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Information at a Glance

General
  • Lecithin is a fatlike substance called a phospholipid. It is produced daily by the liver if the diet is adequate. It is needed by every cell in the body and is a key building block of cell membranes; without it, they would harden. Lecithin is mostly a mixture of glycolipids, triglycerides, and phospholipids (e.g. phosphatidylcholine, phosphatidylethanolamine, and phosphatidylinositol).
  • In biochemistry, lecithin is usually used as a synonym for pure phosphatidylcholine, a phospholipid which is the major component of a phosphatide fraction which may be isolated from either egg yolk (in Greek lekithos - λεκιθος) or soy beans from which it is mechanically or chemically extracted using hexane.

Extraction & Processing

  • Lecithin are extracted during the processing of soybean oil. The soybeans are tempered by keeping them at a consistent temperature and moisture level for approximately seven to 10 days. This process hydrates the soybeans and loosens the hull. Soybean oil is extracted from the flakes through a distillation process and lecithin is separated from the oil by the addition of water and centrifugation or steam precipitation.
  • Certain complex lipoids of the lecithin and kephalin types can be synthesized in large amounts by birds taking rations free from this class of compounds. The milk powder contained 0.6 per cent of ether-soluble matter and the ether extract was practically free from phosphorus. The lecithins present in the whole milk are nearly completely removed with the cream by the centrifugal process.

Application & Technology

  • Lecithin is ubiquitous in the processed food supply. It is most commonly used as an emulsifier to keep water and fats from separating in foods such as margarine, peanut butter, chocolate candies, ice cream, coffee creamers and infant formulas. Lecithin also helps prevent product spoilage, extending shelf life in the marketplace. In industry kitchens, it is used to improve mixing, speed crystallization, prevent "weeping," and stop spattering, lumping and sticking.
  • Lecithin is used in a broad range of industrial applications. Paints, coatings and inks consume a large part of the lecithin sold into non-food/feed industries. The major advantages of lecithin in these applications are that it is functional, natural (biodegradable) and usually cost-effective versus competing products.

Market

  • Australia imports approximately 2500 tonnes of lecithin annually, the majority of which is used in the food industry. The global market for soy lecithin products is approximately 150,000 - 160,000 t/a; of this up to 120,000 t/a is a standard grade lecithin. This accounts for only 40% of the lecithin precursors. High processing costs and logistical problems have been sighted as reasons why more lecithin is not processed into a commercial form
  • Estimated prices for soy lecithin, in 5 gallon units, is approximately $1.60/kg. This product is priced based on demand as the market supply is controlled by the large players. Surplus supplies can easily be moved into feed markets by mixing it back in with meal at the crushing facility. Egg based lecithin is significantly more expensive, although also rare and used for specialty applications only.

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