Is Soy Lecithin Bad for You?

Soy lecithin is a food additive most of us consume every day. It is used to make ice cream creamier. It is an important ingredient in most “low fat” foods because it has a texture similar to fat without calories. It appears in lists of ingredients for foods as diverse as pudding cups, toaster waffles, soup, and healthy whole-grain crackers. Soy lecithin is a stabilizer, antioxidant, flavor protectant, and especially an emulsifier.

Soy Lecithin

Why would you add an emulsifier to prepared foods?

As an emulsifier, lecithin disperses other ingredients throughout the mix. Adding lecithin ensures that you get the flavor in every bite. Lecithin also hydrates baked goods. They stay moist and fresh longer on the shelf. They are easier to store.

Lecithins are used in non-stick cooking sprays.

There really is a single situation in which soy lecithin can be unexpectedly harmful—when it is injected. Soy lecithin used in making IV drugs can provoke allergic reactions in rare instances. This is most likely to happen with an anesthetic called propofol, which you would only get under a doctor’s direct supervision. But if you are just consuming soy lecithin as a food ingredient, it isn’t bad for you. In fact, lecithin (although not necessarily soy lecithin) is essential to health.

What is the importance of lecithin to health?

Lecithin is a group of fatty substances that our bodies use to line cells. They give cell membranes the ability to act something like a raincoat. They keep the contents of cells from dissolving in the watery plasma of the bloodstream.

One of the most important lecithins is a substance called phosphatidylcholine. It not only is a major component of cell membranes, but it also helps fluids spread in thin layers inside the lungs.

Another important lecithin is phosphatidylserine, which is involved in signaling that tells cells when it is time to divide and when they have completed their life cycle. Other important lecithins include phosphatidylethanolamine, also an important component of cell membranes, and phosphatidic acid, which plays an important role in allowing electrolytes in and out of cells.

Lecithin supplements support good health in scientifically verified ways. There is good clinical evidence that lecithin helps teens recover from acne. Two studies have confirmed that taking lecithin as a supplement lowers LDL (“bad”) cholesterol without lowering HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Lecithin offers protection against fatty liver disease.

Of course, you get a lot more lecithin from a supplement than you get from consuming it as a food additive. Soy lecithin and lecithin from other sources have the same health benefits.

Lecithin Spoon

What’s different about soy lecithin?

Our bodies can make lecithins from fatty acids released by the digestion of food. This is only possible when we have adequate supplies of a compound called s-adenosylmethionine (better known as sam-E), but we don’t have to get all of our phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine directly from food.

Soy is just one of the foods that can be processed into lecithins. In the 1800s, lecithins were first found in egg yolks. Then they were discovered in cod liver oil and whole-fat milk. These fatty compounds are abundant in a variety of seeds, including rapeseed, cottonseed, and sunflower oil, not just soy.

Soy has become the major source of lecithin because it is so abundant and so easy to obtain. But it also is the object of some misdirected health concerns.

Is there really a problem with soy lecithin?

As we mentioned earlier, there are rare instances in which someone who has no previous soy allergy has an allergic reaction to an injected drug that is stabilized with phosphatidylcholine. And out of an abundance of caution, the US Food and Drug Administration recommends that people who have had severe reactions to soy products they have eaten or breathed in (a rare problem that can happen to people who work in factories that use soy products in food production) avoid all but a few brands of highly purified soy lecithin.

Outside of this, the only time that soy lecithin could pose any health issues is if you have a known soy allergy. In this instance, you would be best served to use sunflower lecithin as a substitute when an emulsifier is needed.

People who are generally opposed to GMO products may reject soy lecithin, not for health reasons but because they don’t want to support genetic engineering. However, there are non-GMO soy lecithin products for those consumers.

If you have never had an allergic reaction to soy products you have eaten or to skincare products that contain soy derivatives like inositol or phosphatidylcholine, soy lecithin isn’t bad for you. It makes your food taste better, stay fresh longer, and adds essential choline to your diet. Click to learn more about how to use lecithin for baking.