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Phospholipids: Putting More Function Into Functional FoodsPhospholipids: Putting More Function Into Functional Foods

October 22, 2012

4 Min Read
Phospholipids: Putting More Function Into Functional Foods

By Dianne Bukowski, Contributing Editor

As a manufacturer or retailer, you know that consumers have a fast-growing appetite for foods, drinks and dietary supplements with active ingredients such as omega-3, CoQ10 and vitamin E.

But heres something you may not know, but should: Theres complex interplay among the good substances functional foods may contain. This enables some to do a better job than others of getting vitamins, proteins, enzymes and beneficial fatty acids where they can do the most good in the human body.

A growing body of research indicates that different types of phospholipids have a lot to do with that difference. Phospholipids are similar in structure to fats, or triglycerides, but have a phosphate functional group substituted for one of the three fatty acids on a glycerol backbone.  Derived from soy, canola, sunflower or egg, these natural lipids are essential to healthy cell function. They are also natural emulsifiers; their water- or fat-loving characteristics enable them to make stable blends of compounds that do not otherwise stay mixed. And, cells natural affinity for certain lipids make them ideal carriers" of healthy active ingredients.

Typically, phospholipids arent listed on product labels. But the natural substances they are derived fromsuch as soy or canolaoften are. In some cases, compounds derived from sources like soy or canolaPC, PS and GPC, for examplewill be listed in association with certain health benefits. Knowing how each, and the lipids they are part of, contribute to good health or well-being is key to designing products that are just right" for specific end-user needs or preferences.


PC (phosphatidylcholine) is a critical component of the outer layer of all cell membranes. It is also an essential nutrient. The unsaturated lipids PC contains (primarily omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids) make it a great functional food ingredient. PC has been associated with lower cholesterol and healthy cardiovascular lipid levels, membrane fluidity and healthy mucous membranes in the digestive system and lungs. The choline in PC is important to the function of organs, including the liver and brain. Ergo, the more PC a functional food contains, the more likely it is to provide those benefits.

PS (phosphatidylserine) is found in the inner layers of cell membranes and is also essential to healthy cell function. PS is associated with improved exercise capacity, increased neurotransmitter release in the brain, reversed age-associated nerve cell dendrite loss and higher brain glucose levels.

GPC (glycerophosphocholine) has been linked with mental cognition and memory. It is increasingly popular with consumers concerned with maintaining healthy brain function. Comprised of extremely small molecules that contain no fatty acids, GPC easily passes directly from the blood to brain cells.

Boosting bioavailability

Research on how the body uses the active ingredients in functional foods confirms that we can keep them available in the body for longer periods of time, significantly leveraging their potential health benefits.

In a study sponsored by the Lipoid Group of Ludwigshafen, Germany, two groups of men and women were given equal amounts of CoQ10 and vitamin E. Group one took them in a hard gel cap. Group two in a hard gel cap, complexed with a soy-based liquid phospholipid emulsion containing PC. CoQ10 and vitamin E levels in the subjects bloodstreams were measured before dosing and at one-hour intervals over the next 14-hours (both groups had fasted overnight and received the same meals and snacks during the test).

In group one, CoQ10 levels peaked at six hours and returned to near baseline levels by the end of the test. In group two, CoQ10 peaked twice (at three and six hours) and remained significantly higher throughout the test (indicating an overall fourfold increase). For vitamin E, the data indicated an overall 10-fold increase in bioavailability in group two.

Results like these (and initial findings in current research with omega-3) hint at tremendous potential ahead to make functional foods more effective. They point up how phospholipids lipophilic (fat-loving) properties can enhance uptake of fat-soluble compounds. Hydrophilic (water-loving) properties have also proved effective in liposomal forms of the antioxidant glutathione, vitamin C, resveratrol and other actives. Nutraceuticals designed to increase their bioavailability are instant sell-outs.

Savvy consumers are ready and willing to pay more for functional foods and supplements that deliver the goods, as well. But manufacturers and retailers face real challenges when it comes to labeling and marketing in ways that help buyers know which products are truly healthier, and why. That will change for the better as studies continue to confirm the good correlations between various actives and carriers.

Meanwhile, consider listing lecithins from soy, canola, sunflower or egg among ingredients, or content enriched with PC, PS or GPC. Buyers increasingly associate these with good health, even if they are not aware that the benefits are driven largely by the humble, healthy phospholipid.

Dianne Bukowski is national sales manager, American Lecithin Company (americanlecithin.us). She is responsible for U.S. sales of lecithins and phospholipids for food, beverage and nutrition markets, and provides technical support on product formulations, performance specifications and processing issues. For more information about the roles of specialty lecithins in functional foods, or increasing bioavailability of vitamins and nutrients, e-mail her at [email protected].


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