Soy Lecithin – allergenic or not?!


Soy Lecithin – what is it? Why is it there in almost every other processed food item?! That is the most baffling predicament that faces most that  have a soy allergy. I had never heard of it until my son was diagnosed with a  soy allergy. When it was time for him to start on rice cereal at 6 months of age, I could not easily find a single brand that did not have the ominous ‘soy lecithin’. Naah – not even the so-called baby-friendly ‘Gerber’ 😦 Those were dark days when I felt that my son would not be able to have even a spoon of rice till I came across Beechnut Rice Cereal. That was the only brand that was easily available and safe – yes, it did not have soy lecithin!
Here is a twist in the story…I switched allergists when my son was a little over 1. The new doctor said that my son would probably be okay even if I gave him foods with soy lecithin in it. Relief…he was okay with products containing soy lecithin! Huh – really…why is that?! As it happens, a majority of people allergic to soy are allergic to the protein component of soy. Lecithin, on the other hand is a fatty substance occurring in plant and animal tissues. Soy lecithin, is a by product of soybean oil production. The allergenic potential of soy lecithin is largely based on processing techniques and the amount of protein remaining in the final product. A majority of soy lecithin used in food products is derived from refined soybean oil that has been processed using the hot-solvent extraction technique, that eliminates most, if not all, allergenic proteins. Hence, soy lecithin is ‘usually’ well tolerated by most people allergic to soy. So, if you have a soy allergy, talk to your allergist and be aware of how your body reacts when you have anything that has soy lecithin in it.
All that sounds great but am sure many of you are curious – why is soy lecithin used so widely. Well, it’s most popular use is as an emulsifier. Now what does that  fancy word help with?! Hmm – emulsifiers give a consistent texture to creamy  products, promotes solidity in margarine and prevents it from splattering when shallow frying, prevents cocoa and cocoa butter from separating in chocolates, increases shelf life, improves the baking process and much more! Little wonder they are used all over the place 🙂 But, why not any lecithin – why specifically soy lecithin? Well, that is pure economics. Soy is one of the cheapest crops in the United States – that makes soybean oil and soy lecithin relatively inexpensive. Good news – in recent years there has been a shift to other sources of lecithin, most importantly soy lecithin in part due to the increase in soy allergy. So, someone out there is listening to us…
The following links are very useful if you want to know further about this omnipresent ingredient:
http://www.fooducate.com/blog/2009/07/07/what-is-soy-lecithin-and-why-is-it-found-in-so-many-products/
http://www.soyconnection.com/soyfoods/pdf/Soy-Lecithin-Fact-Sheet.pdf
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soy_lecithin

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