Lecithin is a phospholipid composed of the amino acid choline and inositol. It is a fat that is essential in all of the body’s cells, playing an important role in the function of cell membranes, which regulate nutrients that enter and exit the cell. In addition to its presence in the body’s cells, lecithin can be found in soybeans, wheat germ, corn, egg yolks, fish, legumes, and peanuts.
Lecithin has a range of uses across industries, playing a role in medicine as well as food, beauty, and personal care products. In medicine, lecithin helps to treat memory disorders, including dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive problems. In treating Alzheimer’s disease, lecithin produces acetylcholine, a neurotransmitter, which can help improve memory. It is further effective in mental health, helping to treat depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder in many cases. It tackles manic-depressive disorder by improving symptoms of delusions, jumbled speech, and hallucinations, according to initial research studies. Lecithin is used in a range of doses, from 1 to 35 g a day, to treat cognitive conditions.
Moreover, lecithin is used to treat medical conditions such as gallbladder disease, liver disease, and high cholesterol. It helps tackle liver disease by reducing accumulation of fat in the liver, and some research indicates that it can effectively lower cholesterol in healthy people—but not people already affected by high cholesterol. Finally, initial clinical trials have investigated lecithin’s effectiveness in boosting the immune system, though additional studies are needed to investigate this benefit. Thus, this naturally occurring phospholipid has important functions in medicine, helping to treat a range of mental and physical conditions.
Lecithin is also marketed as a weight-loss supplement, helping to improve cardiovascular health, fat transport, and fat metabolism. However, no research exists that substantiates the claims that lecithin helps people lose weight. While it can disperse fat and prevent fat from clogging the cardiovascular system, it does not flush fat out of the body, as companies that market lecithin as a weight-loss cure claim. Nonetheless, lecithin supplements are sold in capsule, powder, or granular form. Users take it alone in the capsule form or mix the powder or granular forms into health shakes or smoothies as a supplement. Lecithin supplements are generally not necessary, as a well-balanced diet provides the recommended daily amount of 50 mg.
In the food industry, lecithin is used as a natural emulsifier or food stabilizer. In these functions, lecithin allows substances that typically do not combine well, such as oil and water, to mix effectively. Mayonnaise, for example, relies on an emulsifier to mix the oil and water in the product, and lecithin can serve as that emulsifier. As an emulsifier, lecithin makes food more appealing; it creates a consistency, structure, and texture that individuals prefer. Other foods that use emulsifiers such as lecithin include chewing gum, ice cream, margarine, peanut butter, caramels, and soft drinks.
Lecithin has similar uses in beauty and personal care products. Such products typically use it in two forms: lecithin and hydrogenated lecithin. Like in food products, lecithin helps form emulsions, which reduce the surface tension of ingredients in such products. It serves as a softening and smoothing agent, helping skin feel and look its best. Likewise, it works well as a thickener, stabilizer, and preservative, making it useful in a range of beauty products. Lecithin also helps fight dry and damaged skin, working effectively as a moisturizer. It can even help to treat conditions such as eczema.
Thanks to these benefits, lecithin can be found in a range of beauty products, including cosmetics, moisturizers, and lotions. Serums, eye creams, sunscreen, anti-aging creams, massage oils, soaps, and clarifiers also use lecithin for its useful properties. Used in conjunction with other ingredients, such as vitamins, antioxidants, and botanicals, lecithin can create healthier, softer, better moisturized skin with regular use.
The Food and Drug Administration lists lecithin on its Generally Recognized As Safe list as a food additive. In addition, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel confirmed that lecithin is safe to use in rinse-off products. In leave-on products, the CIR Expert Panel requires that lecithin concentrations do not exceed 15%. Lecithin is generally safe for users, particularly when it is used topically. When ingested, lecithin can create minimal side effects, such as diarrhea, nausea, and abdominal pain.