Lecithin- An essential ingredient in our foods

From providing a smooth texture to chocolates to preventing candies from sticking to wrappers, let us explore Lecithin and the myriad of benefits it offers
Lecithin- An essential ingredient in our foods
Photo- wirestock on Freepik

Discovered in egg yolk by a French scientist, Maurice Gobley in 1846, Lecithin has been in use since. Also known as Phosphatidyl Choline, chemically, Lecithin is composed of phosphoric acid, choline, esters of glycerol, and two fatty acids. It is a light brown fluid often used as an emulsifier, flavor protector, and antioxidant in foods. It also improves the texture and shelf-stability of food products. The presence of Lecithin ensures the stability of products containing blends of fat and water.

In the food industry, lecithin can be prepared in two forms-

Fluid lecithin- Blends of phospholipids and vegetable oils

De-oiled lecithin- Has almost no vegetable oil with a high concentration of high polyunsaturated fatty acids that comes in both granular and powdered forms

The primary source of lecithin is soybeans but it is also present in other sources such as eggs, rice, sunflower seeds, and rapeseed. Crude lecithin is often a by-product of vegetable oil production. It then undergoes filtration, deodorization, fractionization, and removal of oil residues and is then dried (for de-oiled lecithin).

Why is Lecithin needed in foods?

Lecithin boasts of a host of benefits when added to foods. Its absence would bring up issues such as candies sticking together, quality defects, and tough, dry, stale, or tasteless baked products. Lecithin helps bakers bake good quality bread by enhancing the dough’s elasticity and quality. It imparts a consistent creamy texture to salad dressings and prevents cheese slices from sticking together in a package. De-oiled lecithin allows easier handling in dry seasoning, sauces, and soup mixes. Lecithin can also be used as a healthier alternative to less healthy fats without impacting the food’s texture.

Industrial applications

Lecithin is mainly utilized in baked foods, confectionery, and instant products. A few of its many benefits in the food industry are given below-

In bread- To help achieve greater loaf volumes and increase shelf life

In chewing gums- As a softener and texture modifier for gum based and as an emulsifier or dispersing agent for flavor

In infant foods- Prevents oil from appearing on the surface of the product, prevents creaming and sedimentation as well as water and oil separation

In ice creams- Allows ease of whipping and imparts a smooth texture

Processed cheese- Provides uniformity and consistency

Photo- luis_molinero on Freepik

Lecithin in the confectionery industry

Lecithin is an integral ingredient in the confectionery industry. Moisture present in chocolates sticks to the surface of sugar particles to give them a syrupy, tacky surface which leads to increased friction between the sugar grains. The addition of Lecithin reduces intra-particle friction between particles. It is usually added late in the chocolate-making process since it can lose its effectiveness during grinding and mixing. Lecithin also offers protection against moisture invasion and sugar granulation in coatings. Some more roles that Lecithin plays in this industry include

Lubrication and reduced stickiness: In nougats, and caramel, during processing and consumption

Plasticizer and hydration agent: In gum, it softens the gum base and

enhances hydration during chewing

Emulsification and controlling oil separation: Reduces droplet size and stabilizes fat droplets in caramel, fudge, toffee, and chewy candies

Viscosity control: In chocolates and compound coatings, small amounts of lecithin reduce yield stress and plastic viscosity and control flow properties, allowing high-speed production and ease of handling

Crystal modifier and bloom inhibitor: In compound coatings, it can influence fat crystallization during processing and delay bloom formation

Release agent: Can be sprayed onto handling equipment to prevent sticking and release of candy pieces from molds

Lecithin as an ingredient in functional foods

Functional foods are a rage in today’s fast-paced world where consumers are concerned about their overall well-being more than ever. This rising trend is mainly driven by the demand for convenience foods and a preference for natural sources of ingredients. Lecithin offers a host of benefits to human health due to its positive impact on the human body’s metabolism.

Lecithin can play an important role as an ingredient in functional foods. It offers health benefits such as

·      Strengthens the immune system

·      Reduces cholesterol levels

·      Improves liver damage

·      Increases the ability to concentrate

·      Improves mental activity

·      Supports the regeneration phase after sports activity

The regulations around Lecithin usage

In India, FSSAI allows the use of lecithin as an emulsifier in infant milk substitutes (up to a maximum limit of 0.5 gram/100ml) and in food products (up to 1.5 gram in 100 grams of product on a dry weight basis).

In the United States, Lecithin is recognized as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe). It is also considered a safe food additive by The Joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/Word Health Organization (WHO) Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA), Health Canada, the European Commission, the Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ).

Sunflower lecithin V/S Soy lecithin

Research has shown that lecithin obtained from sunflower seeds has a higher level of hepatoprotective (liver protection) impact than that from soybean seeds. It has also been found that lecithin from sunflower seeds has higher antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-fibrogenic, and other physiologically useful qualities as compared to soy lecithin. The content of phosphatidylcholines in sunflower lecithin exceeds the content in soy lecithin, which may be the reason for the above differences.

An ingredient that comes from nature

Lecithin is a natural product that can be used in a variety of products to achieve the desired texture and stability. Almost all food recipes require oil and water, which do not mix. Lecithin helps in merging them to give the products their flavor and texture. Lecithin production is relatively sustainable since there is no known significant damage to air, water, land, soil, and forests as long as pesticide usage is avoided. It also improves the shelf stability of foods, hence cutting down on food waste.

Lecithin, if used carefully can provide innumerable benefits to the final product. The quality and quantity of Lecithin used are essential factors. An excessive amount of Lecithin leads to undesirable results like softening of chocolate and an increase in crystallization time. Poor quality can prove detrimental to the brand value as it can lead to adverse effects such as the crumbling of baked products on touch, sticking of product to packaging, and impact on the original flavor of the product.

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