Lecithin—Emulsifier & Health Promoter

Tuesday, September 12th, 2017

Lecithin is a multifunctional ingredient that can be used as nature’s principal emulsifying agent in the creation of instantised products or developed as functional ingredients that can combat ageing. By Andre vander Wulp, regional technical director, FIS APAC, Cargill

With today’s hectic lifestyle, instant food and beverage products are becoming more and more popular because of the convenience they bring. However, achieving homogeneity in instantised products such as whole milk power, cocoa and chocolate drinks, soups, sauces and protein recipes have proven to be a challenge for the industry. 

The dispersibility of a powder in water or milk is dependent on its hydrophobic or hydrophilic characteristic. Hydrophobic powders are bad dispersible due to high free surface fat, while hydrophilic powders have a high rate of hydration.

Traditionally, lecithin, nature’s principal emulsifying agent, has been used as a emulsifier in instantised products. Lecithin improves the wettability of powder particles and compensate for the surface properties of hydrophobic or hydrophilic powder particles. It can improve dispersibility upon reconstitution to reduce the hardness of agglomerates and enhance the flowability of the final product.



There are four parameters pertaining to reconstitution—wetting, the penetration of the liquid into the powder, sinking of the powder particles into the liquid, dispersion of the powder particles, and dissolving of the particles in the case of soluble particles.

Factors that affect reconstitution include particle surface, particle size and size distribution, surface active agent, air inclusion, particle density, bulk density, single components of the powder, powder flowability and hardness of the particles.

In order to achieve a homogeneous distribution of the lecithin onto the powder, it is necessary to prepare a sprayable liquid lecithin. Lecithin-oil-solution is used when lecithin needs to be sprayed on the surface of the final powder, while lecithin-water-dispersion is used when lecithination and agglomeration is required at the same time.

Agglomeration & Lecithination

During the agglomeration process, a coarse, porous particle structure is created, resulting in a coarser particle size. Moistening is done by using steam, water, a mixture of water and binding agent or powder lecithin.

Agglomeration and lecithination will create a bigger particle size and a more porous particle structure in cooperation with a surface active substance such as lecithin. There are many different possibilities to combine the agglomeration and lecithination process.

For example, whole milk particles can become bound together by lecithin to found a larger, more porous particle, resulting in instant whole milk powder.

For powders that contain too much free surface fat, the interfacial tension (fat-water) prevents the powders from sinking into water. Lecithination can reduce the interfacial tension. Reconstitution either results in the wetting and subsequent sinking of the powders, or dispersion and dissolution.

Functional Benefits

Functional Benefits

Besides its role as an emulsifying agent, lecithin can also be developed into a functional ingredient, such as Liamin-phosophatidylserine (PS) and Leci-phosphatidylcholine (PC).

PS is a negatively charged phosopholipid that is highly enriched in central parts of the brain. It governs membrane fluidity and therefore, regulates cell activities. In addition, it also modulates receptor activities, enzymes, ion channels and signalling molecules. 

PS is also involved in neuronal signally. It enhances neurotransmitter release and receptor actions. Clinically, PS has been proven to address all three theories of ageing—the morphological hypothesis, membrane hypothesis and cholinergic hypothesis.

Chronic treatment with PS has been proven to prevent the age-related reduction in dendritic spine density in rat hippocampus. PS can normalise cholesterol to phospholipid ratio (restoration of membrane fluidity and composition). Multiple neurotransimitter deficits have been implicated in memory and attention loss, in particular aged people. PS supplementation restores neurotransmitter production and release.

PC, on the other hand, is required for normal liver function. Deficiency causes abnormal liver function and fatty liver in healthy humans. Pc helps protect against alcohol cirrhosis.

In addition, PC lowers blood cholesterol level and improves LDL/HDL quotient. OC can lower blood homocysteine level, which will reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases and heart attack.

Quality Assurance

As a leader in the global lecithin market, Cargill obtained approval for the use of sunflower lecithin in Japan, the only country in the world where it had not previously been approved for food applications, in April 2014.

Approval by Japan’s Ministry of Health Labour and Welfare means that the company’s Topcithin sunflower lecithin, a clean label non-GM emulsifier—made from oilseeds for which GM plant varieties do not exist at a commercial level—is available to customers in Japan for the first time.

First introduced in 2008, the ingredient is derived from European sunflower crops and produced in fully backwards integrated facilities to minimise the risk of cross-contamination, traceable from field to fork. 

In 2010, less than five percent of the raw materials used to produce lecithin were sourced from backward integrated production facilities. To ensure supply security, the company embarked on the five-year plan to increase the number to over 40 percent by 2016. The plan includes the expansion of facilities in North America, South America, Europe and Asia.

Cargill has established a product portfolio that can supply, where required, lecithin originated from conventional (non-GM) sources using an Identity-Preservation supply chain program. With dedicated production lines, product segregation and documentation systems, the company’s externally audited processes can be considered an industry benchmark system for the production of conventional (non-GM) lecithin products. 

Lecithin produced through the company’s Identity-Preserved programs is in line with the EU regulatory requirements for exemption from mandatory labelling. In addition, lecithin produced by the company is Kosher and Halal certified. All the company’s lecithin production sites operate under certified quality management systems, such as ISO and AIB, with the European sites also certified under GMP.