You might know soybeans as those round, green-colored beans called edamame or the main ingredient in your tofu. But a form of soybean is also added to your foods in the form of soy lecithin. Derived from soybean oil, this additive acts as an emulsifier that helps to maintain a food’s texture and consistency. But if you’re allergic to soybeans, you may still be able to consume foods containing soy lecithin.
Creating Soy Lecithin
Extracting soy lecithin from soybeans typically happens the same time food manufacturers are making soybean oil. To get to soy lecithin, a food manufacturer first keeps the soybeans at a constant temperature and humidity to easily separate the hull from the seed. Once the seeds are loosened, they are heated and pressed into flakes, which releases soybean oil. This oil is distilled and water is added to allow a centrifuge to spin at very fast speeds. The resulting material of this somewhat lengthy process is soy lecithin.
Once soy lecithin is made, it’s ready to be added to your foods. Soy lecithin is as an emulsifier. Another word for emulsifier is a stabilizer. This means it’s added to foods that have ingredients that tend to separate, such as oil and water in a salad dressing or the oils in margarine. The soy lecithin helps the margarine to stay solid at room temperature. Soy lecithin can be used in place of egg lecithin, another common emulsifier used in cooking. Soy lecithin is more commonly used because soybeans are abundant and more cost-effective, according to Soy Connection.
You also might see soy lecithin added to foods such as chocolates or chocolate milk, because it can give chocolate a smoother texture. Soy lecithin also helps to prevent spattering from the frying process that can lead to burning. Soy lecithin also is used as a dietary supplement because it is purported to reduce chronic conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, high cholesterol and bipolar disorder. However, there is no scientific link between taking soy lecithin and these benefits, according to eMedTV.
Just like peanuts and wheat, soybeans can be a highly allergenic food. If you have symptoms like itching, trouble breathing or swelling after eating soybeans, you might wonder if you can eat foods containing soy lecithin. While soy lecithin is derived from soybeans, most of the soy protein that causes your allergic reaction is removed during manufacturing. According to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, most soy lecithin does not contain enough soy protein to cause an allergic reaction. However, if your soybean allergy is so strong that you develop breathing difficulties when you are exposed to soy, you may wish to completely avoid any foods with soy lecithin as a precaution.
Rachel Nall began writing in 2003. She is a former managing editor for custom health publications, including physician journals. She has written for The Associated Press and "Jezebel," "Charleston," "Chatter" and "Reach" magazines. Nall is currently pursuing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing at the University of Tennessee.