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Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit

Home>Departments>Soy Alert>Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit

Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit

By Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN

Lecithin is an emulsifying substance that is found in the cells of all living organisms. The French scientist Maurice Gobley discovered lecithin in 1805 and named it “lekithos” after the Greek word for “egg yolk.” Until it was recovered from the waste products of soybean processing in the 1930s, eggs were the primary source of commercial lecithin. Today lecithin is the generic name given to a whole class of fat-and-water soluble compounds called phospholipids. Levels of phospholipids in soybean oils range from 1.48 to 3.08 percent, which is considerably higher than the 0.5 percent typically found in vegetable oils, but far less than the 30 percent found in egg yolks.1-6


Soybean lecithin comes from sludge left after crude soy oil goes through a “degumming” process. It is a waste product containing solvents and pesticides and has a consistency ranging from a gummy fluid to a plastic solid. Before being bleached to a more appealing light yellow, the color of lecithin ranges from a dirty tan to reddish brown. The hexane extraction process commonly used in soybean oil manufacture today yields less lecithin than the older ethanol-benzol process, but produces a more marketable lecithin with better color, reduced odor and less bitter flavor.7

Historian William Shurtleff reports that the expansion of the soybean crushing and soy oil refining industries in Europe after 1908 led to a problem disposing the increasing amounts of fermenting, foul-smelling sludge. German companies then decided to vacuum dry the sludge, patent the process and sell it as “soybean lecithin.” Scientists hired to find some use for the substance cooked up more than a thousand new uses by 1939.8

Today lecithin is ubiquitous in the processed food supply. It is most commonly used as an emulsifier to keep water and fats from separating in foods such as margarine, peanut butter, chocolate candies, ice cream, coffee creamers and infant formulas. Lecithin also helps prevent product spoilage, extending shelf life in the marketplace. In industry kitchens, it is used to improve mixing, speed crystallization, prevent “weeping,” and stop spattering, lumping and sticking. Used in cosmetics, lecithin softens the skin and helps other ingredients penetrate the skin barrier. A more water-loving version known as “deoiled lecithin” reduces the time required to shut down and clean the extruders used in the manufacture of textured vegetable protein and other soy products.9,10

In theory, lecithin manufacture eliminates all soy proteins, making it hypoallergenic. In reality, minute amounts of soy protein always remain in lecithin as well as in soy oil. Three components of soy protein have been identified in soy lecithin, including the Kunitz trypsin inhibitor, which has a track record of triggering severe allergic reactions even in the most minuscule quantities. The presence of lecithin in so many food and cosmetic products poses a special danger for people with soy allergies.11-13


Lecithin has been touted for years as a wonder food capable of combating atherosclerosis, multiple sclerosis, liver cirrhosis, gall stones, psoriasis, eczema, scleroderma, anxiety, tremors and brain aging. Because it is well known that the human body uses phospholipids to build strong, flexible cell membranes and to facilitate nerve transmission, health claims have been made for soy lecithin since the 1920s. Dr. A. A. Horvath, a leading purveyor of soybean health claims at the time, thought it could be used in “nerve tonics” or to help alcoholics reduce the effects of intoxication and withdrawal. In 1934, an article entitled “A Comfortable and Spontaneous Cure for the Opium Habit by Means of Lecithin” was written by Chinese researchers and published in an English language medical journal.14

Lecithin, though, did not capture the popular imagination until the 1960s and 1970s when the bestselling health authors Adelle Davis, Linda Clark and Mary Ann Crenshaw hyped lecithin in their many books, including Let’s Get Well, Secrets of Health and Beauty and The Natural Way to Super Beauty: Featuring the Amazing Lecithin, Apple Cider Vinegar, B-6 and Kelp Diet.15-17

Lecithin did not become a star of the health food circuit by accident. Research took off during the early 1930s, right when lecithin production became commercially viable. In 1939, the American Lecithin Company began sponsoring research studies, and published the most promising in a 23-page booklet entitled Soybean Lecithin in 1944. The company, not coincidentally introduced a health food cookie with a lecithin filling known as the “Lexo Wafer” and a lecithin/wheat germ supplement called Granulestin. In the mid 1970s, Natterman, a lecithin marketing company based in Germany, hired scientists at various health clinics to experiment with lecithin and to write scientific articles about it. These “check book” scientists coined the term “essential phospholipids” an inaccurate term since a healthy body can produce its own phospholipids from phosphorous and lipids.18

In September 2001, lecithin got a boost when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) authorized products containing enough of it to bear labels such as “A good source of choline.” Producers of soy lecithin hope to find ways to help the new health claim lift demand for lecithin and increase prices in what has been a soft market. Eggs, milk and soy products are the leading dietary sources of choline, according to recent research conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and at Duke University.19-21


