So What's Soy Lecithin, Anyway?

Today I picked up three different snacks that my children eat on a regular basis. Many of the ingredients were the same, such as unbleached flour. One other common ingredient was present in the snacks as well: soy lecithin.
Now, I’m no cave dweller. I’ve been aware this product exists, and I’ve even pondered its role in food production. I just never researched it before. However, as I happen to be a very curious person, I couldn’t help but wonder what is this that my children are consuming? And is it something that can be digested on a regular basis without repercussions on our health?
As it turns out, there’s a lot of information out there on this product. You could spend the next two years reading up on it. You know, if you had a soy lecithin obsession. But I’m going to break it down for you in easy terms.
First off, back in the mid-1800s lecithin was made with eggs. Now it’s most often made using soybeans. Phospholipids are extracted from soybean oil and used as an emulsifier (aka thickening agent) in products such as margarine or bottled salad dressing. What are phospholipids? Glad you asked.
You produce some phospholipids organically within your body. They make up the cell membrane. When it’s in your food, it allows fat and water to mix so that the fat moves easily through your cells and vessels. Think about how if you pour a cup of oil into a bowl of water, the two substances remain separate. Phospholipids help meld the two so that they take on a single property.
Okay, back to soy lecithin. It’s used to extend the shelf-life of foods, and to prevent them from crumbling. It improves texture and enhances nutrition. It’s in crackers, cookies, breads, pastas, meat, poultry, fish and dairy products. Not only is it used in food products, it’s also used in paints, waxes, and lubricants.
Here is what you need to know about its pros and cons:
Pro: Lecithin provides a great source of choline, which is similar to folate as it helps with brain and memory development, according to The body produces some choline, but we also ingest it through food. (Lean beef, salmon, cauliflower, and eggs are all great sources of choline.) So lecithin essentially can help with memory and cognitive function.
Con: Soy and soy products have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer for adult females. Also, in a study at John Hopkins Medical Institution, rats consumed soybeans containing genistein* (yes, I had to look up that word, too…more in a sec), which is organically a part of soybeans. These rats then had offspring with lower testosterone levels, smaller testes, and larger prostrate glands.
*Genestein is an isoflavone…yes, more research was done to figure out what that was, too. Isoflavone functions as an antioxidant as well as something that affects the body in a similar way as estrogen. It’s present in soybeans.
Pro: Lecithin helps the body break down fats. It helps the body produce more digestive juices, which in turn aids in breaking down food in the stomach.
Con: Soybeans are oftentimes genetically modified. Studies of tests performed on animals have shown that genetically modified foods have negative effects on laboratory animals, including abnormal cell growth and a high mortality birth rate. What this means for humans is up for debate.
Also, soy is one of the eight most common allergens, according to the FDA. It’s estimated that .2% of the U.S.’s population is allergic to it. However, it can be noted that most of the food made with soy lecithin has so little soy protein (which is the major allergen) that it’s difficult to know how much can be consumed before an allergic reaction occurs.
So what does this mean for the average unaware consumer? That, as usual, the jury is still out on soy lecithin’s safety. But at least now you know why it’s used and what it does. So far I have yet to discover an emulsifier that I can confidently promote as 100% safe. However, it seems to be in most of the products my family consumes, and I’m not sure I’m ready to pull the plug on those quiet yet. Though I feel the need to be more aware of what foods contain soy lecithin and how often we’re eating them. What do you think?


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