Harmful or Harmless: Soy Lecithin | Chris Kresser
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Harmful or Harmless: Soy Lecithin

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soy lecithin, is soy lecithin bad for you
Is soy lecithin bad for you? iStock.com/sergeyryzhov

Soy lecithin is one of the most ubiquitous additives in our food supply. It’s used primarily as an emulsifier, and you can find it in everything from salad dressing to tea bags. Paleo dieters avoid the brunt of it by eliminating most processed foods, but it almost always pops up in chocolate (everyone’s favorite honorary Paleo food) and often appears in supplements.

I recommend avoiding soy as a general rule, but consuming small amounts of soy lecithin as an additive is very different from, say, eating a soy burger  topped with soy cheese or drizzling soybean oil on your salad. This article will probably be more than you ever wanted to know about soy lecithin, but I wanted to do my best to get all the facts out on the table.

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What Is Soy Lecithin?

The term ‘lecithin’ can have different meanings depending on the context, but for our purposes, it refers to a mixture of phospholipids and oil. Phospholipids are a component of the cell membrane in all plants and animals, but lecithin is most often derived from sunflower kernels, rapeseed (canola), milk, soy, and egg yolks. (1)

The specific composition of soy lecithin varies depending on its manufacturer and intended use, but on average, it contains about 35% soybean oil and 16% phosphatidylcholine. (2) Phosphatidylcholine is a type of phospholipid that is abundant in liver and egg yolks, and is the primary form of choline found in foods. (3) The remaining percentage is other phospholipids and glycolipids.

To make soy lecithin, soybean oil is extracted from the raw soybeans using a chemical solvent (usually hexane). (4) Then, the crude soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process, wherein water is mixed thoroughly with the soy oil until the lecithin becomes hydrated and separates from the oil. Then, the lecithin is dried and occasionally bleached using hydrogen peroxide.

There are many claims online about soy lecithin being full of nasty chemicals left over from the production process. Not surprisingly, there aren’t many credible sources describing the chemical content of commercial soy lecithin, but I have found some relevant data about the safety of soy lecithin.

Before the ‘degumming’ step where lecithin is removed, the crude oil undergoes a multi-step process to remove the hexane. (5) However, it appears that the FDA doesn’t regulate the amount of hexane residue in food products, and one paper estimated that the residual hexane concentration of soy oil is 500-1000ppm. (6) So, it’s very possible that similar concentrations remain in the soy lecithin. (For comparison’s sake, the concentration limit for hexane in pharmaceuticals is 290ppm.) (7)

According to one analysis, total pesticide residues in crude soy oil are around 400ppb. (8) Since the pesticide concentration of the oil after degumming is similar, it’s pretty likely that some of those pesticides end up in the lecithin as well.

While it’s unfortunate that soy lecithin likely contains pesticides and solvents, I would just encourage you to keep this information in perspective. We’re exposed to hundreds of chemical toxins every day in our air, water, household products, and food, and contaminants in soy lecithin will contribute only slightly to your overall toxic load. After all, we’re talking parts per million and parts per billion, and soy lecithin itself usually makes up no more than 1% of processed foods. (9)

Of course, in an ideal world, we would be able to avoid these things altogether, and I certainly recommend reducing your exposure as much as possible. It’s also a good idea to make sure your detox systems are functioning effectively. But unless you have a severe chemical sensitivity to hexane or pesticides, occasionally consuming small amounts is not worth getting bent out of shape over.

Allergies

Soy allergies are triggered by soy proteins, so whether lecithin triggers an allergic response or not depends on its protein content. One analysis found protein concentrations ranging from 100 to 1,400ppm in six different soy lecithin samples. (10) (For reference, the new FDA gluten-free labeling law requires a gluten concentration of less than 20ppm.) (11) Another analysis of six different lecithin samples found that four had sufficient protein to trigger an IgE-mediated response in people with soy allergies, while two contained no detectable protein at all. (12) However, another study performed similar testing and concluded that even if protein is present in soy lecithin, it’s not a significant allergen for people with soybean allergies. (13)

It’s clear that the source of the soy lecithin is a major determinant in whether or not it will present a problem for those with soy allergies, but if you have a soy allergy, I’d say better safe than sorry. However, because protein is present in such a low concentration, and soy lecithin itself usually makes up no more than 1% of processed foods, it’s probably not a problem for those with minor sensitivities to soy.

