Soy Lecithin has been lingering around our food supply for over a century. It is an ingredient in literally hundreds of proceesed foods, and also sold as an over the counter health food supplement. Scientists claim it benefits our cardiovascular health, metabolism, memory, cognitive function, liver function, and even physical and athletic perfomance. However, most people don’t realize what soy lecithin actually is, and why the dangers of ingesting this additive far exceed its benefits.
Lecithin is an emulsifying substance that is found in the cells of all living organisms. The French scientist Maurice Gobley discovered lecithin in 1805 and named it “lekithos” after the Greek word for “egg yolk.” Until it was recovered from the waste products of soybean processing in the 1930s, eggs were the primary source of commercial lecithin. Today lecithin is the generic name given to a whole class of fat-and-water soluble compounds called phospholipids. Levels of phospholipids in soybean oils range from 1.48 to 3.08 percent, which is considerably higher than the 0.5 percent typically found in vegetable oils, but far less than the 30 percent found in egg yolks.
Out of the Dumps
Soybean lecithin comes from sludge left after crude soy oil goes through a “degumming” process. It is a waste product containing solvents and pesticides and has a consistency ranging from a gummy fluid to a plastic solid. Before being bleached to a more appealing light yellow, the color of lecithin ranges from a dirty tan to reddish brown. The hexane extraction process commonly used in soybean oil manufacture today yields less lecithin than the older ethanol-benzol process, but produces a more marketable lecithin with better color, reduced odor and less bitter flavor.
Historian William Shurtleff reports that the expansion of the soybean crushing and soy oil refining industries in Europe after 1908 led to a problem disposing the increasing amounts of fermenting, foul-smelling sludge. German companies then decided to vacuum dry the sludge, patent the process and sell it as “soybean lecithin.” Scientists hired to find some use for the substance cooked up more than a thousand new uses by 1939.
Today lecithin is ubiquitous in the processed food supply. It is most commonly used as an emulsifier to keep water and fats from separating in foods such as margarine, peanut butter, chocolate candies, ice cream, coffee creamers and infant formulas. Lecithin also helps prevent product spoilage, extending shelf life in the marketplace. In industry kitchens, it is used to improve mixing, speed crystallization, prevent “weeping,” and stop spattering, lumping and sticking. Used in cosmetics, lecithin softens the skin and helps other ingredients penetrate the skin barrier. A more water-loving version known as “deoiled lecithin” reduces the time required to shut down and clean the extruders used in the manufacture of textured vegetable protein and other soy products.
In theory, lecithin manufacture eliminates all soy proteins, making it hypoallergenic. In reality, minute amounts of soy protein always remain in lecithin as well as in soy oil. Three components of soy protein have been identified in soy lecithin, including the Kunitz trypsin inhibitor, which has a track record of triggering severe allergic reactions even in the most minuscule quantities. The presence of lecithin in so many food and cosmetic products poses a special danger for people with soy allergies.
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