Picturing a sunflower is easy. Picturing lecithin, on the other hand, might prove more difficult. Lecithins are amphiphilic fatty substances formed in animal and plant tissues. As a mixture of phospholipids and minor substances like triglycerides and carbohydrates, they are one of the most versatile and multifunctional ingredients on the market.(1) With widespread food and beverage applications, lecithins provide a broad range of benefits, including emulsification, wetting, homogenizing, reducing viscosity and crystallization control.
Since its establishment in 1940, the U.S. lecithin industry has most widely accepted the soybean as the optimal source of lecithin. A new source, however, has entered the market in the last decade: sunflowers. Sunflower lecithin, a proven and promising non-GMO alternative ingredient, is currently in high demand. Producers are due to consider adding this powerhouse ingredient, rich in vitamins and minerals and bursting with benefits, to their rosters.
The global origins of sunflower lecithin
The name "lecithin" originates from the Greek word for egg yolk, lekithos, and is reminiscent of the mid-1800s discovery of the additive in eggs. Modern variants of lecithins now take the form of a fine powder. While soybean has long been the primary source of lecithin worldwide, emerging sources such as sunflower are beginning to stake their claim on the market. As one of the most common allergens in humans, soy is losing some of its previously held grip on the market.(2) Due in large part to its less gentle extraction process, organic manufacturing is also nearly impossible.(3)
In contrast, sunflower lecithin is harvested naturally from crude sunflower oil. The procedure involves dehydrating a sunflower and separating it into oil, gum and solids. The lecithin is taken from the gum and processed through a cold press system. Once in powder form, the ingredient becomes easier to utilize in food manufacturing. Because sunflower oil has a naturally low lecithin content—especially in comparison to sources such as soybean, rapeseed and corn oil—sunflower lecithin is harvested with less frequency than others. While less common than other sources, sunflower-derived lecithin is largely comparable to its counterparts, and its source provides fewer allergy-related concerns, giving it an edge as an alternative ingredient.
Sunflower lecithin down to a science
With potential benefits for both producers and consumers, sunflower lecithin has the capacity to overcome the hurdles of high cost and low stability that come with other forms of lecithin, while also benefiting the health of the end user.(4)
The primary benefit of this ingredient lies in its duality—it can combine with water molecules like sugars and proteins, while also interacting with hydrophobic substances like hormones and fatty acids.(1) The phospholipid concentration in sunflower lecithin also helps to maintain product integrity. Sunflower lecithin possesses a lower viscosity than other varieties, giving it high malleability and making it an ideal ingredient with which to formulate.(5)
The collection of phospholipids in sunflower lecithin makes it a natural emulsifier, enabling it to combine two incompatible liquids into a suspension and prevent that suspension from mixing with other substances.(6) With a high phosphatidylcholine (PC) content, sunflower lecithin melts at a low temperature, attributing to its usefulness. Plus, it is naturally free of gluten, soy and dairy, reducing consumer concerns about allergic reactions for themselves and their children. Emerging studies have also shown that sunflower lecithin may be capable of replacing eggs entirely in food formulation, according to a book on rapeseed.
Applying sunflower lecithin across industries
Sunflower lecithin functions as a nutraceutical and food supplement ingredient. Its proven functionality as an emulsifier and stabilizer makes sunflower lecithin a highly preferred ingredient for manufacturers.(6) Typical uses of the ingredient include—but aren't limited to—liposome encapsulation, yellow fat spreads, baked goods, chocolate and animal feed. Bakers worldwide herald sunflower lecithin as their "secret ingredient" in recipes because the substance is ideal for producing homemade plant milk, vegan butter and cookies.(5)
Once refined and fractionated, sunflower lecithin can also be used in the cosmetic industry. When used in skin care products, lecithin is known to soothe, soften and increase moisture in the skin. While soy lecithin is often cheaper, the use of sunflower lecithin represents a shift to a more holistic approach to manufacturing and removes certain added chemicals often present in soy lecithin.(7) Because it is already present in the human body, the natural element of lecithin is appealing to the end consumer as either an added ingredient or supplement.
Reaping the benefits of sunflower lecithin
The introduction and popularization of sunflower lecithin comes with the global increase in demand for non-GMO lecithin, according to the book “Polar Lipids.” The publication noted sunflower lecithin is typically rich in the following nutrients: phosphorus, potassium, calcium, iron, choline, inositol, and omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. With those nutrients naturally occurring in the ingredient, the need for artificial additives greatly decreases.
Not only is it beneficial for preventive health initiatives, but also the substance has shown to, in some cases, reduce issues around various health concerns. For example, studies have shown that consumers with a high lecithin intake experienced improved digestive health, fewer arthritic symptoms, lower blood pressure(8) and boosted brain health due to high choline content.(9)
A choline fact sheet from the Office of Dietary Supplements noted lecithins are often used to treat neurological conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer's disease. Lecithin-rich diets have also been proven to significantly reduce cholesterol levels—up to 42% in some cases—for end users.(10)
Additionally, lecithin is known to reduce the viscosity of breastmilk, aiding nursing mothers and babies in the breastfeeding process and reducing the likelihood of clogged milk ducts and mastitis.(11) Those fringe benefits are highly appealing to the end user and come at no added cost to the manufacturer.
Incorporating the ingredient into a product adds potential value for consumers and requires little to no additional labor on behalf of the manufacturer. Experiments to determine whether sunflower lecithin can fit the same bill as traditional lecithins have shown that the ingredient may indeed be the perfect non-GMO alternative, offering almost identical benefits.(4)
The demand curve for sunflower lecithin is trending upwards for both producers and consumers, meriting thoughtful consideration from product developers.
Bob Wills has worked in the specialty chemical, food additive and ingredient distribution industry since 2008. As a director of sales for Viachem, his responsibilities include management of the food, beverage and nutritional market segments, coordinating and managing sales efforts, and pursuing growth opportunities on the producer and end-user level. Wills wants potential producer partners as well as end-users to make the most educated decisions possible about what goes into their products.
1 Madoery R et al. “Emulsifying Properties of Different Modified Sunflower Lecithins.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 2012;89(2):355-361.
2 Savage JH et al. “The natural history of soy allergy.” J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2010;125(3):683-686.
3 Lončarević I. “The impact of sunflower and rapeseed lecithin on the rheological properties of spreadable cocoa cream.” J Food Eng. 2016;171:67-77.
4 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.
5 Nieuwenhuyzen WV. “Lecithin production and properties.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 1976;53(6Part2):425-427.
6 Cabezas DM et al. “Sunflower Lecithin: Application of a Fractionation Process with Absolute Ethanol.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 2009;86(2):189-196.
7 Holló J et al. “Sunflower lecithin and possibilities for utilization.” J Am Oil Chem Soc. 1993;70(10):997-1001.
8 Stremmel W and Gauss A. “Lecithin as a Therapeutic Agent in Ulcerative Colitis.” Dig Dis. 2013;31:388-390.
9 Poly C et al. “The relation of dietary choline to cognitive performance and white-matter hyperintensity in the Framingham Offspring Cohort.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2011;94(6):1584-1591.
10 Mourad AM et al. “Influence of Soy Lecithin Administration on Hypercholesterolemia.” Cholesterol. 2010;824813.
11 Lavigne V and Gleberzon BJ. “Ultrasound as a treatment of mammary blocked duct among 25 postpartum lactating women: A retrospective case series.” J Chiropr Med. 2012;11(3):170-178.