GMO

Most of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified, so unless the label says ‘organic soy lecithin,’ it probably came from a genetically modified soybean. You know I’m not a fan of GMOs, due to the presence of potentially transferrable DNA and potentially immunogenic proteins. However, as I discussed in the section on allergies, soy lecithin contains very little soy protein, and lecithin from some sources contains no detectable protein at all. Soy lecithin also contains very little DNA, and the DNA present is usually degraded to the extent that it’s impossible to tell whether the soy is genetically modified or not. (14) Thus, most of the risks associated with consumption of GMOs aren’t relevant for soy lecithin, and shouldn’t be cause for concern.

Phytoestrogens

Soy is the greatest food source of phytoestrogens, and one group of researchers discovered significant estrogenic activity in soy lecithin. (15) Interestingly, none of the soy lecithin they tested contained genistein, which is the predominant phytoestrogen in soy. They concluded that “a so-far unidentified estrogen-like compound” is present in soy lecithin that accounts for its estrogenic activity.

We know how problematic phytoestrogens can be, but again, the dose makes the poison. Remember, soy isn’t the only source of phytoestrogens we’re exposed to. (Did you know that flaxseed is also a significant source of phytoestrogens? In fact, one study showed that supplementation with ground flaxseed altered estrogen metabolism even more than supplementation with soy flour.) It’s definitely best to keep phytoestrogens to a minimum, and individuals dealing with cancer or fertility problems might want to avoid them more strictly. But for most generally healthy people, the small amounts of phytoestrogens from soy lecithin shouldn’t be a problem.

Toxicity

One study that has been used widely as ammunition against soy lecithin is titled “Effects of a Commercial Soy Lecithin Preparation on Development of Sensorimotor Behavior and Brain Biochemistry in the Rat.” Researchers found that soy lecithin in concentrations of 2% and 5% in the diets of pregnant and newborn rats resulted in impaired reflexes and swimming ability, along with other cognitive deficiencies.

It’s important to understand that these effects are due to choline toxicity, not soy lecithin per se. The elevated brain/body weight ratios, plus elevated acetylcholine and choline acetyltransferase levels that resulted from soy lecithin supplementation were caused by the phosphatidylcholine, and would’ve still occurred even if they had used a source of phosphatidylcholine other than soy; even egg yolks.

It would be very difficult to consume as much choline as these rats did, especially from soy lecithin. In fact, most people are deficient in choline! This is just another case of a study being misinterpreted, and you certainly don’t need to worry about soy lecithin causing developmental problems.

Therapeutic Uses

I believe I’ve covered all of the main concerns about soy lecithin, but it’s worth mentioning that soy lecithin is also being recommended and consumed as a dietary supplement. There is a growing body of research supporting its use for improving blood lipids, reducing inflammation, and treating neurological disorders. (16) For instance, one study found that after 2 months of supplementing with 500mg of soy lecithin per day, total cholesterol levels fell by 42% and LDL levels decreased by 56%. (17)

However, most of these studies involve supplementation with a purified form of soy lecithin, which usually contains less soy oil and more phosphatidylcholine than the commercial soy lecithin that shows up in foods. Additionally, isolated phosphatidylcholine is often referred to as ‘lecithin’ in scientific contexts, so some studies supplementing with ‘soy lecithin’ are really just supplementing with phosphatidylcholine.

So once again, it’s not the soy lecithin; it’s the choline. Luckily, you can derive all the benefits of phosphatidylcholine supplementation just by increasing your consumption of choline-rich foods like egg yolks and liver.

So, What to Do?

The only people who need to make a point of avoiding soy lecithin are those with severe soy allergies or chemical sensitivities, and of course, those who notice that they personally react badly to it. And if you don’t have a soy allergy, almost all of the remaining concerns about soy lecithin (pesticides, solvents, and GMOs) can be completely eliminated by purchasing products that contain organic soy lecithin.

