<Back | Home | Basics | Departments | Get Involved | Site Map | What's New
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
OUT OF THE DUMPS
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
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
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
LEC IS IN:
THE MAKING OF A WONDER FOOD
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
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
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
LEC THAT’S MORE:
PHOSPHATIDYL CHOLINE (PC)
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)
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
About the Author
is the author of The Whole Soy Story (NewTrends, Spring 2004).
Visit her website at http://www.wholesoystory.com/.
1. Smith, Allan K and Circle, Sidney J. Soybeans: Chemistry and
Technology, Vol 1, Proteins (Westport CT, Avi, 1972) 79.
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,
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),
6. Liu, KeShun. Soybeans: Chemistry, Technology, Utilization
(Gaithersburg, MD, Aspen, 1999) 32.
11. Gu X, Beardslee T et al. Identification of IgE-binding proteins in
soy lecithin. Int Arch Allergy Immunol, 2001, 126, 3,
12. Mortimer EZ. Anaphylaxis following ingestion of soybean.
Pediatr, 1961, 58, 90-92.
13. Moroz LA, Yang WH. Kunitz soybean trypsin-inhibitor: a specific
allergen in food anaphylaxis N Engl J Med, 1980, 302, 1126-1128.
15. Davis, Adelle. Let’s Get Well (NY, Signet/New American
16. Clark, Linda. Secrets of Health and Beauty (NY, Jove,
17. Crenshaw, Mary Ann. The Natural Way to Super Beauty (NY,
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
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,
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,
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/.
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
<Back | Home | Tour | Calendar |
Contact Us | Funding | Join Now