Where did lecithin get its name? Was it named after some brilliant scientist who discovered it while working night and day in a lab? Actually, the real story is a little blander than that. Lecithin actually comes from lekithos, which is the Greek word for “egg yolk.”
Now, why of all things would anyone name it after something so commonplace as an egg yolk? The reason is pretty straightforward: Because that is where French scientist Maurice Gobley first found lecithin. The year was 1805 and the scientist had just extracted a fat-like substance the yolk of an egg, which he quickly discovered contained properties very similar to those of an emulsifier.
Since then, the primary source for commercial lecithin had always been eggs. That was until the 1930s came when it was found that soy lecithin could also be recovered from the waste product of soybean processing.
Today only very few people distinguish between soy lecithin and egg lecithin. The word has been used as a generic term referring to a whole class of fat and water-soluble compounds called phospholipids.
Where Soy Lecithin Comes From
As mentioned earlier, soy lecithin is a by-product of soybean processing. At first, the soybeans are tempered by keeping them at a consistent temperature and moisture level for approximately seven to 10 days. This has a hydrating effect on the soybeans, loosening it from its hull.
Then, the soybeans are cleaned and cracked into small pieces. The cracked beans are separated from the hulls and are heated and pressed into flakes.
Next, the flakes undergo a distillation process where the soybean oil is extracted, after which crude soy oil is made to undergo a “degumming” procedure. The sludge that is produced as a result is where soy lecithin comes from. Of course, the sludge would have to undergo another process first, to extract the lecithin.
The waste product usually contains solvents and pesticides that could be harmful if not purified through a process called the hexane extraction. This process actually yields less soy lecithin than the older ethanol benzol process. However, the process also produces a more marketable lecithin with better color, reduced odor and less bitter flavor.
Why are they good?
The food industry uses soy lecithin for a variety of purposes. As an emulsifier, the substance helps promote solidity in margarine and give consistent texture to dressings and other creamy products. It is also used in chocolates and coatings and to counteract spattering during frying. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has tagged lecithin as one of the few emulsifiers that are safe for use by consumers.
But while soy lecithin is more popular for its emulsifying properties, it has more to offer. Its unique lipid molecular structure makes it useful for pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications. In addition, it is also utilized for a variety of industrial purposes, including paints, textiles, lubricants, and waxes.
Lecithin is also considered as having beneficial effects on our health. The substance actually contains three types of phospholipids: phosphatidylcholine (PC), phosphatidylethanolamine (PE), and phosphotidylinositol (PI). Phosphatidylcholine contains the element choline, which is essential to every living cell in the body and is one of the main components of cell membranes. It seems the majority of the health claims about soy lecithin may have something to do with the fact that it is an excellent source of choline.