But for the vast majority of the population, even conventional soy lecithin isn’t worth worrying about one way or the other. If it’s just as easy for you to avoid it as it is to consume it, then do so. (For example, Enjoy Life is one popular brand of chocolate that is soy-free.) Ultimately, I think most people can just enjoy their occasional chocolate treat without worrying about whether it contains soy lecithin.

374 Comments

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  1. Hi! I am a little confounded by the information that says soy lecithin has estrogenic activity, because the only information I was able to find online said that there was no phytoestrogens in lecithin after it’s processing. This is an important issue with women who have estrogen-positive breast cancer. So now another safe way to deliver vitamin C is no longer safe? We were taking the new kind of delivery system by LiveOn Labs, of soy nanobubbles delivering dissolved C straight through the gut into the bloodstream. This is heartbreaking to me, because my cousin has this breast cancer and we both felt it was safe based on several articles and one medical study abstract, but she has developed new tumors in spite of doing everything she can to filter her water, give up processed foods, changing to organic toiletries, and in general reading all labels. She is off the lipospheric C and now just takes the Ester C. I don’t know what to believe anymore!

    • Hello Tess, There is another very effective way to take vitamin C, dissolve the crystals in water with half as much baking soda and after it stops fizzing, drink. Here is a video of Captain Randall the author of Forbidden Healing showing how: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1TOAHTDeO4s

      I just use 1/4t of vitamin C (this is 1g) and 1/8t of baking soda, twice a day.
      Take care, Molly

      • I have not seen this, but do wonder how the baking soda helps get it through the gut without breaking down the C. I will certainly check this out. I read the British published book “Ascorbate” which was fascinating, and never knew that C in pill or capsule breaks down so much in the stomach that only about 30% actually makes it into the bloodstream. It’s a great, informative book about how important higher levels of C are and how stubbornly low our own nutrition standards are regarding C.

        • Hi Tess! My husband and I also take the liposomal vitamin c (though, we make our own) and really like the way it works. I have often wondered whether or not the soy lecithin has an effect on my hormones. It seems when I take it my mood changes. We have, however, used sunflower lecithin as a substitute, but I am not sure that it works as well as soy lecithin. Anyway, just wanted to let you know that there are other lecithins on the market. After reading about the use of sunflower lecithin in dark chocolate, I am wondering if the amount of sunflower lecithin just needs to be changed in liposomal vitamin c.

    • Please take a look at the research(ers) associated with grassrootshealth net (or carole baggerly). And check out vitamindcouncil org. I don’t think I have cancer, but vitamin d made a huge difference for an ongoing problem I have. Among its uses by different cells of the body: to contain tissue (valuable anticancer and potentially stroke and other), allow some antibodies to function (powerful against the flu and other), prevent/reverse multiple sclerosis and generally improve certain types of body aches/pains, help you sleep, valuable to heart and lung health. I took around 30,000 IU/day for a year and maybe about half of that since. To give you an idea, 600/day is the US recommended allowance even though it is recognized that that is too little (it’s assume you get more from sun) and much higher quantities have been necessary to show results in cancer and other studies. You body may or may not need it in different quantities (eg, used up faster when fighting the flu, cancer, etc). A lot of recent US maladies have likely come from the advice of using sunscreen so much rather than get the 10-20 minutes of midday (UVB) sunlight needed for health. Some parts of the hemispheres (away from equator) don’t get much UVB. Some research even shows indoor workers with 3x rate of melanoma than those who work outside (less UVB and higher UVA since in part windows filter out UVB so roll down window during the middle day for at least a few minutes if you can). Please look at the research and try this natural ..lifesaver. It correlates low in people with many types of cancers. I am biased towards it and fairly sure it is much more than mere correlation (and test tubes have shown powerful results, btw), but it doesn’t hurt to at a minimum make sure you are in a range considered healthy. Blood test is a pin prick and can be for about $60. Most doctors don’t know of the modern research and studies. It’s very active research area.

      Sample Carole quote from skinnymom com: How I’m feeling now: Very, very committed to pursuing primary prevention, especially through the active use of vitamin D. It is currently estimated that at least 50-80 percent of breast cancer could be prevented with a serum level (D) of about 50 ng/ml (average in the US is about 25 ng/ml). I think the worst part of the whole process is the “treatment.” I have stated openly that I think it’s barbaric. I have just discovered (eight years later) further damage to my heart/arteries due to the radiation treatment.