Because many lecithin products sold in health food stores contain less than 30 percent choline, many clinicians prefer to use the more potent Phosphatidylcholine (PC) or its even more powerful derivative drug Glyceryl-phosphorylcholine (GPC). Both are being used to prevent and reverse dementia, improve cognitive function, increase human growth hormone (hGH) release, and to treat brain disorders such as damage from stroke. PC and GPC may help build nerve cell membranes, facilitate electrical transmission in the brain, hold membrane proteins in place, and produce the neurotransmitter acetylcholine.22-24 However, studies on soy lecithin, PC, and brain aging have been inconsistent and contradictory ever since the 1920s. Generally, lecithin is regarded as safe except for people who are highly allergic to soy. However, the late Robert Atkins, MD, advised patients not to take large doses of supplemental lecithin without extra vitamin C to protect them from the nitrosamines formed from choline metabolism. Trimethylamine and dimethylamine, which are metabolized by bacteria in the intestines from choline, are important precurors to N-nitrosodimethylamine, a potent carcinogen in a wide variety of animal species.25-27


Phosphatidyl serine (PS) — another popular phospholipid that improves brain function and mental acuity – nearly always comes from soy oil. Most of the scientific studies proving its efficacy, however, come from bovine sources, which also contain DHA as part of the structure.28-31 Plant oils never contain readymade DHA. Indeed, the entire fatty acid structure is different; bovine derived PS is rich in stearic and oleic acids, while soy PS is rich in linoleic and palmitic acids.32 Complicating matters further, the PS naturally formed in the human body consists of 37.5 percent stearic acid and 24.2 percent arachidonic acid.33 Yet soy-derived PS seems to help many people.34-36

Russell Blaylock, MD, author of Excitotoxins, the Taste that Kills, explains that the probable reason PS works is because its chemical structure is similar to that of L-glutamate, the trouble-making neurotransmitter, amino acid and excitotoxin that exists in high concentration in MSG (monosodium glutamate), HVP (hydrolyzed vegetable protein) and “natural flavorings” and foods containing these soy derivatives. (See Chapter 11.) Because PS competes with glutamate, it may protect us from glutamate toxicity.37 Ironically, the expensive soy-derived supplement PS is being used to undo damage that may be caused in part by the cheap soy in processed foods


The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved lysophosphatidyl-ethanolamine (LPE), another phosphatidyl substance commercially extracted from soybeans, for use as a fruit ripener and shelf-life extender. LPE – once called cephalin — is now being used to treat grapes, cranberries, strawberries, blueberries, apples, tomatoes, and cut flowers.

When applied to fruits that are nearly ripe – going into puberty, so to speak — LPE promotes ripening. When applied to picked fruit or cut flowers that are already ripe or blooming, however, it will “reduce senescence by inhibiting some of the enzymes involved in membrane breakdown.” This can dramatically extend shelf life.38 Whether the substance could also keep human bodies fresh for funeral home viewings has not yet been investigated.

About the Author
Kaayla Daniel is the author of The Whole Soy Story (NewTrends, Spring 2004). Visit her website at http://www.wholesoystory.com/.


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2. Berk, Zeki. Technology of production of edible flours and protein products from soybeans. FAO Agricultural Services Bulletin, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 97, 14.

3. Nash AM, Eldridge AC, Wolf WJ. Fractionation and characterization of alcohol extractions associated with soybean proteins: nonprotein components. J Agr Food Chem, 1967, 15, 1, 106-108.

4. Shurtleff, William and Aoyagi, Akiko. What Is Lecithin? Chapters 1-6 from History of Soy Lecithin. In Soyfoods: Past, Present and Future. Unpublished manuscript, (Lafayette, CA, Soyfoods Center, 1981).

5. Wood and Allison, Effects of consumption of choline and lecithin on neurological and cardiovascular systems, Life Sciences Research Office, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), 1981.

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8. Shurtleff.

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10. Shurtleff.

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14. Shurtleff.

15. Davis, Adelle. Let’s Get Well (NY, Signet/New American Library, 1965).

16. Clark, Linda. Secrets of Health and Beauty (NY, Jove, 1969).

17. Crenshaw, Mary Ann. The Natural Way to Super Beauty (NY, Dell, 1974).

18. Shurtleff.

19. Lecithin demand poised to gain on choline health claims. Chemical Business NewsBase, Chemical Market Reporter via NewsEdge Corporation 10/8/2201 posted on http://www.soyatech.com/.

20. FDA clears health claim for choline. National Press Club, Washington, DC.PR Newswire via NewsEdge Corporation. Posted 9/10/2201 on http://www.soyatech.com/.

21. Soy products —high in choline — win labeling right. News Observer, Raleigh, NC via NewsEdge Corporation, posted 9/12/2201 http://www.soyatech.com/.

