I was recently explaining that we sell Food Grade Liquid Soy Lecithin to help with emulsions in cooking to a friend and he told me that he has seen that lecithin can be used for many applications in the kitchen. Curious about this, I did some research to find out more uses of lecithin in food.
What are the uses of lecithin in food? First and foremost, I know, like most people, that lecithin is an emulsifier in food. What I didn’t know was that it is also a preservative, a surfactant, and a lubricant. Lecithin is even promoted as a health supplement for the brain.
There are many forms of lecithin including soy, sunflower, and even egg lecithin but at a chemical level they are almost indistinguishable. This includes the liquid lecithin and the granules or even powder lecithin. So, this article is talking about the lecithin compound, not a particular type.
Lecithin as an Emulsifier
Emulsifiers fuse things together that don’t want to be fused or mixed. Oil and water or oil and vinegar are common examples of ingredients that don’t want to mix together. If you mix them up with a whisk or in a blender, they might stay mixed for a few minutes but they will separate eventually. The emulsifier will hold them together in a stable form and they won’t separate. For example, have you ever had a friend that you didn’t care for much but you have a mutual friend that likes to hang out with both of you. The lecithin is like this mutual friend holding a hand of the two friends that don’t get along well to keep you together except the lecithin will hold on much longer than the mutual friend.
Common uses of lecithin in food creating an emulsion are vinegar and oil in dressings, cocoa and butter in chocolate, caramels, and sauces of many kinds including béarnaise and hollandaise. I’ve even seen recipes that call for lecithin in ice cream and mayonnaise to create a better emulsion.
Lecithin as a Preservative
Preservatives often get a bad wrap. When people hear preservatives they usually think of chemicals or artificial ingredients that keep food longer. I often think of the McDonald’s food that simply won’t rot after sitting around for months when I hear or think about preservatives. However, there are some natural preservatives that are not artificial or toxic. Lecithin is one of these. There are actually several natural preservatives such as ascorbic acid (Vitamin C), citric acid, tartaric acid, lecithin, hops, salt, sugar, vinegar, and alcohol.
Lecithin, being a natural preservative extends shelf life of your baked goods and in addition it helps your bread be lighter and fluffier. It won’t keep your food indefinitely but as a mild preservative, it will extend the shelf life of your bread. In fact, it is the emulsion power that makes lecithin the preservative that it is. Because it holds the ingredients together, it preserves the prepared state of the food. It will preserve frozen foods such as ice cream, chocolate, confectionaries, and especially baked goods. It helps the baked goods retain and hold the water. That is why commercial bread and baked goods don’t dry out as quickly as most homemade baked goods. Just another reason to use lecithin in your homemade baking.
Lecithin as a Surfactant
What in the world is a surfactant and why would it be beneficial? Surfactants are defined as “a substance that tends to reduce the surface tension of a liquid in which it is dissolved.” The chemistry behind why lecithin is a surfactant is a little above my chemistry background but here is a good resource titled, “Soybean-based Surfactants and Their Applications” if you are interested in learning more.
So why is the fact that lecithin is a surfactant a good thing for food? Well, it has been found that the lower the surface tension, the better for cellular health. If the surface tension is lower then, the cells in the body become better hydrated and the fluid is utilized by the body better. Therefore, low surface tension caused by a surfactant such as lecithin will increase the nutrient capacity of the body.
Lecithin as a Lubricant
Lecithin can be used as a lubricant in cooking and baking. For example, many nonstick cooking spray uses lecithin as the lubricant to make it non-sticking. Lecithin granules are a main ingredient in this recipe that I found for a “Pan Release Coating for Baking Pans” as a lubricant.
- 2 oz lecithin granules
- 1 cup vegetable oil (use one with a smoke point above 400°
- Mix in a blender or food processor until smooth. Store tightly sealed in the refrigerator for up to a year. Use to lubricate baking pans.
- Smear on with paper towel or brush.
Other Benefits of Lecithin
Lecithin is also a natural, non-toxic ingredient that has even been linked to health benefits. Lecithin is commonly taken as a dietary supplement. In fact, there are many websites that cite a an American Journal of Clinical Nutrition from 2011 that apparently “found that people with high dietary intakes of choline experienced better performance on memory tests and reduced brain changes associated with dementia.” I could not find the actual article so I didn’t site it directly here. In my research it seems that the studies are inconclusive but are showing positive signs that lecithin has health benefits. Lecithin is also considered an antioxidant and non-toxic.
In addition to all that I’ve written about above, here are some common uses for lecithin.
- Lecithin reduces viscosity (internal friction) in candy, baking, etc.
- Lecithin also helps in homogeneous mixing of ingredients.
- Lecithin improves the texture of creamy products and dressings.
- Lecithin neutralizes spattering when frying
- Lecithin keeps sugar from crystalizing and helps texture of chocolate.
There are many uses for lecithin in and out of the kitchen but the biggest reason to use lecithin in the kitchen is for emulsion of mixtures and that gives you the side effect of a preservative. One thing I didn’t mention here either but may dive into further is that lecithin is a dough enhancer because it holds dough together and doesn’t allow the gas produced from yeast to escape. The bottom line is that if you aren’t using it at home in your kitchen, you should be because you are missing out.
What are the benefits of taking lecithin?
It has been claimed that lecithin has many benefits including the following.
- Lower cholesterol
- Improve heart health
- Improve immune function
- Improve food absorption
- Aid breastfeeding mothers
- Help improve digestion
- Enhanced cognitive function – may fight dementia symptoms (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition from 2011)
- Soothe and moisturize skin
What foods contain lecithin?
If you look on ingredients of almost any commercially processed food or baked goods, you will see lecithin. Lecithin also occurs naturally in the following foods.
- Organ meats – Yuck, the last time I had liver I had to feed it to the dog!
- Red meat
- Egg yolks
- Cooked green vegetables- brussels sprouts and broccoli.
- Legumes, such as soybeans, kidney beans, and black beans – most of the commercial lecithin on the market is from soy.