    • I am not sure that is all you are doing, but you may want to read up on the Gerson Protocol and all other literature that promotes a healthy raw whole-foods diet to help with cancer.

      As a start, review this website and watch the DVD “The Gerson Miracle” Netfix has it for free.

      http://gerson.org/gerpress/the-gerson-therapy

    • Mayo Clinic has a web site that sates no male child should ever be put on soy milk, due to estrogen content. Also, that any male still wishing to have children should avoid soy, as it will reduce testosterone levels. I have had estrogen-positive breast cancer and read all labels as I have found that soy lechtin/protein in so many products; the risk is too high for me to take any chances.

      • I certainly wouldn’t worry about soy consumption and fertility. China and Japan have a long history of high soy consumption and they now have the highest populations. Ergo, fertility unaffected.

        Japan also had among the lowest breast cancer rates in the world until about a decade ago when the birth control pill was made legal. I’m sure you can find the same stats of other countries with soy-based diets. Ergo, it has not increased breast cancer rates in any noticeable way.

  2. Can anyone comment about soy and infertility in men? Also some guys are taking lecithin granules such as (NOW non Gmo) to increase SPERM volume. Lecithin is a major ingredient in Sperm. There seems to be some information out there, that increasing intake of raw eggs or soy lecithin can really increase sperm volume. Would liver also help this? I guess it has Choline but not sure. Seems like the wise choice would be cage free, good diet, raw eggs in a smoothie perhaps. Yeah Soy is everywhere it’s really hard to avoid. I mean Soybean oil with show up in a can of water based Tuna! Some Soy products have to be worse than others. I mean I’m not giving up flavoring my Stir Fry with a little low sodium Soy sauce. Or using a healthy as i can find Stir Fry sauce. Which is a really tough task. Their all mostly salty MSG crap! Maggie Ginns is the best and tastiest iv’e found. What about non GMO Tofu and a cultured soy product like Tempah?

    • Have a look at the populations / densities of countries, such as Japan, that consume large amounts of soy per average person.

      If anything, soy increases fertility. I’ve not seen a single study that says it decreases it. Only assumptions based on similarity to estrogren.

    • High intake levels of soy and soy products have been shown to produce or add to your estrogen levels, lowering sperm count and T-levels (lots of effects for men). Normal intake of soy is about 25 grams, but as I get older and my natural ability to produce T decreases, I have reduced the amount of soy intake. For women an increased chance of breast and cervical cancer may exist with high levels of estrogen. Also bone density will decrease if the levels of T decreases. Just think of T levels being inversely proportional to estrogen levels as a rule of thumb.

    • No, I know both sides of the soy issue and choose to stay away unless it is fermented and then only in moderation. Soy formula was approved by WIC back in 1980 and now those women who were fed soy formula have thyroid issues. Breast cancer rates are ever increasing and girls as young as 7 are starting their periods and developing breasts. There are no studies by anyone other than the soy industry to prove to me that soy is safe and over 90% of it is GMO. Too much is unknown. isishttp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3074428/

  3. Found the article on sugar very enlightening, thank you.
    Please explain to me if soy protein powder, which I have been taking for years as a supplement, is harmful to me. I assume it is not fermented. I am female aged 75 and I run and lift weights.
    Thank you
    Regards Carla

    • If it’s not fermented, I say stay away from it. Even then in moderation. I simply don’t like or trust it! I too wonder who is paying Chris to pass out this mis-information. The soy producers? In Robyn O’Brien’s book called The Unhealthy Truth, she tells how to find out by typing in the words disclosure, funding or speakers bureau, consulting fee after their names. This goes for Dr.’s organizations or anyone who calls themselves an expert. Most times you can simply follow the money to their opinion.

  4. So from reading this it seams to me that men should do their best to not consume any soy products or flax seed? I’m a beginning body builder and I want to increase my test levels not my estrogen levels.

  5. I would never consume anything soy especially if it is not Non GMO and or fermented. Get sunflower lecithin instead. If your child has food allergies ie: peanut he/she is 85% more likely to also be allergic to soy. I’d like to know who funded this article. My guess is the soy foundation!

