Dear Dr Kaayla, What is lecithin? Is it soy? Should I take lecithin supplements? My ND thinks I should. — Jessie
Dear Jessie: Lecithin is an emulsifying substance found in the cells of all living organisms. It was discovered in 1806 by Maurice Gobley, a French scientist who named it lekithos after the Greek word for egg yolk Lecithin can be found in many foods including cabbage, cauliflower, garbanzo beans, soy beans, split peas, organic meat, seeds and nuts, but the best source by far is eggs. Until it was recovered from the waste products of soybean processing in the 1930s, egg yolk was the primary source of commercial lecithin. Today most lecithin supplements derive from soybeans, though a sunflower lecithin is also available.
Lecithin products are widely marketed to promote cardiovascular health, reverse liver damage, improve brain function and memory. Your naturopathic doctor might be right about your diet not providing enough lecithin to protect your cells. That would certainly be true if you’ve been afraid to eat eggs and have stuck to a “healthy” lowfat, low-cholesterol diet. The solution though is not the supplements he or she has suggested, but a WAPF diet rich in eggs, especially the egg yolks.
Dear Kaayla, I am now avoiding soy. Do I need to avoid soy lecithin? The vitamins I take contain soy lecithin in vegetable glaze. The company says the amount of soy lecithin is so tiny that the amount is not required to be listed. Do I need to avoid this vitamin? Do I need to find a soy lecithin-free vitamin. Thank you for this website and your book! — Doris
Dear Doris, Are you allergic to soy? If so, I’d take the precaution of finding a soy-free vitamin. But if you are avoiding it because you are at risk for — or already suffer from — thyroid, reproductive problems, breast cancer or other health reasons, I’d put my energy into avoiding soy protein or soy oil. As for lecithin, it’s difficult to avoid if you like processed and packaged foods. Lecithin, as you’ve already found out, is also present in many supplements. For most people the occasional product with lecithin won’t be a problem, but please focus on eating real foods.
Although The Soy Connection, an industry newsletter, has stated that highly refined oils and lecithin “are safe for the soy-allergic consumer,” many allergic persons who put their trust in such reassurances have ended up in the hospital. If soy lecithin were 100 percent free of soy protein, it would not provoke allergic symptoms. However, the variable manufacturing conditions, quality controls and processing methods used by the vegetable oil industry make the presence of at least trace amounts of soy protein possible – and even likely – in soy oil or soy lecithin. Likewise, highly susceptible people cannot use supplements containing soy-derived Vitamin E, phosphatidyl choline (PC) , glycerylphosphorylcholine (GPC) or phosphatidyl serine (PS) safely.
Dear Dr. Daniel: I react terribly to chocolate. Now a friend tells me I might really be reacting to the lecithin. Is this possible? — Sandy
Dear Sandy: It’s certainly possible. Try a soy-free chocolate and find out. But don’t think you need to eat chocolate. A lot of health claims are being made for it, but I think they are greatly exaggerated.
Dr Daniel, Does anyone know if soy lecithin has been linked to the brain shrinkage problem? I’ve heard tofu will damage my brain. Is my brain safe with lecithin? — Fred
Dear Fred: I think you might be referring to the work of Dr. Lon White, a neuro-epidemiologist with the Pacific Health Institute in Honolulu. Dr White and colleagues showed that men and women who ate tofu at least twice per week experienced accelerated brain aging, diminished cognitive ability and were more than twice as likely to be clinically diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. MRI scans showed enlarged ventricles while autopsies revealed atrophied brains with lower weights. Subjectively, the researchers couldn’t help but notice that by age 75 to 80, the tofu eaters looked about five years older than those who had abstained.
The soy industry claims “the tofu effect” is just a fluke, but the statistical probability of the results being true varied from 95 to 99 percent, depending upon the particular brain aging endpoint. The investigators also searched for – but failed to find – confounding factors such as age, education, obesity or other food and drinks. The study has earned high marks from researchers not on the soy industry’s payroll, including Dan Sheehan, PhD and Daniel Doerge, PhD at the FDA’s National Laboratory for Toxicological research in Jefferson, Arkansas.who stated, “Given the great difficulty in discerning the relationship between exposures and long latency adverse effects in the human population and the potential mechanistic explanation for the epidemiological findings, this is an important study. It is one of the more robust, well-designed prospective epidemiological studies generally available.”
White has hypothesized that the isoflavones in tofu and other soy foods caused the adverse effects in the brain. In fact, numerous animal studies show that soy isoflavones interfere with an enzyme called tyrosine kinase in the hippocampus, a brain region involved with learning and memory. Elevated levels of phytoestrogens in the brain also cause decreases in brain calcium-binding protein (needed for protection against neuro-degenerative diseases) and in brain-derived neurotrophic factor (essential to the survival and genesis of brain cells). Finally the soy isoflavone genistein reduces DNA synthesis in the brain, reducing the birth of new brain cells and promoting apoptosis and cell death. For references, go to The Whole Soy Story: The Dark Side of America’s Favorite Health Food, pages 307-308.
It is important to state clearly here that soy oil contains low or no isoflavone content, and that a lecithin, derived from soy oil would be highly unlikely to contain isoflavones. The above studies linking soy to cognitive decline are irrelevant in terms of health risks from lecithin . But given the fact that soy has been linked to cognitive decline, dementia, brain atrophy and neurodegenerative disease, it would not be wise to start swigging soy milk or feasting on tofu.
Dear Dr. Daniel, I would like to take PC, GPC and PS as part of my anti aging program These products come from soy. Do you see a downside for me? — Jon
Dear Jon: I can’t really evaluate your situation since I am not familiar with your diet, lifestyle, health history or lab reports. That said, phosphatidyl choline glycerylphosphorylcholine and phosphatidyl serine are widely recommended by alternative medical doctors and other health practitioners as anti-aging supplements that can promote and preserve brain function and mental acuity. They are also widely included in nutritional protocols designed for people suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and for those recovering from damage from stroke.
However, they might not work as well as you might hope. The fact that PC, GPC and PS products almost always derive from soy oil is problematic on a number of levels. First of all, most of the scientific studies proving the efficacy of phosphatidyl serine come from bovine sources, which also contain DHA as part of the structure. Because of the Mad Cow scare, bovine-derived PS isn’t likely to show up in the marketplace soon.
The biggest problem with a vegan version of PS is that plant oils never contain ready-made DHA. Indeed, the entire fatty acid structure of soy-derived PS is different from that of bovine-derived PS. The latter is rich in stearic and oleic acids, while soy PS is rich in linoleic and palmitic acids. Complicating matters further, Dr. Mary Enig, PhD, MACN, has pointed out that the PS naturally formed in the human body consists of 37.5 percent stearic acid and 24.2 percent arachidonic acid. Despite these differences, soy-derived PS has proved helpful to many people.
A fish oil or egg-derived PS, which would naturally contain DHA, would probably perform better in the body and brain than any plant- sourced product. I have heard of at least one company — Enzymotec USA — that hopes to bring such a PS to the market soon. Although a sunflower oil-derived PS would also fail to match the superior fatty acid structure of animal sourced PS, it would offer the advantage of being soy free and thus suitable for the growing numbers of people who are allergic to soy.