22. Amenta F, Parnetti L et al. Treatment of cognitive dysfunction associated with Alzheimer’s disease with cholinergic precursors. Ineffective treatments or inappropriate approaches? Mech Ageing Dev, 2001, 122, 16, 2025-2040.

23. Ceda GP, Ceresini G et al. Alpha-Glycerylphosphyorylcholine administration increases the GH responses to gHR of young and elderly subjects. Horm Metab Res, 1992, 24, 3, 119-121.

24. Parnetti L et al. Choline alphoscerate in cognitive decline and in acute cerebrovascular disease: an analysis of published clinical data. Mec Ageing Dev, 2001, 122, 16, 2041-2055.

25. Atkins, Robert. Dr. Atkins’ Vita-Nutrient Solution (Simon and Schuster, 1998). 78-80.

26. Zeisel SH, Gettner S, Youssef M. Formation of aliphatic amine precursors of N-nitrosodimethylamine after oral administration of choline and choline analogues in the rat. Food Chem Toxicol, 1989, 27, 1, 31-34.

27. Fiume Z. Final report on the safety assessment of lecithin and hydrogenated lecithin. Int J Toxicol, 2001, 20, Suppl 1, 21-45.

28. Gelbmann CM, Muller WE. Chronic treatment with phosphatidylserine restores muscarinic cholinergic receptor deficits in the aged mouse brain. Neurobiol Aging, 1992, 3, 1, 45-50.

29. Crook TH, Tinklenberg J et al. Effects of phyosphatidylserine in age-associated memory impairment. Neurology, 1991, 41, 5, 644-699.

30. Crook T, Petrie W et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine in Alzheimer’s disease. Psychopharmacol Bull, 1992, 28, 1, 61-66.

31. Monteleone P, Beinat L et al. Effects of phosphatidylserine on the neuroendocrine respone to physical stress in humans. Neuroendocrinology, 1990, 52, 3, 243-248.

32. Sakai M, Yamatoya H, Kudo S. Pharmacological effects of phosphatidylserine enzymatically synthesized from soybean lecithin on brain function in rodents. J. Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo), 1996, 42, 1, 47-54.

33. Enig, Mary. Know Your Fats (Silver Spring, MD, Bethesda Press, 2000), 60-61.

34. Blokland A, Honig W, et al. Cognition-enhancing properties of subchronic phosphatidylserine (PS) treatment in middle-aged rats: comparison of bovine cortex PS with egg PS and soybean PS. Nutr, 1999, 15, 10, 778-783.

35. Schreiber S, Kampf-Sherf O et al. An open trial of plant-source derived phosphatydilserine for treatment of age-related cognitive decline. Isr J Psychiatry Relat Sci, 2000, 37, 4, 302-307.

36. Sakai, Yamatoya, Kudo.

37. Blaylock, Ralph. Not just another scare: toxin additives in your food and drink. Radiant Life International Health Related Articles. http://www.radiantlife.com/.

38. Ripening agent made from soy granted EPA approval. Nutra-Park Inc., Madison, WI. Business wire via NewsEdge Corporation posted 4/4/2002 on http://www.soyatech.com/.

Sidebar Article


SOY AND BLADDER CANCER: Soy proponents like to point to low rates of beast cancer in Asian countries as proof that consumption of soy can protect against cancer. They fail to mention that Asians have high rates of other types of cancer compared to westerners. A new study conducted in Singapore found that consumption of soyfood was associated with higher rates of bladder cancer, and the relationship was statistically significant. Similar results were obtained for soy protein and soy isoflavones. The soy-cancer relationship became stronger when the analysis was restricted to subjects with longer duration of follow-up (Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev 2002 Dec;11(12):1674-7).

SOY AND BREAST CANCER: The only food associated with protection against breast cancer is miso, according to a recent study performed in Japan. Women who consumed three or more bowls of miso soup containing about 25 mg genistein daily had approximately half the risk of breast cancer. Consumption of other foods containing soy, such as soybeans, tofu, deep-fried tofu or other fermented soybean products was not associated with reduced risk of breast cancer (J Natl Cancer Inst 2003;95:906-913). What this means is that Japanese women on a traditional diet eating small amounts of soy in a nourishing soup (probably fish broth) have lower rates of breast cancer. Eating large amounts of modern soy foods will not protect against breast cancer.

SOY AND MIGRAINE: A recently published case report details the onset of migraine associated with the use of soy isoflavone supplements (Neurology 2002 Oct 22;59(8):1289-90).

SOY AND THE AMAZON: You’ve all seen the t-shirts about saving the Amazon by avoiding beef. Now we find out the biggest threat to the Amazon jungles is not cattle raising but soy production. Cultivation of soybeans has lead to a 40 percent increase in deforestation last year, to nearly 10,000 square miles. Even the pastures where cows grazed until recently are being converted to soy. (New York Times, September 17, 2003)

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