Ingredients in the Spotlight – Soy Lecithin

Ingredients in the Spotlight – Soy Lecithin

Derived from soybeans, a very common and important crop in the US, soy lecithin is one of the most ubiquitous additives in our food supply. However, despite the fact that it appears on the ingredient lists of everything from chocolate to cheese slices, many consumers aren’t familiar with the basic facts about this product. Today, the ingredient in the spotlight is soy lecithin. Read on to take a closer look at what this widely used additive is all about.

What is soy lecithin?

Lecithin is the popularly used commercial name for a compound that is a mixture of phospholipids and oil (phospholipids are a naturally occurring substance found in the cell membranes of all living organisms). Lecithin can come from a variety of sources, such as sunflower seeds, canola, milk, and egg yolks; soy lecithin, as the name indicates, is derived from soybeans. Because of its many diverse applications, soy lecithin is easily one of the most complex and versatile substances produced from soybeans.

How is soy lecithin made?

The production of soy lecithin begins with the extraction of soybean oil from raw soybeans (this step relies on a chemical solvent, which is later removed through a multi-step process). The crude soybean oil is then “degummed,” which means that water is mixed into the soybean oil until the lecithin becomes hydrated, causing it to separate from the oil. Finally, the lecithin is dried and prepared for commercial use, which sometimes involves bleaching with hydrogen peroxide.

How long has soy lecithin been used as an additive?

Although it’s only recently that soy lecithin has captured public interest (and concern), the additive itself has been around for nearly a century. The French chemist and researcher Theodore Gobley is credited with the general discovery of lecithin in 1846. Following a series of experiments, Gobley isolated a soft, viscous substance from egg yolks which made an emulsion when mixed with water; in 1850, he named this substance “lecithin.”

Decades later, as the soybean industries in Europe expanded in the early 20th century, specific research into the production of lecithin from soybean oil was explored by German researchers. Hermann Bollmann, a scientist based in Hamburg, received the first patent for the extraction of soy lecithin from soybean oil in 1923.

Why is soy lecithin used in foods?

In the food industry, soy lecithin is used first and foremost as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers are substances that allow oil and water to mix together into a smooth solution, which ordinarily doesn’t happen. Soy lecithin, therefore, helps to give many oil-and-water products a creamy and consistent texture by enabling oils to bond to other ingredients. In addition, soy lecithin can also be used as a surfactant, which is a substance that encourages liquids to spread out faster and be absorbed more quickly by reducing their surface tension.

soy beans

What kinds of foods contain soy lecithin?

Given the properties described above, it’s not surprising that soy lecithin is widely used in foods that contain high amounts of oil, such as salad dressings, mayonnaise, and margarine. Soy lecithin is also used in chocolate—you might not think of chocolate as an oil-and-water mixture, but in fact, the fatty cocoa butter in chocolate needs a little help from substances like soy lecithin to prevent it from separating from the cocoa solids and dairy that make up the rest of the final chocolate product. As a surfactant, soy lecithin is often added to cake mixes and other ready-to-use baking ingredients to allow liquid ingredients to be stirred in more easily without lumps forming in the batter.

Is soy lecithin safe?

Soy lecithin, like other food ingredients, has been extensively studied, tested, and proven safe for use in foods (it holds a Generally Recognized as Safe, or GRAS, designation from the FDA). In addition, soy lecithin is generally viewed as safe for people with a soy allergy because most of the soy proteins—which are the elements that cause an allergic reaction—are removed during the manufacturing process.

What are some advantages of soy lecithin?

Because it acts as an emulsifier and imparts a smooth, creamy texture, soy lecithin can serve as a substitute for unhealthy fats in many foods, which is helpful for people who are trying to reduce their fat intake. Similarly, soy lecithin can create foams with a texture similar to egg whites, which allow bartenders to avoid using raw eggs in cocktails, for example. Finally, in addition to its use in foods, soy lecithin is often recommended and consumed as a dietary supplement, as it has been linked to a variety of health benefits including lowered cholesterol, reduced inflammation, and use in the treatment of neurological disorders.

Why is soy lecithin sometimes criticized?

The two biggest criticisms leveled at soy lecithin focus on its source material (because most soybeans in the US are GMO crops, soy lecithin cannot be considered a GM-free product), and the way it is produced (the chemical solvents used to extract soybean oil from raw soybeans are a source of concern for some consumers).

Mark CrumpackerMark Crumpacker is the CMO and President of Zume Culinary at Zume Inc.,  the Silicon Valley company that has revolutionized the pizza delivery business through its fleet of mobile kitchens outfitted with smart ovens. Mark has more than two decades of experience in the realm of consumer behavior and its effect on brands’ marketing strategies. Mark studied economics at the University of Colorado and earned a bachelor of fine arts in advertising and graphic design from the ArtCenter College of Design. You can follow Mark on Twitter at @markcrumpacker and read his full bio here