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Sunflower Lecithin Vs Soy Lecithin – What’s The Difference?

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There are plenty of food additives on the market that are designed to improve the taste, texture, stability, and shelf life of the foods we purchase from the grocery store. 

Two common food additives that are often added to popular items like chocolate bars, cake mixes, and sauces are soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin. 

These products are types of fatty acids that can help emulsify (combine fat and water) ingredients in foods to make them easier to work with and to help them last longer on the shelf. 

But is there a big difference between them? Is one healthier or safer than the other? And what exactly is lecithin? 

So, what’s the difference between sunflower and soy lecithin? The extraction process for sunflower lecithin is typically regarded as more natural, and they obviously come from different sources. Aside from these differences, they are virtually interchangeable and safe as food additives.

Read on to discover what lecithin is, how it is extracted from soybeans and sunflower seeds, the similarities between them, what food products they’re used in, and more!

What Is Lecithin?

Before we dig into the differences between sunflower and soy lecithin, it is helpful to have an understanding of what lecithin actually is.

Lecithin is an essential fat that is found in cells throughout the body. There are many types of lecithin, but all of them are categorized by the fact that they are amphiphilic.

That quality means that they attract both water and fats, which makes them an excellent emulsifier.

They are able to attract both fats and water because the compounds within lecithin are hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving).

These substances are yellow-brownish fatty substances that contain a variety of compounds such as phosphatidylcholine, choline, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylinositol, and phospholipids.

While they can come from both plant and animal sources, the lecithin that we are most familiar with in manufacturing comes from either soybeans, sunflower seeds, or eggs. As an emulsifier, it helps maintain the texture of food products.

It can also be used to smooth out textures in foods and cosmetics and may be used in drugs and supplements.

What Is Lecithin Most Commonly Used For?

If you turn over a package of chocolate one of the ingredients you are likely to see is soy or sunflower lecithin.

This ingredient is common in lots of food products because of its amphiphilic properties (remember it loves both water and fat so it’s a perfect emulsifier).

Some other food products you will likely find lecithin in include:

  • Commercially baked goods
  • Candies and chocolate bars
  • Frostings and icings
  • Sauces and dressings
  • Margarine
  • Ice cream
  • Frozen desserts
  • Nutritional drinks
  • Gravy mixes
  • Soups
  • Powdered mixes
  • Mayonnaise

You may also see lecithin in your makeup or in certain supplements or medications. Typically, the amount used in these products is quite small since you don’t need a lot in order to improve the texture and consistency.

If you see sunflower or soy lecithin in your products, it is nothing to worry about. In fact, there may even be some potential health benefits from lecithin, though outlining them isn’t the purpose of this article.

How Are Soy Lecithin And Sunflower Lecithin Extracted?

Extracting lecithin from both soybeans and sunflower seeds is quite an easy process.

Since lecithin is a fatty substance, it needs to be separated from the other components and chemicals in these products in order to be used as a food additive.

To extract sunflower lecithin, the seeds are cold-pressed. This process is simple and doesn’t require any chemical solvents or additives.

The sunflower seeds are slowly pressed at a low temperature to help separate the seed into an oil, a gum, and a solid.

The lecithin in sunflower seeds is then separated from the gum and can be packaged and used in many applications.

This process of extraction is typically regarded as more natural since no solvents are used. Health food and natural food manufacturers may prefer to use sunflower lecithin for this reason.

In order to extract the lecithin from soybeans, they need to go through a process of degumming.

In this process, the gum and oil are separated and the lecithin is removed. It does require a chemical solvent, typically hexane, to extract the oil from the soybean.

Once the oil is extracted, it is degummed by adding water to the oil so that the lecithin becomes hydrated and separates from the rest of the fat.

It is actually a byproduct of the processing of soybean oil. Often this lecithin is bleached with hydrogen peroxide after degumming.

This process requires more chemicals than extracting the lecithin from sunflower seeds, but it is still relatively easy. In fact, soy lecithin is incredibly cheap because it is considered a byproduct of soybean processing.

What Does Soy Lecithin Look And Taste Like?

Once you’ve extracted lecithin from the soybeans you are left with a fatty liquid substance that is relatively thick and viscous.

It’s a yellowish-brown color, so not the most appealing thing to look at. Luckily, it is used in such small amounts that you probably won’t notice the texture or color.

When it comes to the taste and texture of foods, it really depends on the product in which you find it. For example, it’s unlikely you’ll notice it much in a sauce or a baked good since the amount used is so small.

With that being said, when it comes to using soy lecithin in chocolate, there are some definite opinions on how it impacts the taste and texture.

Some folks find that chocolate made with soy lecithin instead of cocoa butter (it’s much cheaper) gives it a waxy as opposed to creamy texture.

It may also dilute the chocolatey aromas in the bar since it is a fatty substance that doesn’t typically have much flavor or scent since it has been bleached.

