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Lecithin (Phosphatidylcholine)

What is lecithin?

Lecithin is a fatty substance that belongs to phospholipids; it is composed of glycerol, fatty acids, phosphoric acid and choline [1]. A chemical name for lecithin is phosphatidylcholine, but lecithin as a commercial product is usually a mixture of phosphatidylcholine and various oils, sterols, inositol and carbohydrates.

Name origin: from the Greek lekithos = egg yolk [1].

Function of Lecithin in the Human Body

In the human body, lecithin is present mainly in the cell membranes and in the lipoproteins, which carry triglycerides and cholesterol in the blood.

Lecithin increases the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, but it is not known if it affects the brain function [1].

Foods High in Lecithin

Lecithin naturally occurs in soy, peanuts, corn, spinach, cauliflower, oranges, wheat germ, egg yolk, fish, beef liver and red meats [1].

Krill oil supplements contain marine lecithin [12].

Lecithins as Food Additives

In the European Union, lecithins as food additives are labeled with the E-number E322 [6]. They are produced from soybean or sunflower oil or egg yolk [1].

Lecithins may be used as [1]:

  • Emulsifiers in foods, such as chocolate, candies, breads, ready-to-eat cereals and margarines
  • Wetting agents (surfactants) in cocoa powder and beverage powders
  • Anti-spattering agents in frying fats

Lecithin Supplements

Lecithin supplements in the form of powder, granules, capsules, oils or softgels are available without prescription (over-the-counter). Typical sources are soybeans, egg yolk and sunflower seeds.

Lecithin Supplements Benefits

Lecithin (phosphatidylcholine) is POSSIBLY EFFECTIVE:

  • As a source of choline [5]
  • For prevention of fatty liver in individuals fed by parenteral nutrition (through a vein) [3]

There is INSUFFICIENT EVIDENCE about the effectiveness of lecithin in prevention or treatment of acne, anxiety, arthritis, atherosclerosis, dry skin or hair, eczema, ischemic heart disease, manic-depressive (bipolar) disorder, movement disorders (tardive dyskinesia) [11], Parkinson’s disease or stress or in reducing high cholesterol [12], or improving athletic performance, growth in children, immunity, liver function, sleep or weight loss [1,3].

Lecithin is PROBABLY INEFFECTIVE in prevention or treatment of Alzheimer’s disease (dementia) [4,10], gallbladder disease (gallstones), or in improving memory [3].

Lecithin Supplements Safety: Toxicity, Side Effects

Lecithin in doses 20-30 g/day is LIKELY SAFE for most people [3]. Lecithin in high doses may cause side effects, such as anorexia, nausea, increased salivation, abdominal pain, diarrhea, fishy body odor and hepatitis [1,3]. Lecithin toxicity has not been extensively studied so far. Lecithin is Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [2].

Lecithin and atherosclerosis. Gut bacteria convert lecithin into trimethylamine-N-oxide (TMAO), which has been found to be associated with increased risk of coronary heart disease [7,8]. More research is warranted.

During Pregnancy

Not enough is known about the safety of lecithin use during pregnancy and breastfeeding, so women should avoid it in these periods [3].

  1. Lecithin  Drugs.com
  3. Lecithin uses, side effects  WebMD
  4. Higgins JP et al, 2003, Lecithin for dementia and cognitive impairment  PubMed
  5. Choline  Linus Pauling Institute
  6. 2011, Union list of food additives approved for use in foods and conditions of use  EUR-Lex
  7. Wilson Tang WH et al, 2013, Intestinal Microbial Metabolism of Phosphatidylcholine and Cardiovascular Risk  PubMed Central
  8. Mendelsohn AR et al, 2013, Dietary modification of the microbiome affects risk for cardiovascular disease  PubMed
  9. Mourad AM et al, 2010, Influence of Soy Lecithin Administration on Hypercholesterolemia  Hindawi
  10. Higgins JPT et al, 2000, Doubtful effect of lecithin as a treatment for dementia  Cochrane
  11. Tammenmaa IA et al, 2004, Systematic review of cholinergic drugs for neuroleptic-induced tardivedyskinesia: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials  Academia.edu
  12. Ulven SM et al, 2011, Metabolic Effects of Krill Oil are Essentially Similar to Those of Fish Oil but at Lower Dose of EPA and DHA, in Healthy Volunteers  PubMed Central

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