If you read your labels, I’m sure that you’ve run across it because soy lecithin one of the most widely used food additives on the market today. (1)
It’s widely accepted at both conventional and health food stores, and in numerous products, yet there is surprisingly a lot of confusion about soy lecithin because people take a knee-jerk reaction to anything that has the word “soy” in it. People either love or hate the stuff but many do not really know what it is.
So, what is soy lecithin? And is it good for me?
The bottom line is that there are pros and cons to consuming soy lecithin, but it’s definitely not as bad as some make it out to be.
What is Soy Lecithin?
When seeking to answer the question, “What is soy lecithin?” our search immediately takes us to mid-19th century France. First isolated by French chemist Theodore Gobley in 1846, lecithin is a generic term to designate a variety of naturally occurring fatty compounds found in animal and plant tissues.
Composed of choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, phospholipids, phosphoric acid and triglycerides lecithin was originally isolated from egg yolk.
Today, it is regularly extracted from cottonseed, marine sources, milk, rapeseed, soybeans, and sunflower. It is usually used as a liquid but also can be purchased as granules.
By and large, the vast majority of lecithin use centers around its unique ability of being an excellent emulsifier. We all know that oil and water don’t mix, right?
When the two are placed into a solution and shaken together, the oil droplets initially spread out and appear to evenly disperse. Once the shaking stops, the oil separates from the water again. This is why lecithin is so important.
When lecithin enters the equation, oil is broken down in smaller particles in a process called emulsification making the oil droplets easier to clean or digest if eaten.
This is one of the reasons why soy lecithin is used as an additive in processed foods, medicines and supplements; it helps give these products a smooth, uniform appearance. (2) Additionally, its ability to emulsify fats makes it an ideal ingredient for nonstick cooking sprays and soaps.
Soy Lecithin Dangers & Side Effects
Although given the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) distinction by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), soy lecithin may not be as safe as manufacturers make it out to be. (3)
Some of the more commonly recognized side effects associated with consuming soy lecithin, for instance, are issues like bloating, diarrhea, mild skin rashes, nausea and stomach pain. (4)
A 1985 article published in the journal Developmental Psychobiology, however, suggests that the dangers associated with regular soy lecithin consumption may be much worse.
Testing the theory that soy lecithin can cause behavioral and neurochemical abnormalities, pregnant rats and their offspring were exposed to 2% or 5% soy lecithin diets and enrichment started as early as conception.
According to the study, “The most marked early sensorimotor deficits (reflex righting and swimming development) were seen in the 5% soy lecithin preparation group, although all soy lecithin preparation-exposed offspring had elevated brain/body weight ratios and choline acetyltransferase [ChAT] levels.” (5)
This is interesting because ChAT is responsible for the synthesis of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which is essential for memory and brain function and, when elevated, can help prevent a number of neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease.
Nonetheless, for animals exposed to lifelong 2% or 5% soy lecithin, the researchers observed that they “were hypoactive, had poor postural reflexes, and showed attenuated morphine analgesia;” meaning that it lessened the pain-killing effects of morphine.
Now, before you throw out all coconut milk and cooking spray, keep in mind that these rats were given an exorbitant amount, and it’s extremely unlikely that someone will consume a diet made up of 5% soy lecithin.
With that said, it is important to remember that, although it’s only one compound from the entire plant, soy lecithin is still made from soy.
Understanding the “Soy” in Soy Lecithin
- Denatured proteins – when heated, proteins and enzymes are destroyed in the manufacturing process, which is one causative factor of the all-too-common soy intolerance or allergy.
- Goitrogens – known to cause hypothyroidism and thyroid cancer.
- Hemagglutinin – red blood cell clotting agent that can cause a decrease in oxygen in your blood cells.
- High phytic acid – shown to reduce the mineral content in our bodies.
- Phytoestrogens/isoflavones – human estrogen imposters linked to infertility and breast cancer.
- Trypsin inhibitors – chemicals that slow down pancreatic enzymes and interfere with protein digestion.
On the other hand, fermented soy products like miso and tempeh are a completely different story and are on my “nice list” because they are a fabulous source of probiotics. In fact, natto made my list of the Great 8 Probiotic Foods!
At the end of the day, I have personally found that unfermented soy products are just not worth the risk, and I stay away from them as much as possible. And, even though soy lecithin contains only trace amounts of soy proteins from unfermented soy, my recommendation is to limit it as well.
Soy Lecithin Benefits?
On the other side of the soy lecithin debate is an exceptionally large body of research that supports it use as a healing agent.
