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A type of lipid (fat), containing nitrogen and phosphorus, which forms a vital part of the cell membranes in plant and animal cells. The name comes from the Ancient Greek 'lekithos meaning 'egg yolk'.

It's composed mainly of two B vitamins, phosphatidyl choline and phosphatidyl inositol, and the amino acid methionine.

Lecithin is vitally important to the body: 30 per cent of the brain's dry weight, and 73 per cent of the liver's fat are composed of lecithin.

It has a remarkable emulsifying ability and can help to dissove minor gallstones and reduce the size of fatty particles in blood, lower cholesterol levels and prevent atherosclerosis (thickening of the walls of the arteries).

Lecithin is reputed to be a 'brain food' as its ingredient choline is converted in the brain to a neurotransmitter, improving mental function and memory..

Supplements can be useful to people engaged in mental work. While the best natural sources are egg yolks, fresh (unrefined vegetable oils, nuts seeds and soybeans.

In the food industry, soybean lecithin is extensively used as an invaluable emulsifier (E322) in such foods as chocolate, confectionery, desserts and ice cream. Lecithin lowers the surface tension of after in these foods, allowing oils and fats to combine with water. In margarine, it prevents water leakage and in breads it's used to increase loaf volume, soften the crust and extend shelf-life. For more information on nutrition, see 'Nutrition A to Z' by Dr. Michael Sharon (Prion Books)

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