Lecithin characteristics

Characteristics and properties of lecithin or phospholipids

What is lecithin or phospholipids?

What is known as lecithin is a nutritional supplement extracted from soybean oil (soybean lecithin), egg yolk (egg lecithin) or sunflower oil (sunflower lecithin).

Technically, the term lecithin is synonymous with phospholipid. This page  explains where this supplement comes from, what is its composition, its structure, its functions and its benefits in the body.

What does lecithin (phospholipid) contain?

soy lecithin
Granulated soy lecithin

Lecithin is an extract of the oil (fat) of a food. As it is a purified substance (extract), it does not contain proteins, carbohydrates, isoflavones, antinutrients or fiber, components that can be found in soy or food, but not in the fatty extract.

More specifically, lecithin is a type of special fat called phospholipid. Unlike other fats, it has more components besides triglycerides (glycerol and fatty acids).

Nutritional composition of lecithin or phospholipids

Below is the table of nutritional composition of a lecithin supplement. The most remarkable thing about reading it is that it contains 100% fat, therefore it does not provide other remarkable nutrients:

Nutritional composition of soy lecithin per 100 g.
Calories763 kcal.
Fat100 g. alto
Vitamin E9,21 mg.alto

Chemical structure of lecithin

Lecithin or phospholipid is a large molecule of fat formed by different parts, all of them beneficial. According to the chemical definition of lecithin, its composition consists mainly of four parts:

phosphatidylcholine lecithin structure phospholipid soy lecithin
Parts of lecithin (phosphatidylcholine), a type of phospholipid. If instead of choline there were inositol, the molecule would be phosphatidylinositol, and so on with other components.
  • A glycerol molecule
  • Two (2) fatty acids bound to a glycerol
  • A phosphatidic acid bound to glycerol on the one hand, and in turn linked to other substances, such as amines or amino acids

What is lecithin called chemically?

Chemically, the union of glycerol, fatty acids and phosphatidic acid is called phosphoglyceride. When phosphatidic acid is bound to another substance it is called phospholipid.

Therefore, when talking about lecithin, it actually refers to a type of fat called phospholipids. More specifically, it is popularly called phosphatidylcholine , which is a phospholipid that contains choline, and the most abundant type of fat in soybean lecithin.

What are the types of lecithins or phospholipids?

Depending on the type of substance to which phosphatidic acid binds, different types of phospholipids (types of lecithin) result: the most common is phosphatidylcholine, but there is also phosphatidylserine, phosphatidylethanolamine (cephalin), etc.

Types of phospholipids found in lecithins

lecithin supplements
Soy lecithin pearls

Normally lecithins (extracts of oils sold as supplements) contain different types of lecithins (phospholipids):

  • Phosphatidylcholine (phospholipid formed by choline). Popularly it is called lecithin and is the most abundant component in soy lecithin. Choline is part of acetylcholine, a substance that acts as a neurotransmitter of the nervous system. For this reason, soy lecithin helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease, increase memory, improve concentration and other nervous disorders such as hyperactivity.
  • Phosphatidylinositol (phospholipid formed by inositol). Inositol is involved in many metabolic functions, in the proper functioning of the nervous system (essential for neurotransmitters to act properly), fertility, and is necessary for healthy skin, nails and hair.
  • Phosphatidylethanolamine (phospholipid formed by ethanolamine) around 20.8-23% of total phospholipids. It is commonly known as cephalin and is one of the most abundant phospholipids in the human body.
  • Phosphatidylserine (phospholipid formed by serine)

In the body, these substances can be “cut” from each other and therefore it is possible to obtain the different components that make them up.

What type of fat is lecithin?

Phospholipids are a type of special fat, which in biology is classified into lipids or saponifiable fats, because in their composition they have fatty acids.

Lecithin functions

The function of phospholipids is to be part of cell membranes throughout the body and produce bile. When they decompose, certain components, such as choline or inositol, are used to form structures of neuronal bodies, in the form of neurotransmitters.

Properties of lecithin

The main property of these molecules is to emulsify. An emulsifier is an amphipathic molecule, which is a chemical property used to describe that it can bind water with oil, or what is the same, hydrophilic substances with hydrophobic.

Soy lecithin in supplementation

Normally, lecithin is known to be part of a food supplement very rich in phospholipids, inositol, choline and vitamin E. These components are found in high concentration in the nervous system (brain and nerves) and are part of good cholesterol or HDL.

Advantages of soy lecithin compared to others

The advantage that soy lecithin has over lecithin that is extracted from eggs is that soybean has a higher percentage of phosphatidyl inositol.

punto rojo More information on lecithin

This article was endorsed by Elisenda Carballido - Dietitian nutritionist. Postgraduate in Phytotherapy and master in Nutrition and Metabolism.
Written by Editorial Botanical-online team in charge of content writing

4 December, 2021

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