The Skinny on Lecithin
Ever wonder how salad dressings and chocolate bars stay so creamy? Or how a stick of margarine maintains its smooth texture? If it were not for an essential ingredient called lecithin, many of the food products we’ve come to enjoy might not exist.
Lecithin (pronounced les-uh-thin) is a blend of naturally occurring oils and fats present in animal and plant sources, such as beef liver, steak, eggs, whole grains, corn, and peanuts. Worldwide, commercial forms of lecithin come from egg yolks and soybeans—one of the major agricultural crops produced in the United States.
We’ve all heard the adage, ‘oil and water don’t mix.’ Soy lecithin, made from soybean oil, is the most cost-effective and widely used additive in the food industry. Dr. Mian Riaz, director of the Food Protein R&D Center at the Texas A&M University System, says the reason lecithin is a popular food additive is because it is an excellent emulsifier, which keeps fat and water particles from separating.
“Emulsifiers help to process food,” says Dr. Riaz. “Mostly [lecithin] is added to smooth the process. It helps to maintain the food matrix as it is and doesn’t let the fat out from certain particles, [creating] an emulsion.” Mayonnaise, for example, is an emulsion or stable mixture of fat and water. Some other examples of emulsions are salad dressings, chocolate, milk, and ice cream.
Food additives like lecithin are used to maintain or improve appearance, texture, freshness, and safety. While lecithin adds smoothness to creamy sauces, candies, and baked goods, it also gives packaged products a longer shelf life and it is often used to prevent sticking as seen with many nonstick cooking sprays.
Despite some consumers’ concerns on the safety of food additives, Dr. Riaz, says that lecithin is not harmful and that consumers should not be concerned whether it is bad for their health.
“We don’t want the consumer to be scared,” adds Dr. Riaz. “[Lecithin] is just part of the additives used in the food industry. It is one hundred percent safe.”
According to Dr. Riaz, lecithin is actually good for overall health. One reason is because it contains choline, which is believed to support brain, liver, and heart health. Dr. Riaz recommends taking one lecithin supplement or a spoonful of lecithin oil or powder per day to help increase concentration and avoid dementia.
In addition, some findings have suggested lecithin may help lower cholesterol levels and improve the cardiovascular system. In a 2011 study published in the journal Epidemiology, researchers found the use of lecithin supplements was also associated with reduced breast cancer risk.
While concerns regarding safety should not be overlooked, the proverbial question for Muslim consumers is whether lecithin is a halal food ingredient or not. Dr. Javed Rashid, IFANCA technical director, believes the answer is simple. He says the food product label must indicate that the lecithin is made with soy (as in “soy lecithin”) or another plant-based source like sunflower, cotton, or grape seeds, and not derived from an animal source.
“Most of the labels of products with lecithin do declare it as soy lecithin [and] not just lecithin,” says Dr. Rashid.
The primary reason soybean must be stated on food product labels is because it is considered a major food allergen, especially amongst babies and children. Consequently, the federal Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA) requires all packaged foods containing soybean as an ingredient to list the word “soy,” “soya,” or “soybean” on the label.
“Since lecithin is considered a functional ingredient, it must be declared on the [ingredient] label,” says Dr. Rashid. He points out that such mandatory labeling indirectly benefits the halal food consumer as well.
Muslim consumers may be cautious when it comes to soy lecithin that has been enzymatically modified. Dr. Riaz says that sometimes soy lecithin is modified with enzymes or processed with other ingredients, making it difficult to determine its halal status, as these enzymes and other ingredients could come from non-halal sources. Therefore consumers should pay close attention to labels indicating “enzymatically modified soy lecithin.”
With the ongoing push for less processed foods and more transparent food product labels, the future of lecithin and other food additives remains unknown. The ample supply of soybeans, however, guarantees that ingredients like lecithin will remain inexpensive to produce and readily available.
Aysha Hussain is a New York-based writer and journalist. Aysha was featured in The New York Times’ “We, Myself and I,” and her work has been published in Newsday and Muslim Girl.