Have you ever looked at the ingredients on a candy bar? Chocolate, sugar, cocoa butter, vanilla; all pretty normal, and familiar, things. But near the end of the list you can usually find something called soy lecithin. What is it, why is it in our food, and is it harmful to us? These are all valid questions, and ones we should ask ourselves when we see an unfamiliar ingredient.
The French scientist, Maurice Gobley, first discovered the substance in 1850, and it has since been a very popular ingredient that can be found in many products. This is because lecithin “offers a multifunctional, flexible and versatile tool. It is probably best known for its emulsifying properties, which help promote solidity in margarine and give consistent texture to dressings and other creamy products. Lecithin is also used in chocolates and coatings and to counteract spattering during frying. Additionally, its unique lipid molecular structure makes lecithin useful for pharmaceutical and cosmetic applications and various industrial uses such as paints, textiles, lubricants and waxes.” [1 – PDF] Right off the bat we know lecithin is common, as well as useful, in foods, pharmaceutics, cosmetics, and industrially.
Lets look into the terms emulsifier and lecithin, then take a closer look into soy lecithin (E322).
An emulsifier (eh-MUHL-suh-fi-er) encourages the suspension of one liquid in another. This means that it helps ingredients stick together – a.k.a, avoid separation – that otherwise don’t mix well. But it does more than help food from separating, it can “make food more appetizing by improving appearance and consistency” as well as extend shelf life.  All of which are valuable things in the world of food politics.
Lecithin (LESS-i-thin) is “a fat that is essential in the cells of the body. It can be found in many foods, including soybeans and egg yolks.”  The name comes from from the Greek word lekithos, which means egg yolk. Lecithin prevents oil and water from separating, which is an emulsifying property. “Lecithin is [also] used in many food products to reduce viscosity, control sugar crystallization and flow properties, helps ingredients mix together more evenly, and improves shelf life. For example, chocolate would not have its smooth rich taste if it weren’t for lecithin.”  This solidifies lecithin as an emulsifier, distinguishing its useful role in foods. However, lecithin goes above and beyond an emulsifying agent by carrying health benefits. It is “used for treating memory disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. It is also used for treating gallbladder disease, liver disease, certain types of depression, high cholesterol, anxiety, and a skin disease called eczema.”  This is because lecithin contains high concentrations of the nutrients choline and inositol, which support primary brain functions.  Thus the creation of lecithin nutritional supplements.
So far so good, emulsification and lecithin seem to be appropriate, if not excellent, parts of the food industry. Now lets get to the meat of this post, and that’s the idea that soy lecithin in theory is a lot different than soy lecithin in reality. On paper soy lecithin seems like a blessing to the food industry, but the way the world works today is where the potential hazards of soy lecithin come into play. Lets break it down, but first we will address the topic of regular soy.
“One of the biggest concerns with the use of soy lecithin in foods is that it comes from soy, which some people believe is a harmful and unhealthy food, specifically soy protein. However, during the manufacture of lecithin derived from soy, most (but not all) of the soy protein is removed. And the amount of protein left in soy lecithin is less than 0.3% of the total weight.”  Studies linking soy intake to lower testosterone levels and sperm count in men most likely aren’t of concern when it comes to soy lecithin. Further more, and more importantly, people with soy allergies are generally able to consume soy lecithin without issue. This is because the soy allergy is related to the protein, not the fatty acid that becomes the emulsifier. Unless it is a very sensitive soy allergy, the trace amounts of soy protein left during the manufacture of soy lecithin should not cause an allergic reaction.  On a positive note, “the most popular benefit of soy lecithin is the reduction of triglyceride and bad cholesterol (LDL) levels, while increasing the amount of good cholesterol (HDL) in the body.” 
So soy lecithin should not cause alarm to those who cringe when they see the word soy, but why is soy lecithin such a dominant ingredient? Why not other emulsifiers, or even a different lecithin? Well this goes back to food politics, as soy is the most economical (cheapest) crop to produce. “The United States continues to be the world’s largest soybean producer with some of the world’s lowest operating and logistics costs.” [9 – PDF] Large, and cheap, production, the ability of being an effective emulsifier, researched health benefits, and a lack of health hazards – meaning the public will approve of it – has all added up to give soy lecithin its solid place in the food industry. When benefits continue to rack up from the use of soy lecithin, it’s almost as if we should be consuming more of it.
But there is another side to look at, as there is with most ingredients. This side deals less with soy lecithin and more with the soybean it’s coming from. Today, more than ever, consumers are understanding and concerned about the idea of food that is GM (genetically modified) as well as the impact of pesticides. “Soy, along with corn, make up the highest percentage of GM crops in the market, which means the soy lecithin you are eating may be GM.”  This could cause health implications that aren’t known at this point, which means it’s always a risk to consume GM – or byproducts of GM – related foods. That’s not to say the small amount of non-GM soybeans are healthy. “In 2005, 80 million pounds, about one pound per acre, of pesticides were applied to soybean crops in the United States.” [10 – PDF] You can count on pesticides being on that soy lecithin if the soybean is not organic, but is it enough to really matter? Who knows, and that’s what can be bothersome. The second part of this side deals with fermented versus unfermented soybeans. “Studies have found that soy contains toxins and plant oestrogens that could disrupt women’s menstrual cycles, stimulate the progression of breast cancer, damage the thyroid, lower testosterone levels and have uncertain effects on the prostate.”  Fermenting soy foods can reduce these harmful effects, which is why unfermented should be avoided. Asian cultures – which represent the historical culture of soy consumption – only ate fermented soy. The production of soybean oil, which leads to soy lecithin, does not result in fermented soybeans, meaning they can carry health risks. Again, does this matter for soy lecithin since it’s in such trace amounts? Hard to tell. Lastly, excess consumption of soy lecithin, and the choline in it, could lead to unwanted side effects. But again, that is not a threat when it comes to eating the occasional chocolate bar or spreading a dollop of margarine – not that you should be eating margarine (incredibly processed) if you’re trying to be healthy.
In conclusion, soy lecithin as a small ingredient (usually less than 1%) of food items is most likely not a threat to our bodies or health and is not as hazardous as it may sound. But would I recommend it as a supplement? Not at this point. The thought of unfermented soybeans sprayed with pesticides – or being GM – resulting in a byproduct that is implemented into a pure product sounds dangerous to me. So no, don’t go out and buy a big bottle of that lecithin nutritional supplement, but don’t fret over it being in your chocolate. The fact of the matter is, the foods that contain soy lecithin are most likely processed foods – such as that margarine container above with a lengthy list of ingredients – that have other ingredients which should be more of a concern. But don’t be fooled into thinking soy lecithin is bad or good, it’s all about the way the soybeans are produced and if they are fermented – which in the U.S. is probably poor.
Here is a list of the emulsifiers that can be used as food additives: 
-Egg Yolk emulsifying agent lecithin
-CSL Calcium Stearoyl Di Laciate
-PolyGlycerol Ester (PGE)
-Sorbitan Ester (SOE) – which is found in the margarine container above.
-PG Ester (PGME)
-Sugar Ester (SE)
-Acetylated Monoglyceride (AMG)
-Lactylated Monoglyceride (LMG)
Another emulsifier used in salad dressings and dairy products is xanthan gum.