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What is Sunflower Lecithin, and Why is It in So Many Protein Powders?

If you’re into nutrition, or ever read the nutrition facts of a protein powder, you’ve probably read the words “sunflower lecithin.” Actually, you’ve probably seen it on the labeling of not just protein powders, but ready-to-drink protein shakes, protein bars, ice cream, chocolate, sauces, and even gum. But what is it? And with all the recent fuss about seed oils and how how they’re industrially processed, is it just as bad since it’s derived from a seed?

Left: sunflower lecithin; Right: protein powder

Sunflower lecithin is a natural emulsifier that is used to help keep food products stabilized, and in the case of protein powders, increase solubility. Unlike soy lecithin, it is non-GMO and lower in allergens, making it a great alternative. Many companies will tout their use of sunflower lecithin instead of soy lecithin, as it is a positive. Without an emulsifier such as sunflower lecithin, foods products like the ones mentioned above would separate, and protein powders wouldn’t mix very well.

So how is it made? Sunflower seeds are dehydrated and then separated into three parts: oil, solids, and gum. The lecithin is derived from the gum, and is processed through cold pressing, vastly different than how seed oils are processed (yes, there are cold pressed seed oils, but I’m referring to the ones that go through industrial processing that have a lot of people concerned right now). Because it is made with a cold pressing process, there is no need for chemical solvents like we see with seed oils.

Seeing that people who consume protein powders are doing so for health benefits, and that protein powders would not be able to mix well in liquid without an emulsifier, it makes sense as to why it is used, and that it is beneficial (unless you prefer chunky protein shakes). So next time you’re selecting a protein powder or grabbing a ready-to-drink shake at the store and you see sunflower lecithin on the label, know it is for good reason.