If you are an avid label reader like I am, you have surely noticed that the additive soy lecithin is listed in a wide variety of packaged and processed foods. Even products labeled 100% organic frequently contain it.
Soy, called soya outside the United States, is one of the most common allergens permeating our food supply. It is included in the group of the eight major allergenic foods commonly referred to as the Big 8. The other seven allergens are milk, eggs, fish, shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, and of course wheat.
Allergic reactions to soy range from mild to life-threatening anaphylaxis. The good news is that research has shown that most children allergic to soy will outgrow it by age 10. The lack of a soy allergy, however, does not mean that soy should be consumed regularly. Numerous scientific studies warn about the negative hormonal and digestive effects of unfermented soy in the diet.
But what about soy lecithin? Lecithin, after all, is a natural and necessary emulsifying substance found in the cells of all living organisms. It is found in many whole foods such as cabbage, cauliflower, chickpeas, nuts, seeds, and eggs among many others. When this seemingly innocuous additive is listed on a food label, it is usually one of the very last ingredients. This means that minute amounts are present.
Does a tiny amount of lecithin extracted from soy and added to food as an emulsifier pose a risk to health? It certainly doesn’t compare to exposure from say, a soy milk latte from Starbucks, right? Could this issue be overblown in the majority of cases?
Soybean Lecithin Manufacturing
To get to the crux of this issue, it is first necessary to understand how soy lecithin is manufactured.
Dr. Kaayla Daniel provides an in-depth analysis that leaves little to the imagination in her book The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food.
Dr. Daniel’s research uncovered that soybean lecithin, aka soy lecithin, is actually a waste product from the manufacturing process that produces soy oil. It is extracted from the sludge that is left after the soy oil undergoes a degumming process.
Soy lecithin has actually been around since early in the last century when scientists uncovered the many ways to use it after a patented process producing it was developed by companies in Germany. Today, it is most commonly used as a food emulsifier to keep water and fats from separating. Soy lecithin also extends product shelf life thereby increasing the profitability of the wide variety of processed foods that contain it, even infant formula!
While soy lecithin derived from soy oil sludge is not necessarily a problem, it is what this waste product contains that gives the most reason for concern. The extraction of the soy oil from the bean requires the use of toxic solvents like hexane similar to the chemical sprays used to extract every drop of orange juice from conventional oranges. In addition, commercial soy these days is almost always genetically modified meaning pesticide residue galore.
Adding insult to injury, the soy lecithin which no doubt contains toxic solvent and pesticide residues is bleached to transform the color from a dirty brownish hue to a light yellow.
Soy Lecithin Hypoallergenic?
While the manufacturing process of soy lecithin theoretically removes all soy proteins leaving a product that is hypoallergenic, the reality is something else.
Even tiny amounts of soy protein residue in soy lecithin are a danger to those with soy allergies. Dr. Daniel’s research identified that one of the three components of soy protein, the Kunitz trypsin inhibitor, capable of triggering a severe reaction in the tiniest of amounts, has been found in soy lecithin via testing.
Be sure to double check the ingredients on your supplements and personal care items too as soy lecithin is widely used in these items as well. In cosmetics, for example, the addition of lecithin allows the active ingredients to penetrate the skin barrier.
Is Soy Lecithin a Problem for Those Without a Soy Allergy?
What about those without a soy allergy? Is avoiding all products containing soy lecithin really necessary?
My opinion is that yes, it is wise to avoid commercial soy lecithin due to the dangerous solvents and GMO soy used to produce it.
However, organic soy lecithin is another matter entirely. Organic soy is nonGMO and would not be extracted from the soybean using toxic chemicals. Therefore, small amounts occasionally consumed in processed foods would pose little risk to health.
Soy Lecithin Not Hormone Disrupting
For those avoiding soy due to hormonal issues such as low thyroid or breast cancer, the good news is that soy lecithin won’t contribute to the problem.
Soy oil itself contains low to no isoflavones. These substances are also called phytoestrogens – plant-derived compounds with estrogenic activity. Therefore, soy lecithin derived from the sludge of soy oil manufacturing would also be unlikely to contain these hormone-disrupting substances.
What About Lecithin as a Supplement?
Lecithin supplements available in pills, powder, and liquid remain popular for the health conscious. But, are they really necessary or even a good idea?
According to the Weston A. Price Foundation, lecithin products are marketed for everything from improving cardiovascular health to reversing liver damage. It is even touted as valuable for improving brain function and memory.
The marketing of lecithin as a supplement is typically due to a misguided fear of fat within the context of a low-fat, low cholesterol diet. Why use a lecithin supplement, particularly one derived from pesticide and hexane tainted sludge from GMO soy oil to indulge fatphobia? It is better to obtain lecithin via a traditional diet containing ample quantities of Nature’s Perfect Food: eggs.
And, make sure to eat those yolks and never just the egg whites. Rich, nutritious, brain-building egg yolks contain 30% lecithin!
Sources and More Information
The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food
From Sludge to Profit
Estrogenic Foods Like Soy Trigger Precancerous Breasts
170 Scientific Reasons to Eliminate the Soy from Your Diet
Organic Soy Formula is Dangerous for Babies
Healthy Soy Sauce: The Good, the Bad and the Very Ugly
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.