Welcome back to What is it Wednesday! Last week we discussed Ester of Wood Rosin. This week the topic is Soy Lecithin.
I’ve been wanting to do some research on Soy Lecithin for awhile now. I’ve seen it listed as an ingredient in a lot of products. Stuff I eat all the time! In my kitchen this week I found soy lecithin in my Luna bars, Silk French Vanilla Creamer, Nature Made Fudge Mint Cookies and my Oroweat bread.
I started looking into it last week by typing “soy lecithin” into Google and was surprised by the amount of information that’s out there (a lot more than ester of wood rosin). It seems there are arguments both for and against soy lecithin. I’ll try and summarize and also include links so you can read more in depth if you want.
First what is it? Lecithin Guide states simply that soy lecithin is a by product of soybean processing. Click over to the site to read the entire process. But basically at the end of the processing, a soybean sludge is produced which undergoes a purification process called hexane extraction to remove harmful solvents and pesticides.
Wikipedia states that the word lecithin is used “to designate any group of yellow-brownish fatty substances occurring in animal and plant tissues, and in egg yolk, composed of phosphoric acid, choline, fatty acids, glycerol, glycolipids, triglycerides, and phospholipids.” Wikipedia also says that lecithin can be obtained via chemical or mechanical extraction from sources such as soy beans, hence the term “soy lecithin”. It is used as a food additive in food production and acts as a natural emulsifier. A typical example is cocoa and cocoa butter. Lecithin keeps the two from separating (which explains why I found soy lecithin in my Luna bars and Nature Made Fudge Mint Cookies).
Wikipedia goes on to say that the FDA gave lecithin the status “Generally Recognized as Safe”. It has also been admitted by the EU as a food additive. Both Wikipedia and Lecithin Guide state that soy lecithin can be beneficial to our health because it is an excellent source of choline.
Chow.com has a short article on soy lecithin that mainly presents the positive side. In addition to the cocoa/cocoa butter example already explained above, Chow states that soy lecithin is used in baking to make dough less sticky and help it to rise (which explains why it’s in my bread). Chow also echos the health benefits, quoting a registered dietician saying it’s high in choline and is shown to be good for brain development and heart disease prevention.
So far so good right? Although it’s processed, it comes from a natural source and can actually be beneficial to our health according to these sources. But wait just a minute. I found an article online written by Kaayla Daniels, a PhD and Clinical Nutritionist, entitled Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit that presents a little more history on how soy lecithin came to be discovered and used in food production. I encourage you to read through it if you have time. It’s an excerpt from a book and appears to be well cited.
And what about this hexane business? Soy lecithin is typically processed with hexane, which is obtained by the refining of crude oil. But what really gets me is that according to Wikipedia sources, the long term toxicity of hexane to humans is well known. Extensive peripheral nervous system failure with initial symptoms like tingling in the arms and legs followed by muscular weakness.
Granted the amounts of hexane required to produce these types of symptoms are much, much higher than the amount that winds up in the soy lecithin in my cookies. But still it’s somewhat disturbing that hexane is allowed in food production when it is a known toxin. And interestingly enough, the food oil extraction industry has been considering switching to other solvents instead of hexane (from Wikipedia in the Toxicity section).
There is such a thing as organic soy lecithin. I found a post on Treehuger.com from 2008 that discusses the organic version. Unless the ingredient list specifically says “organic soy lecithin”, the soy lecithin is made from GMO soybeans sprayed with pesticides and processed with hexane. Organic soy lecithin is made from organically grown, non GMO soybeans and is not extracted with the use of hexane.
However, to be labeled as “Organic” under USDA rules, only 95% of the ingredients of a product have to be organic. The remaining 5% of ingredients are allowed to come from conventional ingredients that are not available organically. To spur the growth of organic products in the mid-90s, the USDA came up with a list of ingredients (the National List) that were not available as organics, therefore the conventional version was allowed in organic-labeled food. Soy lecithin was not available as organic back then so it made the list.
What does this mean? It means that food labeled as “organic” can still contain conventional soy lecithin as long as it’s under 5% of the total ingredients. See also this article on Cornucopia, which explains that the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) actually later voted to remove liquid soy lecithin from the National List, but did not remove dry lecithin from the list.
The bottom line is that you can’t rely on the word “organic” on the front to know whether or not organic soy lecithin was used. You have to read the ingredients.
I really find this stuff interesting to delve into. What are your thoughts after reading all this information? Were you surprised by anything presented? For me, I was surprised by the fact that certain conventional ingredients are allowed in organically labeled foods. I did not know that before today. I feel okay about organic soy lecithin, since it’s not produced with hexane. However I may start trying to avoid the conventional soy lecithin. Which means I’ll have to find a new bread or start making my own.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below! I would love to know what you think.