There’s no shortage of ingredients in workout mixes and protein powders these days–some good and some that should be avoided. But what is sunflower lecithin in protein powder? Is it a harmful added ingredient or something useful you should be taking?
This post answers your questions on this popular ingredient, from what sunflower lecithin is, what it’s for, whether you should avoid it or not, and more.
What is Sunflower Lecithin?
Sunflower lecithin is a natural emulsifier (meaning it prevents clumping and separation) and preservative.1 Similar to other forms of lecithin, it creates a smooth texture by binding ingredients together and keeps everything intact.
Lecithin is added to foods like salad dressings, supplements, and even cosmetics and skincare products, but not just because it stabilizes ingredients. It has antioxidative properties, helps intensify color pigments, releases flavors, and has potential health benefits.
Manufacturers and consumers are starting to prefer sunflower lecithin over soy and egg-derived forms of lecithin for health and ethical reasons. Not only is it plant-based, but it’s non-GMO and is cold-pressed for a better extraction process than soy-derived lecithin.
What is Sunflower Lecithin Made Of?
As the name implies, sunflower lecithin is derived from an oil-bearing sunflower kernel. The process starts by dehydrating the entire sunflower and then separating the different parts. Lecithin is made from the “gummy” part of the sunflower and is then extracted by a cold-pressed process, similar to how olive oil is processed. After it’s extracted, it’s turned into powder or oil.
It has high phosphatidylcholine (PC) and essential fatty acid (EFA) content, which gives it the multifunctional properties it’s known for. It’s also high in choline, an important nutrient for metabolism and overall health.2
Why is Sunflower Lecithin Added to Protein Powder?
As mentioned above, sunflower lecithin is added to food products to keep the ingredients stable and from separating. Some research also suggests that it has health benefits, as well. When sunflower lecithin isn’t added for preservation reasons it’s to add nutritional value to the product or supplement.
Sunflower lecithin is also an alternative to the more popular soy and egg lecithin forms. Many people are allergic to soy or have hormonal imbalances as a result of consuming it. Soy is also usually genetically modified and processed with chemicals, whereas sunflower lecithin typically isn’t. Other than sensitivities, the sunflower version is also usually well-tolerated. Additionally, many people and even companies are seeking out more plant-based and vegan options–making sunflower lecithin an alternative to animal and egg-derived lecithin.
Are There Any Benefits of Taking Sunflower Lecithin?
Research suggests there are numerous potential health benefits to taking sunflower lecithin.
Fights exercise fatigue and reduces sore muscles
A study with 11 weight-trained athletes found that those who took 800 mg of S-PS each day for two weeks had considerably lower muscle soreness than those who took a placebo. The athletes also experienced an improved perception of well-being.3
Prevents low choline levels
Exercise lowers the amount of choline within the body, but some studies have shown that supplementing with phosphatidylcholine can prevent the loss of choline. Replenishing choline levels is essential for athletic performance, muscle gain, and more.
Boosts brain function
The neurotransmitter acetylcholine is vital for brain health, memory retention, nervous system regulation, and more.4 Since choline is converted to acetylcholine in the body, supplementing with it may boost brain health and actually help you stay in the zone when weightlifting.
Lecithin is vital for bone strength and repair, which of course is just as important as muscle gain and endurance. Getting adequate amounts of lecithin may be able to increase the number of cells responsible for strengthening and regenerating bones, especially after an exercise injury.
Reduces muscle damage and aids recovery
PS supplementation has been shown to reduce muscle damage in trained runners compared to placebo while also aiding in muscle recovery after intense exercise.
Lowers exercise-related stress and cortisol levels
A double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled showed that supplementing with 800 mg S-PS resulted in cortisol levels that were 30% less compared to a placebo–thus demonstrating a lessened stress response to exercise.
Is Sunflower Lecithin Good for You?
The short answer is: probably.
But the longer answer is that it depends. Everyone reacts to supplements differently, whether or not you have a sensitivity to a particular ingredient. There’s also the fact that much of the research on sunflower lecithin isn’t substantial enough to guarantee a straight answer either way.
However, the properties of sunflower lecithin (phospholipids) and how the body uses lecithin (converts it to choline) are important for maintaining cell integrity. These phospholipids can be found in food sources and other more time-tested supplements, though.
Does Sunflower Lecithin Have Any Side Effects?
Even though it’s regarded as generally safe, there are several potential side effects of taking sunflower lecithin, especially in high amounts.
Most side effects are minimal and include:
- Sensitivity or allergy
- Digestion issues
- Stomach pain
- Interactions with medications or other supplements5
It’s worth noting that most people get lecithin from food sources already, which contributes to the overall amount of lecithin being consumed. Some of these side effects may be lessened with lower dosages if taking supplements, too.
Who Should Avoid Sunflower Lecithin?
People who are allergic to either sunflowers or lecithin should avoid it, as well as those who are pregnant and breastfeeding. Additionally, anyone who is on medications (such as cholesterol-lowering or blood-thinning meds) should avoid taking sunflower lecithin before talking to their doctor. The effects of lecithin may interact with other medications and supplements, especially in those who have certain conditions or autoimmune diseases.
Are There Protein Powders that Don’t Contain Lecithin?
Fortunately, there are protein powders that don’t have lecithin in the formula.
Two great options without lecithin are:
Transparent Labs Whey
This Whey protein isolate is sourced from 100% grass-fed American cows and contains 28 grams of protein per 32 gram scoop. It’s free from artificial sweeteners, food dyes, gluten, and preservatives–making it a fantastic clean protein mix. Each canister has 30 servings for $60, and comes in several different flavors. It also has a 4.7-star rating with over 2000 reviews.
Naked Pea Protein Powder
If you want a good vegan option with only one ingredient from a transparent brand, this is a top contender. This pea protein isolate powder is free from dyes, soy, and sweeteners while also being GMO and gluten-free. Each serving has 27g of protein and comes in unflavored, chocolate and vanilla options. And it’s surprisingly cost-effective when bought in bulk–the 5 lb canister costs around $58 while a pound is around $16. Naked Pea Protein Powder also has a 4.2-star rating with over 11,000 reviews.
Should You Avoid Protein Powders with Lecithin in Them?
It doesn’t have to be avoided, but purer and minimal ingredient labels are always better health-wise. This is especially true for animal and soy-derived lecithin, which are usually processed with chemicals and are likely to cause reactions or hormone imbalances.
As mentioned earlier, you likely already get a decent amount of lecithin from food sources like red meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, and cooked greens.
If you do choose a protein powder with lecithin, try to pick ones that have been sourced responsibly and processed without chemicals. Keep tabs on your reactions, too so you can see how your body handles it.
Sunflower lecithin has been shown to be beneficial as a supplement, but you can live without it–especially if it’s just an extra ingredient in a protein powder that doesn’t add nutritional value. Your body needs sources of lecithin, which can fortunately be found in plenty of foods anyway. Whether you decide to supplement with it or just want to know what’s in your protein powder, this post is a great resource to refer back to.