Like many eagle-eyed vegans, you may have noticed soy lecithin frequently popping up in the ingredient list on your favorite packaged foods. Is soy lecithin vegan, and is it safe to consume? Why is it added to so many foods?
In this post, I’ll shed some light on whether soy lecithin is vegan-friendly and whether you can feel confident feeding it to your family.
What is soy lecithin?
Lecithin is a naturally occurring yellow-brown fatty substance that acts as an emulsifier, attracting both hydrophilic (water-attracting) and hydrophobic (water-repelling) compounds in food. It can be sourced from animals or plant-based foods.
Soy lecithin is a specific type of lecithin derived from soybean oil. It’s extracted from this oil through the use of chemical solvents like hexane, acetone, or ethanol, or it can be mechanically extracted without solvents.
Is soy lecithin vegan?
Soy lecithin is vegan since it’s derived from soybean oil, a plant-based food. No animal-based ingredients are used as processing aids in its production, so soy lecithin can be included as part of a vegan diet.
Why is soy lecithin added to food?
Soy lecithin is a common food additive identified by the E number E322. This number isn’t specific to soy-based lecithin, however; it applies to any type of lecithin. This includes lecithin from any source, including egg, milk, soy, sunflower, or corn.
As mentioned earlier, soy lecithin acts as an emulsifier to keep water-attracting and water-repelling compounds in food mixed together. An example of an emulsifier is mustard, which is often added to salad dressings to prevent the oil and vinegar from separating. Emulsifiers provide a smooth, even texture to foods.
Why else is soy lecithin used in foods? It has many helpful properties for the food industry, including its ability to:
- Prevent sticking
- Improve elasticity in dough
- Extend the shelf-life of foods
- Act as an emulsifier
What vegan foods contain soy lecithin?
Soy lecithin is a common ingredient in these packaged vegan foods:
- Breakfast cereal
- Chocolate and chocolate chips
- Choline nutritional supplements
- Non-dairy ice cream
- Non-stick cooking spray
- Salad dressings
- Vegan buttery spreads
Is soy lecithin bad?
Soy lecithin has a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) designation from the United States Food & Drug Administration (FDA)1. Food additives with this designation are considered safe to consume when used in approved amounts for their intended purposes in food.
Of course, vegans with soy allergies should avoid soy lecithin.
As with many food additives, many people are concerned about the safety of eating foods that contain soy lecithin. I’ll discuss a couple of these below.
Genetically modified soy
Most soy grown in the US is genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide glyphosate, so it’s possible that soy lecithin could be made from genetically engineered soybeans.
While genetically engineered foods are tested for safety before being approved for use in the food supply, studies on the long-term health effects of these foods are lacking.
If you wish to avoid soy lecithin made from genetically engineered soy, be sure to choose organic products. Foods with the USDA Organic label are prohibited from being genetically engineered.
As mentioned earlier, soy lecithin is commonly extracted from soybean oil through the use of chemical solvents like hexane. This is similar to the process used to produce canola oil and is widely misunderstood.
Hexane is a neurotoxin2, causing significant health effects when inhaled. However, this doesn’t mean that food additives processed with hexane are toxic. The vast majority of hexane is separated from soy lecithin after processing.
The exact amount of residues in soy lecithin is unknown, but we do know that hexane residues in vegetable oils are extremely low.
A 2017 study3 published in the Journal of Experimental and Clinical Toxicology tested 40 different vegetable oils commonly used in cooking and found that out of the 36 oils that did contain hexane residues, all were far below the maximum residue limit set by the European Union.
Although we don’t know for sure, it’s likely that hexane residues in soy lecithin are similarly low.
So is soy lecithin vegan? Yes!
Soy lecithin is a plant-based, vegan-friendly food additive derived from soybean oil. It’s commonly added to packaged foods for its emulsifying abilities, improving the texture and appearance of foods.
Currently, there aren’t any studies showing that soy lecithin causes health concerns. It’s only used in small amounts as a food additive, so the consumption of soy lecithin as an ingredient in foods is likely safe.
Is soy lecithin a dairy product?
Soy lecithin is produced from soybean oil and is not a dairy product. It doesn’t contain dairy and is not produced using dairy-based processing aids. Lecithin can be produced from milk, but soy lecithin is not.
Which lecithin is vegan?
Vegan lecithins include soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin, and corn lecithin. Soy lecithin is made from soybean oil, sunflower lecithin is made from sunflower oil, and corn lecithin is made from corn oil.
Is soy lecithin egg-free?
Soy lecithin is egg-free since it’s made from soybean oil. If the lecithin in a packaged food is made from eggs, the food label will include an egg allergen warning. It will include a soy allergen warning if the lecithin is made from soy.
Is lecithin vegan?
Lecithin can be derived from animal or plant-based sources, so it isn’t always vegan. Egg lecithin is not vegan, while soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin, and corn lecithin are safe for vegans. If the source of lecithin isn’t clear on the food label, check with the manufacturer for clarification.
The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.
- U.S. Food & Drug Administration. 21 C.F.R. § 184.1400 (1983) https://www.accessdata.fda.gov/scripts/cdrh/cfdocs/cfcfr/CFRSearch.cfm?fr=184.1400&SearchTerm=lecithin. Accessed May 18, 2023.
- Environmental Protection Agency. Hexane. https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/2016-09/documents/hexane.pdf. Accessed May 18, 2023.
- Mojtaba Yousefi, Hedayat Hosseini (2017) Evaluation of Hexane Content in Edible Vegetable Oils Consumed in Iran . Journal of Experimental and Clinical Toxicology – 1(1):27-30. https://doi.org/10.14302/issn.2641-7669.ject-17-1790