  6. I’ve not heard of the brand Alter Ego that Emma mentions, but here in the UK I have the choice of Lindt Excellence or Tesco Finest Single Origin chocolate (their Dominican Republic 85% Dark, for instance, is yummy!)

  7. Just an FYI- there’s a brand called Alter Eco that makes chocolate that tastes normal and delicious and doesn’t contain soy lecithin 🙂

  8. Soy may not be dangerous for the body but most of it is made with seriously dangerous toxic for the soil, air, water and people living closed by, so for the sake of supporting a better environment, including the people living around, I strongly suggest we all get off soy totally. Lecithin from sunflower, eggs, liver, pollen, etc. are totally fine.

  9. I am a food lover but always make sure what i am putting into my stomach before taking it. and mostly i love the natural foods and not the chemical once.

  10. I had severe sinus infections for almost 6 years after living in a mold infested house. I tried everything to get rid of them and eventually found one site that suggested Soy Lecithin might be connected to sinus inflammation. I cut it out and the sinus infections stopped. Every now and then I’ll get an infection and discover that a piece of sliced cheese or cake at a party contained soy lecithin. It’s bizarre and I can’t make sense of it… but it works.

  11. hi
    thanks for clearing mis-conceptions as well, based on facts, regarding hexane impurity and FDA limit.

    My father[age-85yr] under treatment for moderate to severe dementia of Alzheimer type with both drugs
    [ mamentine HCL in morning and Donep in night- each 10 mg.]
    homeo trtmt is also showed good effect and he is still independent at Home.
    is any experimentation with cooked soyabeans as an alternative to licithin.
    may be as pure and cheap source of licithin.
    can you kindly analyze cooked soyabeans and study and
    clarify and suggest….
    thnx n rg.
    sachin.

  12. Thanks for making hopelessly complex science readable for the average person so that he/she can instruct himself/herself.

  13. And they put it in infant formula. What it makes with a male baby’s brain is not to hard to guess.

  14. Hi Chris, the great dr Jensen highly recommended soy lecithin. Are you aware of the studies using flax seed that helped the body metabolize estrogen into the cancer protective metabolites? You can check Pubmed for studies of it’s effectiveness with this and prostate cancer. It’s complicated, but the okinawans for example have 80% breast and prostate cancer than we do, yet eat the highest amour of tofu.

  15. Really good article. You didn’t go all alarmist like many sites I have visited. You stuck to facts and put things in perspective. Well done.

  16. After such a long article and trying to show how you are “quashing” all the “mis-placed” concerns, there wasn’t a word mentioned about ppl dealing with Thyroid as a condition and that Soy products have been directly linked with affecting the Thyroid Gland as well as its interactions with the Thyroxine drugs efficacy. An answer to that question could have been the most important part of your article.

    • I would like an answer to that, too. Elevated cholesterol and hypothyroid seem to go hand in hand. What can we do to lower our cholesterol?

  17. Hey,

    I found another source that said soy lecithin powder has had the estrogens and other toxic compounds removed but that the granulated form has soybean oil mixed with the powder and does contain some of these compounds. Is this enough to be concerned about, and why would they add soybean oil to the soy lecithin powder?

  18. The problem with SOY is that it contains proteins that convert to MSG. Because MSG must be included on the
    label, and people will not purchase anything containing MSG, they now use “Soy” because people do not realize that soy converts to MSG. Therefore, people will purchase products with “Soy” or “Soy Lecithin” or any Soy products, as they are not aware that the body converts it to MSG. that is the way to avoid having to state MSG on the label. People do not realize that SOY is extremely damaging to the liver and related organs, can cause liver & pancreatic pain, even organ failure. Some are extracting those proteins out of Soy, making “Soy Lecithin”, to avoid the conversion. Soy Lecithin is now commonly used as a mixing emulsifier, especially with chocolate. The sad fact is that you can only extract a maximum of 70%, at best, from the soy, therefore, Soy Lecithin generates at least 30% or more MSG compared to regular Soy. Although Soy and Soy Lecithin have been used for many years in cooking, recently included in lecithin form as an emulsifying agent, it should be banned because it is a tool to avoid including “MSG” on their label, increasing the potential of devastating health problems.

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