Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis identified a substance, which is the component of food additive lecithin, in the liver that helps process fat and glucose.
They believe that lecithin may one day be used to control blood lipids and reduce risk for diabetes, hypertension or cardiovascular disease using treatments delivered in food rather than medication.
"Currently, doctors use drugs called fibrates to treat problems with cholesterol and triglycerides," said the study's co-first author Dr Irfan J. Lodhi, a postdoctoral fellow in endocrinology and metabolism.
"By identifying this substance that occurs naturally in the body - and also happens to be used as a food additive - it may be possible to improve the treatment of lipid disorders and minimize drug side effects by adding particular varieties of lecithin to food," he added.
Lecithin is found at high concentrations in egg whites. It also is in soybeans, grains, fish, legumes, yeast and peanuts. Most commercially used lecithin comes from soybeans.
The new study demonstrates that in the liver, a specific type of lecithin binds with a protein called PPAR-alpha, allowing PPAR-alpha to regulate fat metabolism.
Scientists long have known that PPAR-alpha is involved in lipid and glucose metabolism.
"That information could be used to make better drugs or even to develop what people sometimes refer to as nutriceuticals - nutrients that have pharmaceutical-like properties," said senior investigator Dr Clay F. Semenkovich, the Herbert S. Gasser Professor and chief of the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Lipid Research.
The study appears in journal Cell.