Referred to as a fat that is “essential” to the cells in our bodies, lecithin is used both as a standalone medicine and also as a common additive in many medicines today. In spite of the side effects discussed above, lecithin has been used for years to treat a number of diseases including: (7)
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Gall bladder disorders
- Hypercholesterolemia (high cholesterol)
- Liver disorders
Of these conditions, dietary soy lecithin supplementation is most strongly connected with decreasing hyperlipidemia and influencing lipid metabolism (8)
A 2010 study published in the journal Cholesterol, for example, evaluated total cholesterol and LDL levels after soy lecithin administration in patients with diagnosed hypercholesterolemia levels.
One 500 mg soy lecithin supplement was taken by 30 volunteers every day, and the results were quite astounding: (9)
- A reduction of 40.66% in total cholesterol after 1 month.
- A reduction of 42.00% in total cholesterol after 2 months.
- A reduction of 42.05% in LDL after 1 month.
- A reduction of 56.15% in LDL after 2 months.
In addition to helping normalize cholesterol, soy lecithin supplementation has been shown to significantly increase immunity function; especially in diabetics.
For example, Brazilian researchers discovered that daily supplementation with soy lecithin caused macrophage activity (white blood cells that engulf foreign debris) of diabetic rats to increase by 29%.
Additionally, they discovered that lymphocyte (white blood cells that are fundamental to the immune system) numbers skyrocketed 92% in non-diabetic rats! (10)
One of the many keys to soy lecithin’s health benefits is a compound known as phosphatidylserine; a common phospholipid that helps make up part of the cell membranes in plants and animals.
Known to affect stress hormones adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and cortisol, phosphatidylserine derived from cow brains has been shown to dampen response to physical stress.
Testing to see how phosphatidylserine derived from soy lecithin compared, German researchers evaluated the effects that soy lecithin phosphatidic acid and phosphatidylserine complex (PAS) supplementation has on ACTH, cortisol and a psychological evaluation known as the Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory stress subscale.
Published in the Danish journal Stress, the trial compared 400 mg, 600 mg and 800 mg of PAS on groups of 20 people each. The researchers not only discovered that PAS has some pretty remarkable effects on the human psyche, they uncovered that it is dose-dependent.
Meaning, they found a sweet spot with the 400 mg PAS because it is considerably more effective at blunting serum ACTH and cortisol levels than the larger doses. (11)
Soy Lecithin Facts
Oftentimes extracted from soybean oil, one cup of soy lecithin has the following nutritional content: (12)
- 1:8 omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
- Vitamin E – 89% daily value
- Vitamin K – 501%
- Choline – 763 mg
It’s highly unlikely that anyone would ever consume this amount, so we must take these nutrition facts with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, if you purchase the organic variety, soy lecithin is a solid source of choline, which has many health benefits.
“One of the newest nutrients to be added to the list of human vitamins,” according to The George Mateljan Foundation, choline plays a key role in methylation. (13)
Literally affecting every cell in the body, methylation is a vital process to maintain human life and involves the transfer of a methyl group (1 carbon and 3 hydrogen atoms) to amino acids, enzymes and DNA. Methylation is so crucial for our health that inadequate activity has been linked to:
- Abnormal Immune Function (14)
- Alzheimer’s disease (15)
- Autism (16)
- Cancer (17)
- Cardiovascular Disease (18)
- Chronic Fatigue (19)
- Chronic Inflammation (20)
- Dementia (21)
- Diabetes (22)
- Down’s Syndrome (23)
- Fertility & Miscarriages (24)
- Multiple Sclerosis (25)
- Neurotransmitter Imbalances (26)
- Pregnancy Problems (27)
- Psychiatric Disorders (28)
Soy Lecithin Labeling Concerns
Generally speaking, soy lecithin is extracted from soybean oil, which is almost always genetically modified (GM). There is a lot of concern in natural health circles that the GM protein and DNA from the original soy crop exists, although it is largely undetectable. (29)
This concern has spurred on policy and regulatory changes in the European Union back in 2000, which passed the “Commission Regulation (EC) 50/2000” requiring food containing additives derived from GMOs to be labeled.
Because the original source for soy lecithin is nearly impossible to tract down, the EU now requires manufactures selling lecithin in Europe to use a meticulous labeling system know as “identity preservation” (IP). (30)
Stateside, the U.S. Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires soy lecithin labeling when used in food and non-food items. According to the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, the reason for this is because soy lecithin has been linked to allergies.
“Soy lecithin does contain trace levels of soy proteins and these have been found to include soy allergens. However, apparently, soy lecithin does not contain sufficient soy protein residues to provoke allergic reactions in the majority of soy-allergic consumers.
Many allergists do not even advise their soybean-allergic patients to avoid soybean lecithin when it is included as an ingredient on food products. (31)
Whether you’re concerned over the risk of developing allergies or consuming GMOs, there are several reasons to limit soy lecithin from your diet. I wouldn’t be too concerned, though, if you occasionally consume it in your natural health processed foods.