It doesn’t enhance anything that it is added to, but for purists, it may dilute those amazing floral aromas of a cocoa bean.

What Does Sunflower Lecithin Look And Taste Like?

Sunflower lecithin is similar to soy lecithin since they are both phospholipid, waxy substances. It can come in both liquid and solid forms. The solid form looks like little waxy granules that are a yellowish-orangey brown color.

Many folks who use sunflower and soy lecithin in cooking and baking claim that sunflower lecithin has a milder flavor than soy lecithin. It has a slightly nutty, sweet taste that can enhance the baked goods that it is used in.

But remember, you are typically using such a small amount of lecithin because a little goes a long way. The small amounts used at home or in manufacturing really won’t have much of an impact on the taste of the food that you’re making.

Since phospholipids are a waxy substance, the texture of sunflower lecithin can give your food a slightly waxy texture.

With that said, I feel like only the folks who have a really picky palate are going to notice much of a difference between the types of lecithin or if lecithin is used at all.

What Are The Differences Between Sunflower Lecithin And Soy Lecithin?

While the chemical components and usage of soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin are pretty similar, there are a couple of key differences to keep in mind depending on how you plan to use the lecithin:

1. Source Material

The main and most obvious difference between sunflower lecithin and soy lecithin is the source.

One comes from sunflower seeds while the other comes from soybeans. Due to the extraction and purification process, it doesn’t really impact the final product very much.

In fact, allergists often don’t caution folks who are allergic to soy to avoid soy lecithin since most of the allergens are removed during the manufacturing process and the substance is almost entirely fat.

In some extreme cases, folks may still react so always check with your doctor first.

2. Extraction Methods

Another difference between sunflower lecithin and soy lecithin is the extraction process.

Extracting lecithin from sunflower seeds is an easy process that doesn’t require any chemical solvents. The sunflower seeds are cold-pressed to separate the oil, gum, and solids.

The lecithin is then degummed using water and can be used in many applications. This method is generally regarded as safer and more natural than the extraction of soy lecithin.

Some natural and health food companies may prefer to use sunflower lecithin because of this cleaner process.

To remove the lecithin from soybeans, there are some extra steps to the process. First, the oil is extracted from the soybean using a chemical solvent, which is typically hexane. The oil is then put through a degumming process.

This process requires water to be added to the crude oil until the lecithin is fully hydrated and separates from the oil. From here it can be used in the same way as sunflower lecithin.

3. Purity Of Phospholipids

Thanks to the differences in the extraction process, the phospholipids found in sunflower lecithin are generally thought to be purer than those found in soy lecithin.

Since there are no chemical solvents or bleaching, the phospholipids are more intact.

If you’re looking at using lecithin as a health supplement, then it is probably wiser to go with sunflower lecithin, since it is regarded as more natural and pure.

However, if they’re being used as a food additive, then it doesn’t really impact the function of the lecithin.

4. Phytoestrogens

Soybeans contain a compound called phytoestrogens. These are plant estrogens that have the ability to bind to hormone receptors in the human body

If you are sensitive to hormonal imbalances, especially with estrogen, then soy lecithin may be something you want to avoid in larger amounts. 

However, since most food additive sources of soy lecithin are so minuscule, it is unlikely to have an impact on your hormone levels in those amounts. 

If you’re taking a soy lecithin supplement, then the phytoestrogen content may be something that you will want to consider. Otherwise, it is unlikely to cause much of an issue for most folks. 

Sunflower Lecithin: Basic Nutrition Information

When it comes to the nutrition information of sunflower lecithin, it is pretty similar to soy lecithin, with a few key differences.

While both compounds contain antioxidants, sunflower lecithin is going to be slightly higher than soy lecithin thanks to the more natural extraction process.

It also contains compounds such as phosphatidylcholine, choline, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylinositol, and phospholipids.

Soy Lecithin: Basic Nutrition Information

Soy lecithin is a fatty substance extracted from soybeans and contains some antioxidant compounds. It is made from a combination of phosphatidylcholine, choline, phosphatidylethanolamine, phosphatidylinositol, and phospholipids.

These compounds are found throughout the body and are required for healthy cellular function.

While soybeans are a food that ranks high on the allergenic scale, many allergists don’t suggest their patients avoid soy lecithin since more of the allergens are removed during manufacturing.

If you have a very severe soy allergy, then it is always safest to err on the side of caution and avoid it or talk to your own doctor before consuming.

Soy lecithin may also contain phytoestrogens, which are plant estrogens that can impact hormonal balance in the human body.

With that being said, since the amount of soy lecithin used in manufacturing is so small, it is unlikely the additive amount would have much of an impact on hormone levels if that is something that you are worried about.

Since soy lecithin is more processed than sunflower lecithin, it typically will contain more pure and higher levels of antioxidants and fatty acids.

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