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If you read nutrition labels and ingredient lists, you’ve probably come across “soy lecithin” more than a few times. It’s actually a very popular ingredient – one of the top 10 most used ingredients in processed foods.
But what exactly is it? What does it do?
And most importantly, what are its health and nutrition characteristics?
What you need to know:
Lecithins are oily substances that occur naturally in plants (soybeans) and animals (egg yolks).
Some people use lecithin as a supplement because of its high choline content. Choline is a micronutrient that is good for heart health and brain development. But that’s not the reason it is used as an additive in foods.
Soy lecithin possesses emulsification properties. This means it can keep a candy bar “together” by making sure that the cocoa and the cocoa butter don’t separate. It is also used in bakery items to keep the dough from sticking, and to improve its ability to rise.
You can also find soy lecithin in places you wouldn’t expect, like tea bags, cough drops, prescription medications and even asthma inhalers!
Soy lecithin (also marked as E322) is extracted from soybeans either mechanically or chemically using hexane. It’s actually a byproduct of the soybean oil production.
Why do food companies use soy lecithin?
Since soybeans are one of the cheapest crops in the US (thanks in part to federal subsidies to growers), it makes sense to use a cheap, natural soy derived emulsifier in food processing.
We asked one company, Hain Celestial, why they put lecithin from soy in their tea – read their answer.
Is there a soy lecithin allergy?
Most people with soy allergies needn’t worry about products containing soy lecithin, because it is derived from the soybean oil, whereas the allergy itself relates to the soy protein. However, if you read though the comments below, you’ll see that some people with soy allergy are sensitive to soy lecithin as well.
For this reason, any product you scan with our Allergy app will show a warning: “Contains Soy” if it has soy lecithin.
Who should avoid soy lecithin?
While there are vastly differing opinions on the health benefits or detriments of soy lecithin, it is still easy to explain who would not want to use it:
- People with severe soy allergies who want to play it safe.
- People who avoid refined oils – soy lecithin is made from soy oil, which is usually made through a chemical process using hexane.
- People concerned about GMOs. Unless a product is certified non-GMO, you can assume that the soybeans used have been genetically modified. Products marked non-GMO or USDA organic should be non-GMO, but have been found on occasion to contain GMOs.
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