A natural emulsifier, it provides food and beverage formulators a sustainable alternative to traditional soy-derived lecithin.

Mike Efting, EVP of market and sales development

August 3, 2021

5 Min Read
sunflowers

At a Glance

  • Sunflower lecithin can be added to F&B products as an emulsifier, helping stabilize mixtures and prevent separation.
  • Studies show sunflower lecithin can help lower cholesterol, improve digestive health and potentially boost brain health.
  • Sunflower lecithin is organic, non-GMO, non-allergenic, and considered a safer alternative to soy lecithin.

“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, according to scientific research.

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, as noted the book, “Polar Lipids.”

Sunflower lecithin was deemed generally recognized as safe (GRAS) for use in food in 2019 by FDA. Since then, sunflower lecithin has 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.

What is sunflower lecithin?

Sunflower lecithin comprises a collection of phospholipids, which makes it a natural emulsifier (not to be confused with an emulsion stabilizer). 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. The use of sunflower lecithin, however, doesn’t end with the food industry. Research shows, after refinement and fractionation, it can also be used in cosmetics.

Per “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 applications

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 substances—it is ideal for homemade plant-based milk, vegan butter and even cookies.

Other applications for sunflower lecithin include food supplements and pharmaceuticals—more specifically, liposome encapsulation, yellow fat spreads, baked goods, chocolate and animal feed.

One should not assume, though, that all sunflower lecithin applications have already been discovered. In “Polar Lipids,” researchers 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% and cut levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol; improve digestive health, especially for those with conditions like ulcerative colitis; and potentially boost brain health, given its high choline content.

Choline is an essential nutrient that helps the brain and nervous system regulate memory, mood, muscle control and other functions, according to the federal Office of Dietary Supplements. Lecithin is also known for aiding in the breastfeeding process, as scientific studies show it can reduce the viscosity of breastmilk, decreasing the potential for clogged milk ducts, and therefore mastitis.

The book, “Food Industry,” said 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 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.

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. 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 Ukraine and Russia, as well as Argentina, where the economic impact is of the utmost importance. The 2022 Russia-Ukraine war, however, put unexpected strain on the European market and global supply chain, as prices of integral food ingredients like sunflower oil and sunflower-derived ingredients skyrocketed.

Sunflower vs. soy

Historically, soybean has been the primary source of lecithin worldwide; however, sunflower-derived substances can provide some potential advantages:

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 Reportlinker.com, the non-GMO foods market is expected to experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5% between 2023 and 2028.

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 EVP of market and sales development at Barentz. He also served as president and founder of Viachem, a specialty chemical food additive and ingredient distributor, for almost 17 years.

About the Author(s)

Mike Efting

EVP of market and sales development, Barentz

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 EVP of market and sales development at Barentz. He also served as president and founder of Viachem, a specialty chemical food additive and ingredient distributor, for almost 17 years.

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