Soy lecithin is a common ingredient in hundreds of processed foods, including cereals, pasta, breads, soy milk and many meats. Lecithin is also available as a health supplement; proponents claim that it can benefit the heart, brain, liver and athletic performance. However, there are potential dangers of soy lecithin that could outweigh the possible benefits.
To solve the problem of disposing of the gummy waste residual generated from the soy oil refining process, German companies patented a process of vacuum drying the sludge to make soybean lecithin. Although lecithin originally had many uses, today soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier in foods and infant formulas and also as a health supplement.
In 2007, the GMO Compass reported that soy lecithin, like many food products in American supermarkets, contained genetically modified soy. Genetically modified, or GM, foods are biotechnically changed to increase yields and resistance to herbicides and insects. Some health-food advocates and scientists have concerns with the potential long-term impact from eating genetically modified food. For example, a study published in the "Journal of Applied Toxicology" discovered that mice fed GM soybean developed a decrease in pancreatic function. Although the nutrition of the soy was not altered, the study showed that as few as five days of feeding GM food caused pancreatic cellular changes, which were reversed after 30 days of non-GM foods.
A compound of soy lecithin, phytoestrogen, can produce effects on the body similar to the hormone estrogen. Soy phytoestrogens may promote an increased risk of breast cancer in adult women by altering or decreasing natural estrogen, although the direct link to cancer is inconclusive. One study reported by Cornell University examined 28 women receiving soy supplements for six months. The women were found to have an increased growth of milk ducts in their breasts, which is a leading forerunner of cancer, according to the Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors in New York State. Conclusions suggest that premenopausal women may be at greatest risk, but further research is needed.
Soy and soy lecithin contain a compound called fenistein that may have a negative effect on fertility and reproduction. According to a study at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, rats that were fed soybeans containing genistein produced offspring with abnormal reproductive organs, including smaller testes, larger prostate glands and lower testosterone levels. Conclusions suggested that exposure to soy during reproductive development could have long-term detrimental effects in males, ultimately leading to reproductive abnormalities and sexual dysfunction.
Soy lecithin may affect immature brain cells leading to impeded brain development. “Developmental Psychobiology” published the results of a study on brain function in rats fed soy lecithin. Groups were divided into pregnant rats, rats in fetal development and weaned offspring. In the earliest stages, deficits in sensory motor skills, including righting and swimming abilities, were observed in the soy lecithin group. Long-term consumption of soy lecithin produced rats that were inactive physically and mentally with poor reflexes. The study concluded that soy lecithin supplementation in early stages of life may lead to behavioral and cerebral abnormalities.
Because lecithin and other dietary supplements do not need FDA approval, there is no defined recommended daily amount. In addition, different brands of supplements may vary in content, purity and strength, which makes safe and effective dosing inconsistent. Talk to your doctor about the amount of lecithin required for your condition. If you are concerned about the amount of lecithin from food you are ingesting, read labels carefully. Lecithin must be listed on labels containing soy in accordance with The Federal Food and Drug Act. However, many processed foods, including fast foods, baked goods and delicatessen and meat products, are not labeled.