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Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 25 February 2004 16:02


Excerpt from Kaayla Daniel's book: The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America's Favorite Health Food (New Trends, Spring 2004).

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 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

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 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

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

Lysophosphatidylethanolamine (LPE)

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved lysophosphatidylethanolamine (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.


  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, 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.
  6. Liu, KeShun. Soybeans: Chemistry, Technology, Utilization (Gaithersburg, MD, Aspen, 1999) 32.
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  11. Gu X, Beardslee T et al. Identification of IgE-binding proteins in soy lecithin. Int Arch Allergy Immunol, 2001, 126, 3, 218-225.
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  13. Moroz LA, Yang WH. Kunitz soybean trypsin-inhibitor: a specific allergen in food anaphylaxis N Engl J Med, 1980, 302, 1126-1128.
  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
  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
  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.
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  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.
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  37. Blaylock, Ralph. Not just another scare: toxin additives in your food and drink. Radiant Life International Health Related Articles.
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Copyright: From The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America's Favorite Health Food by Kaayla T. Daniel, PhD, CCN. NewTrends Publishing, (877) 707-1776,, Spring 2004.


This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2003.

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Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Olivia Verde, Nov 26 2013
I doubt your daughter needs the lecithin. As stated above, a t. of cod liver oil, and/or some fish oil, would Not harm her, I don't trust the lecithin as much as before after reading the article. I have a jar of Solaray de-oiled lecithin, and it expired 8/12. It def. smells and tastes strange. Will dispose of in some proscribed way (not just toss in garbage, many capsules left). If you do continue the lecithin, yes, be sure it's organic, etc. from a trusted source. I actually used to enjoy the taste of the bulk lecithin I purchased, but if began taking again for whatever reasons, I would def. stick with organic, trusted source.
How can I safely dispose of soy lecithin left in a steel barrel?
written by Jeffs, Sep 24 2012
Does anyone have suggestions on disposing of said material. I bought a barrel which contains about 2 gallons of it. Can I safely burn it? i want to use the barrel as a burn barrel for brush.
exercise/nutrition consultant
written by Marvin Davis, Dec 04 2010
Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit
written by Shelia Woodall, Aug 30 2010
What dosages are dangerous, or should we avoid soy lecithin altogether? I currently drink protein shakes labeled "contains soy from soy lecithin". Also, what about canola oil?
Thank you.
Children and diet!
written by Jude, Mar 24 2010
I think children should be brought up eating whole foods with a wide variety of foods included. If children don't like particular foods they can be disguised quite well without children even knowing it. Steer clear of processed and fast foods, eat foods in their natural state, wash fruit and veg and vary the diet. This is all a child needs, seriously. If possible grow your own 'green' foods, buy organic if possible and this should cover all nutritional requirements. We shouldn't live in a society where even children are pill just isn't necessary. Whole foods and natural foodstuffs will cover most requirements needed, if not.......might be time to give the diet an overhaul. Makes sense.
written by Harvey, Feb 28 2010
Children...especially at the age of 4 are still growing and developing physically and mentally. There are a few things that will work against or take her growth out of optimal status. So many things have been touted as being the best things for us... While some parts of certain foods are great for us (the ones that are advertised) other parts are terrible for our bodies and negate the positive stuff. My professional recommendation would be to cut grains out of the diet and supplement with a fish oil / omega 3 rich in DHA. The EPA is great for adults but not that great for developing brains etc. Good protein sources, healthy fat (cook with and also consume...avacado etc) and low carb (not no carb) would do wonders for anyone. The current food pyramid isn't terrible, but it's rich in carbohydrate which if left unchecked can lead to hyperinsulinism among a host of other things.
written by Ambra, Feb 28 2010

I am not the author of this post, I just stumbled upon it when searching for information about soy lecithin. My family and I recently became dairy free for allergy reasons. We are trying to stay away from soy as well since now I have read so many negative things about it. The problem is, soy and soy by-products seem to be in so many things!

I can't advise you on whether or not to stop giving your daughter soy lecithin, but hopefully the author of the post will chime in. smilies/smiley.gif I wanted to respond though b/c as far as something natural that boosts memory and overall health is concerned- I think the answer is fish oil! Check your local health food store for a lemon flavored fish oil. My 3 and 5 year old both like it in their orange juice b/c it masks the flavor. (Side note: from what I understand, actual COD liver oil is a bit different and has vitamin D in it, which regular fish oil does not have. We are just taking regular deep sea fish oil for the omega's 3, 6, and 9.) But I actually grew up taking a spoonful of Cod liver oil a day, and my teacher said I was the healthiest kid in class! I very rarely got sick. So maybe cod liver oil is more of an immune booster?

Anyway I am not a doctor of course. These are just ideas. But fish oil seems to be working great for our family. Good luck finding what you need!
Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit
written by Lanny, Feb 08 2010
I refer to your article Soy Lecithin: From Sludge to Profit

I let my daughter takes 2 teaspoons of premium soy Lecithin, bought from organic shop. Now that I heard that Lecithin is not good for health, I am so puzzled and worried. Can you please advise if she should stop taking Lecithin immediately? What other natural supplement can boost memory and overall health of a 4-year old? I don’t feel good giving her processed multivitamin in a bottle, would prefer something natural and wholesome. Thank you very much in advance. Hope to hear from you soon.

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Last Updated on Saturday, 06 June 2009 21:33