, as well as Argentina, where the economic impact is of the utmost importance.
Sunflower vs. soy
Historically, soybean has been the primary source of lecithin worldwide; however, sunflower-derived substances can provide some potential advantages. For instance:
• Soy is one of the most common allergies in humans, affecting approximately 0.4% of children.11
• Soy lecithin is derived from soybean oil in four steps: hydration of phosphatides, separation of the sludge, drying and cooling. The extraction process for sunflower lecithin is gentler compared to that of soy lecithin.12
• Sunflower lecithin has a higher PC content and is lower in viscosity than soy lecithin.13
• The book “Rapeseed: Chemical Composition, Production and Health Benefits” noted that sunflower lecithin melts at a lower temperature than that of soy, making it that much more useful in confectionery applications. Plus, sunflower lecithin is naturally free of gluten, soy and dairy.
While sunflower lecithin currently has a higher market price than soy lecithin, the demand for organic, allergen-free, non-GMO alternatives in the food ingredient industry is increasing. According to a recent report by Technavio, the non-GMO food market size has the potential to reach a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 13.7% between 2021 and 2025.
For manufacturers in the food and beverage industry looking to incorporate a natural lecithin into their product offerings, high-quality sunflower lecithin powder is a strategic addition to natural formulations.
Mike Efting has been a senior executive in the chemical distribution industry for more than 35 years and an entrepreneur for well over a decade. He is the current president, CEO and founder of Viachem, a specialty chemical food additive and ingredient distributor, and American Pure Products, a wholly owned subsidiary of Viachem that includes premium personal care brands spanning hand sanitizer to CBD.
1 Madoery R et al. “Emulsifying Properties of Different Modified Sunflower Lecithins.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 2012;89(2):355-361.
2 Cabezas DM et al. “Sunflower Lecithin: Application of a Fractionation Process with Absolute Ethanol.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 2009;86(2):189-196.
3 Holló J et al. “Sunflower lecithin and possibilities for utilization.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 1993;70(10):997-1001.
4 Pan LG et al. “Oil-in-water emulsions formulated with sunflower lecithins: Vesicle formation and stability.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 2004;81(3):241-244.
5 Van Nieuwenhuyzen W and Tomás MC. “Update on vegetable lecithin and phospholipid technologies.” Eur J Lipid Sci Technol. 2008;110(5):472-486.
6 Mourad AM et al. “Influence of Soy Lecithin Administration on Hypercholesterolemia.” Cholesterol. 2010:824813.
7 Stremmel W and Gauss A. “Lecithin as a Therapeutic Agent in Ulcerative Colitis.” Dig Dis. 2013;31:388-390.
10 Peng S et al. “Fabrication and Characterization of Curcumin-Loaded Liposomes Formed from Sunflower Lecithin: Impact of Composition and Environmental Stress.” J Agric Food Chem. 2018;66(46):12421-12430.
12 Van Nieuwenhuyzen W. “Lecithin production and properties.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 1976;53(6Part2):425-427.
13 Lončarević I et al. “The impact of sunflower and rapeseed lecithin on the rheological properties of spreadable cocoa cream.” J Food Eng. 2016;171:67-77.