I was going through my cabinets the other day and pulled out some old raspberry tea. I was trying to clean-out the rest of my “non-real food”. I thought, “I bet this is okay to keep. It’s just tea.” When I flipped to the ingredients, I was shocked at the laundry list of ingredients with “natural other flavors” (huh?) and soy lecithin in it. Why would there need to be soy in my tea? That box was put immediately into the trash.
Then we were at the health food store last night, and my husband said: “‘Organic Soy Lecithin’, that’s the first time I’ve seen that organic.” It got the gears turning in my head, why is this soy based additive in what seems like almost everything?
What is Soy Lecithin?
Soy Lecithin is used primarily as a stabilizing emulsifier (i.e., used to blend oil and water, like when egg yolks are used in a traditional Caesar salad dressing). Soy Lecithin is used in foods across the board, from creamy foods like bottled salad dressings to tea to chocolate to infant formula. Soy lecithin is what gives chocolate the smooth, creaminess we all love. And I have even found soy lecithin in organic chocolate chips and chocolate bars. And since Soy Lecithin has stabilizing ability with emulsification, it is also used to prolong the shelf life of the products that it is used in (i.e., boxed foods, chocolate, mayonnaise).
Soy Lecithin can also be found in the supplement aisle of your favorite food store, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in September 2001. Soy Lecithin is rich in choline, a property that supposedly reduces the “bad” cholesterol. There have been conflicting studies, however, on the benefits of taking this supplement and if it truly does reduce the risk for heart disease.
It also is considered to be a surfactant, something that is a common term found when purchasing household cleaners. Surfactants allow liquids to spread out and become absorbed more quickly by breaking surface tension (which is why soy lecithin is used in many prepackaged cake batters).
Soy Lecithin is also known for its “anti-stickiness” property – keeping cooking sprays from becoming gummy and making bread dough easier to work with. It also has an anti-foaming property, which is helpful in keeping those same cooking sprays coming out more oily than foamy.
Soy Lecithin is also used in make-up products, to help the skin become “softer” and allow the other elements in the make-up to sink into your skin (which is usually made up of harsh chemicals and unnatural products). There are many types of lecithin used in our foods, as an article from the Huffington Post explains:
“Lecithin isn’t always made from soybeans; it’s also present in egg yolks, liver, peanuts, wheat germ (1), and canola (rapeseed) oil. Soy lecithin is the most common type of lecithin because it’s a byproduct which is easily and inexpensively derived from soybean oil manufacturing. (Soybean oil accounts for the lion’s share of vegetable oils in North America.)” (source)
How is Soy Lecithin Derived?
“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.7
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 1939.8” (source)
Well, if that isn’t unappetizing, I don’t know what is. Here is a product that is found in most items you pick up and look at in the organic and non-organic sides of the store (ice cream, coffee creamers, etc.) and it’s sludge. Dried sludge.
Concerns About Soy
The way soy lecithin is made is pretty scary. That same Huffington Post article explains some other concerns surrounding soy lecithin:
“Others dislike soy lecithin because it’s ‘artificial.’ While lecithin is naturally occurring in soybeans, it’s usually extracted using harsh chemical solvents. The last major concern regarding soy lecithin is that, like most soybean products, it is usually derived from genetically modified (GM) soybean plants. Since most soybean and corn crops grown in North America are GM, it can be difficult to avoid them completely. If GM soy lecithin bothers you, look for a label that says ‘organic soy lecithin’ or ‘organic lecithin,’ since organic ingredients can only be made from non-GM plant sources.” (source)
Not only is Soy Lecithin a concern for people with allergies to soy, but also the fact that most soy beans in the U.S. market are Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) is just as concerning. The only way to avoid GMOs is to purchase items that explicitly say “organic soy”; but even then, the organic soy still contains properties that can be harmful to your health like naturally occurring toxins, plant estrogens, and anti-nutrients.
I love this video by the great Dr. Kaayla T. Daniels, The Naughty Nutritionist, talking about the dangers of soy:
To Soy Lecithin or Not to Soy Lecithin?
After the research I have done, I am a proponent of not consuming soy, especially in commercially produced products. The risk of GMOs, pesticides, and harmful health disadvantages keep me steering clear.
With that said, I do not think it’s bad on occasion to enjoy organic soy sauce with sushi, eat a bowl of miso soup, or consume a product with a small amount of organic soy in moderation every now and then (i.e., a few times a month). But it definitely is not a staple in my diet. After discovering how soy lecithin is made: I don’t want to eat it! Leftover soybean sludge, dried, bleached, and added to food – no thank you!
I was a vegetarian for many years, and I ate and drank a lot of soy. Oh boy, do I regret that. This is why I am on my real food journey, eating real whole foods and learning everything I can about foods. It’s all about balance and putting the right foods into your body. That’s why I choose to avoid soy.
For more information on the dangers of soy, I would recommend this great book by Dr. Kaayla T. Daniels entitled “The Whole Soy Story“.