Pectin is a carbohydrate found in the cell walls of terrestrial plants that plays a role in plant growth. The rinds of a number of fruits contain substantial amounts of pectin including citrus fruits, apples, berries and apricots and can be made by extracting it from these fruits. Most commonly, citrus peels left over from juice manufacturing are used to make pectin.
Most people who make jams and jellies are familiar with pectin since it is used to thicken and give a gel-like texture to these types of sweet condiments. Commercially, pectin is used as a thickener, emulsifier and gelling agent in a number of commercial products including yogurt drink, yogurt, chocolate milk and non-dairy milk products. In these products, pectin helps to thicken and stabilize mixtures of oil and water-soluble ingredients and give these products a more substantial texture and thickness.
Pectin is also a type of soluble fiber. Soluble fiber in food products helps to lower serum cholesterol levels and decrease the risk of heart disease. It also has positive benefits for digestive health. In the lower intestinal tract, bacteria break down pectin and release short-chain fatty acids that help to keep the lining of the intestinal tract healthy. This may lower the risk of colon cancer. Some research suggests that modified pectin may also prevent the spread of other cancers including breast and prostate cancer by decreasing the ability of cancer cells to stick together.
Pectin has an appetite-suppressive effect that makes it beneficial for weight loss. Some research suggests that apple and citrus pectins are effective for removing heavy metals and other toxins from the body. Pectin supplements are available at some health food stores in the form of apple pectin or modified citrus pectin to be used as a fiber supplement. It's also an ingredient in some prescription and non-prescription medications including cough drops and throat lozenges formulated to coat the throat and relieve sore throat pain.
At one time pectin was an ingredient in some over-the-counter medications used to treat diarrhea, but it was removed from these products after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined there wasn't enough evidence to support its effectiveness. In some products, pectin is modified so it can be better absorbed by the body. Natural pectin is usually not well-absorbed and remains in the digestive tract where it acts as a source of fiber.
Pectin is also used to formulate a variety of cosmetic and personal care products including facial moisturizers, facial cleansers, sunscreen products, anti-aging treatments, makeup foundations, shampoos, hair conditioners and hair styling products. In these products, it functions as an emulsion stabilizer to help keep oil and water-soluble ingredients that are usually incompatible with each other stable in solution. Because pectin swells in the presence of water, it increases the viscosity of cosmetic and personal care products, giving them a more substantial feel and better performance.
Pectin appears to be safe when used orally in recommended amounts. Like most fiber products, it can cause abdominal cramping and bloating, especially when taken orally in large doses. It may also reduce absorption of some vitamins and minerals in the diet. Even though pectin is safe when taken by mouth and topically in the amounts found in cosmetic and personal care products, it's not a good idea to breathe the dust since it can be irritating to the lungs and trigger asthma attacks in susceptible people. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) classifies pectin as an ingredient that's "generally recognized as safe," and the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database considers it to be a low-hazard cosmetic ingredient.
All in all, pectin is a naturally-derived ingredient that comes from the rinds of fruit. It has health benefits as an oral supplement by helping to lower cholesterol levels, suppressing appetite and acting as a source of natural fiber. There's also some evidence that it may have anti-cancer benefits as well. In cosmetic and personal care products, it adds thickness and texture to products while helping to stabilize cosmetic emulsions. It's also non-irritating to the skin when used in the amounts found in skin care products and cosmetics.