food boxes with soy lecithin

Soy has had a turbulent journey in our food chain. First it was declared a super food with amazing health benefits and lately many health professionals are warning against it because of rising evidence that soy has negative effects on our health.
But one thing is sure, soy has infiltrated our food production in such a way that it is almost impossible to eat anything without soy.

One ingredient that is present in almost every food product is soy lecithin. Since the amount of soy lecithin used is only a small part of the finished product we are led to believe that soy lecithin is harmless. But do we know what soy lecithin is and how much of it we really consume?

What is Soy Lecithin?

Lecithin is a phospholipid (compounds soluble in water and fat)  that can be found in all living cells. It was discovered in 1805 by Maurice Gobley. The first commercial source of lecithin were egg yolks, who contain up to 30% of phospholipids. Today almost all lecithin is obtained as a by product of soybean oil  production. Soybean oil contains only 1.48 to 3.08 % of phospholipids which is much less compared to the 30% in eggs but it is much cheaper to produce large quantities of lecithin from soy than from egg yolks.

Lecithin is especially high in one nutrient- choline. That’s where the good reputation of lecithin is coming from. Our bodies produce choline only in small amounts which is why we have to consume it through choline rich food.  Although the mechanisms choline triggers in our body are not yet completely understood by science it seems that choline can help digest fat, improve liver health, protect against fatty liver disease, help weight loss and improve mental health.

The best natural source of lecithin – choline are egg yolks. Egg yolks are by far richer in choline than soy. Soy is just cheaper.

But not all sources of lecithin are the same. Soy lecithin is particularly problematic since it is produced from soy and has therefore all the characteristics soy itself has, including the bad ones.

Why is it in almost every processed food?

Soy lecithin is very versatile and allows the food production industry to make more appealing products with longer shelf live.

Soy lecithin has different uses:

  • Emulsifier
    Soy lecithin has the ability to mix and keep water and fat together. Without that ingredient most products would decompose into water and fat, who naturally just don’t mix and would be unappealing to consumers. That’s why you can find soy lecithin in salad dressings, mayonnaise, margarine, chocolate and almost every fatty food.
  • Stabilizer
    It is used to stabilize emulsions which prolongs shelf life of products significantly. You can even find it in tea bags!
  • Releasing agent
    It is used in almost all dough products since it makes the dough stick less and easier to work with.
  • Anti-foaming agent
  • Surfactant-wetting agent
    It makes water penetrate easier into food mixtures which makes it easier and faster to work with the raw materials in production. Soy lecithin is used in all bakery products, sweets, dough, …

The truth is soy lecithin is in almost every product. If you haven’t paid attention until now look at the labels next time you go shopping. Soy lecithin can be found on food labels as Soy Lecithin or E322. How much products did you find without it?

The dangers of soy lecithin

The danger of soy lecithin lies in the fact that it is derived from soy. The production process of soy lecithin is also problematic since it is a waste product of soy bean oil production.

To get soybean oil, soy beans are grind, heated and treated with chemicals to extract the oil from the beans. This results in a mixed mass, which already has lost all the vitamins and antioxidants who were present in the crude soy beans. This mass is put in an centrifuge to separate the oil from the sludge. This sludge, basically a waste product of oil production is used to get soy lecithin. In further production this sludge is bleached and packed with additives to get the suitable consistency of lecithin. The produced lecithin contains all the pesticides the soy was treated with as well as part of the chemicals used during production of soy lecithin.

Allergies

In theory during  lecithin production all soy proteins should be removed form soy lecithin. The fact is that no production process has achieved this jet and there are always small amounts of soy protein in soy lecithin left. This is bad news for people with soy allergies since people with severe allergies to soy can have allergic reaction to soy lecithin as well.

GMO

Most soy for lecithin production is genetically modified. If you don’t want to eat GMO soy lecithin look out for “organic soy lecithin” on your food labels. The concern here lies in the fact that genetically modified food has been linked to soil pollution, environment endangering  and unknown effects long term consumption of genetically modified food has on human health.

Pesticides

Soy is well known to absorb pesticides and aluminum from the environment. GM soy has even higher herbicide residues than non GM soy. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in roundup herbicides used in GM soy and is known to disrupt estrogen balance in the female body.

Part of those pesticides end up in soy lecithin e.g. in our food. That’s a bad thing.  The fact that we are surrounded by pesticides through other foods and the environment doesn’t make me feel better about the fact that soy lecithin has pesticides as well.

Phytoestrogens

Soy lecithin contains phytoestrogens as do soy beans and other soy products. Phytoestrogens afftect estrogen levels in men and women. Phytoestrogens in small amounts (e.g. about 1/2 cup of soy milk a day) have been shown to significantly reduce sperm count with men.

Phytoestrogens are best avoided by people with fertility and cancer problems.

The most common companions of soy lecithin

Although the above mentioned dangers of soy lecithin are alarming we should not forget that soy lecithin is only present in small amounts in food products. Usually soy lecithin makes up to 1% of processed foods. Maybe the real danger of soy lecithin lies not within itself but within his most common companions. It’s a fact that soy lecithin is mostly used in processed food. Because a diet high in processed food is not only high in soy lecithin but also high in the following ingredients:

  • High fructose corn syrup
  • Trans-fats
  • White flour
  • Sugar
  • Salt

None of these ingredients makes a healthy basis for a balanced diet. So the real question shouldn’t be how much soy lecithin do we consume but how much processed industrial food do we consume?

Should we avoid soy lecithin?

Good luck trying. As I mentioned before soy lecithin is in almost every processed food. Soy lecithin isn’t the most healthy ingredient you can put in your food but if we are eating a balanced diet full of fresh vegetables, fruit and proteins the occasional processed food won’t hurt us. People who should really avoid soy lecithin are people highly allergic to soy and people concerned about the GMO use of soy.

Photo credit: Groceries in transit by Matt MacGillivray