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Is Lecithin a Protein and What is its Impact on the Stability of Emulsion?

Lecithin has been an important part of the manufacturing industry, especially instant food products and pharmaceuticals. It is also added to most protein powders and supplements. 

Whether lecithin itself is a protein or contains it in any capacity is a huge question. As per its chemical structure, lecithin’s primary objective is to act as an emulsifying agent, the confusion about it being linked to protein is valid. 

This post is specifically focused on answering similar queries putting the confusion to rest, once and for all.

Is Lecithin a Protein?

Since lecithin is acquired from eggs, peanuts, sunflower, soya, canola, and meat, all prominent sources of protein, lecithin, itself, is considered one isn’t a surprise. While lecithin itself isn't a protein, the biomolecule is a component within lecithin’s structure. 

In fact, its emulsification properties work so well because protein is a part of its structure. 

What is Lecithin’s Chemical Structure?

Lecithin is a complex ingredient. It cannot be categorized into a single group as it contains various fatty acids and different types of glycerides—a dense mixture of chemically charged fats. 

Its high content of phospholipids is also often a reason why lecithin is mistaken as a protein. Phospholipids are just a group of fats that contain phosphorus. 

Understanding the Stability of the Emulsion

The stability of the emulsion is the potential of a mixture for resisting any transition within its physicochemical properties in a given time period. Manufacturers assess the stability of emulsion to determine the durability and flexibility of the final product. The process is similar for every industry. 

The stability of the emulsion depends on some key factors like particle size continuity phases, particle size distribution density, and chemical integrity between dispersed particles.

While most products and methods require constant assessment of the stability of the emulsion, manufacturing certain products doesn’t require it at all. Because with these products different techniques are constantly being implemented to cause immediate emulsion breakdown.

Protein, on the other hand, is responsible for minimizing surface tension and increasing the stability between two insoluble substances. Thus it is called a stabilizer. The presence of protein in lecithin makes it a natural surfactant and holds an influence on organic and environmentally friendly products.

Effects of Lecithin on Emulsion Stability

Depending on the source lecithin is extracted from and the form it is used in, the phase separation and interfacial behaviour differ. The same thing was concluded through a recent experiment conducted using lecithin from different sources, namely: egg yolk, crude egg, and soybean. In the experiment, the behaviour of lecithin was observed by analyzing the phosphatidylcholine ratio. 

There were three primary phases of assessment with two parts acidic and one part neutral pH level. The effects are shared below:

Egg Yolk 

The effect on the PC from egg yolk at a neutral pH level showed an increase in the emulsion stability achieved through protein. The egg yolk lecithin had an average particle size which gave it more stability in keeping oil and water combined for longer. While in acidic pH, the densely packed films with oil droplets surrounded the surface. 

That is why most manufacturers dissolve egg yolk lecithin with oil-based components as it provides increased stability in emulsion thanks to the higher protein ratio.

Crude Egg

The effects of crude egg lecithin were more diverse than egg yolk lecithin. At neutral pH, a slight decrease in interfacial tension was observed as crude eggs have a higher ratio of protein presence. The acidic stage displayed the separation of oil and water, causing an increase in creaming. 

Crude egg lecithin has a weakened layer of protein which can be visibly detected in the form of separation. This separation can have an adverse effect on the stability of the emulsion in the middle of the manufacturing process.

Soybean

The third candidate in the experiment was soybean lecithin. It was also assessed for neutral and acidic pH. The results showed that with both neutral and acidic pH soybean lecithin evidently sustained and lowered the surface tension between oil and water. Over time, it helped create a more homogenous mixture as it contained just the right balance of protein presence. That’s one of the reasons soybean lecithin is so widely used.

The experiment concluded that any lecithin with reduced protein has a better chance of reducing interfacial tensions while improving the stability of the emulsion. Whereas, the higher protein ratio has an inverse effect on the stability of the final product. 

The Verdict

To conclude and put the confusion to rest, lecithin isn't a protein. However, protein is a major component of lecithin that boosts its functionality and execution of emulsification. 

The presence of protein in lecithin has a severe impact on the stability of the emulsion, provided the ratio of protein is according to the product being manufactured.

LECITEIN carries plant-based lecithin, including soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin as well as proteins from various sources to help manufacturers achieve perfect emulsion. To check out the list of our complete offerings see the products section on our website. Or you can directly reach out to us with your queries.

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