Soy Lecithin-What the heck is it and why is it in everything?

Therese Martinez

What the Heck is Soy Lecithin and Why is it in Everything?

I was pretty confused as to what this ingredient’s function was for a long time once I started reading food labels and came across it in so many products. I saw it on both conventional and health food products, and started wondering what dangers would come of eating very much of it, or if it was actually relatively safe. I don’t like to eat foods with too many ingredients like bulking agents, additives, preservatives, etc. but I also recognize some things can be rather harmless, and sometimes moderation is just fine. As I started to research this, I was surprised to find that it is used as a supplement to treat hyperlipidemia, and improve cholesterol numbers, too. Thus, my curiosity was perked even further.

So, what the heck is soy lecithin?

Let’s break it down a little bit and start with lecithin.

Lecithin is an umbrella term for a variety of naturally occurring fatty compounds found in animal and plant tissues. It was originally isolated from egg yolk, but it is now regularly extracted from cottonseed, marine sources, milk, rapeseed (canola), soybeans, and sunflower (1). If we have any foodies out there, you know egg yolk can be a great emulsifying agent (for non-foodies or just folks that don’t know- emulsifying agents help blend otherwise non-blendable-foods like water and oil). Lecithin is primarily used for this purpose as it is an excellent emulsifier. It breaks down oil into smaller particles and thus is utilized in processed foods, soaps, nonstick cooking sprays, medicines, and supplements to make them look smooth, uniform and pretty (1).

Is the soy in soy lecithin the same as in other foods?

 

There is a debate among health enthusiasts about the healthy nature and the unhealthy nature of soy. From its anti-nutrients to estrogenic properties, there is a lot to discuss. This isn’t where I will be talking about that, though. I’m not going to dive into the health debate of soy because a lot of the arguments don’t coincide with soy lecithin, which is a by-product of soy extraction. It is not hydrogenated soybean oil.  However, there are still some considerations to be made:

  1. Allergies
    1. Soy allergies are triggered by soy proteins. Not all soy lecithin concentrations of soy proteins are equal, though, so depending on the product, a person with soy allergies may or may not react. It may be better safe than sorry and stay away if you know you are allergic to soy proteins. With that said, soy lecithin itself usually makes up no more than 1% of processed foods and has a generally minimal amount of protein in it, so It’s likely not a problem for those with minor sensitivities to soy (3).
  1. Genetically Modified Organisms
    1. Generally speaking, I am not a huge fan of GMO’s. I am making a post about this more in the future, but the presence of potentially transferrable DNA and immunogenic proteins in GMO’s makes them largely unappealing. I do recognize the benefits to properly modified foods in its relation to world hunger, though. Unfortunately, most of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified. However, soy lecithin does not contain much soy or DNA, so therefore the risks for consuming GMO soy from lecithin shouldn’t be too concerning (3). Even better, try to find products with organic soy lecithin to avoid that issue altogether.
  1. Phytoestrogens
    1. For those concerned about soy influencing hormones, you can rest at ease with soy lecithin. It contains low to no isoflavones-also called phytoestrogens, the plant-derived compounds with estrogenic activity (4).
  1. Production
    1. One of the main issues with soy lecithin lies primarily with the extraction process. Toxic solvents like hexane are used to extract the soy oil from the bean. The soy lecithin can contain some toxic solvent and pesticide residue because of this, and is furthermore bleached by hydrogen peroxide to transform color (3, 4). This nasty process can lead to inflammatory responses within the body, and possible cellular damage (as described in my previous blog on environmental toxins).
  1. Therapeutic Uses
    1. As I mentioned before, Soy Lecithin can be used as a dietary supplement. There is research growing that has shown its benefits in improving blood lipids, reducing inflammation, and treating neurological disorders (5). It is important to note that many of these studies involve purified soy lecithin, which usually contains less soy oil and more phosphatildylcholine than the more commercialized version of soy lecithin (3). Therefore, choline is probably the main ingredient that is actually helping. This means that you can likely get the same benefits from just increasing choline intake from rich sources like egg yolks and liver.

 

 

To care or not to care?

Well, the main concerns with Soy Lecithin are 1. the allergen exposure for folks that are sensitive to soy protein, and 2. The inflammatory, DNA-damaging repercussions from exposure to the pesticides, solvents, and GMO’s. To play it safe for those with allergies, it may be best to stay away from soy lecithin. Otherwise, the latter can be avoided by purchasing products that have ORGANIC soy lecithin.  All in all, some intake isn’t going to kill you, but being mindful of how much you are taking in, and from what sources is very important.

 

Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT

 

Therese Martinez, MS, RD, CPT

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