When you read the label on your chocolate bar, you may notice something called soy lecithin. What is soy lecithin in chocolate? It’s a food additive produced when soybeans are processed, and it is found in a variety of food products, such as cake mixes, dietary supplements, baby formulas, dairy products, breads and margarine. It’s used as an emulsifier—something that binds two products together that don’t normally mix.
It’s likely that you have consumed soy lecithin without even realizing it. Now that you know about it, you might be wondering, what is it exactly? And is it something you should be concerned about eating? Opinions vary on whether it is safe to consume. Keep reading to learn more about what soy lecithin is, why it’s often used in commercial chocolate and how to find chocolate made without it.
What Is Soy Lecithin?
Lecithin is a naturally occurring, essential substance found in animal and plant tissues and is made up of fatty acids. French chemist Theodore Gobley first isolated lecithin in egg yolks in 1846. Lecithin is composed of choline, fatty acids, phospholipids, phosphoric acid, glycerol, glycolipids and triglycerides.
There are different types of lecithin, but soy lecithin is by far the most common. Lecithin is extracted from raw soybeans, meaning it contains soy—which is critical information for those who suffer from a soy allergy. Most soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified organisms (GMO) and are used for feeding livestock and making soybean oil.
To create soy lecithin, soybean oil is extracted from the soybean using chemicals and then processed (or degummed) to separate and dry the lecithin. Sometimes, the manufacturer goes a step farther and bleaches the lecithin with hydrogen peroxide.
Soy lecithin is most often used as an emulsifier in food to help combine two products that do not normally mix (like oil and water). It helps stabilize foods and keeps the ingredients from separating later, and it keeps foods from becoming sticky.
Because of its emulsion properties, it works well in nonstick cooking spray. It is also found in non-food products like soap, and it has antioxidant properties and can be used as a flavor protector. Lecithin is often found in medicines, supplements and processed foods.
Lecithin has been shown to reduce high cholesterol. In one study, researchers found that those who took lecithin for their high cholesterol showed a 42 percent reduction in total cholesterol and up to 56 percent reduction in LDL “bad” cholesterol.
Choline is an essential nutrient found in soy lecithin. It is part of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, and it protects against organ dysfunction, fatty liver and muscle damage. It has also been known to prevent dementia and reduce inflammation.
Even with these potential health benefits, the US Food and Drug Administration has not approved lecithin to treat cholesterol, inflammation or dementia. These benefits have not been well documented yet, and more research needs to be conducted before a substantial claim can be made.
What Kinds of Lecithin Are There?
Because soybeans are one of the most widely grown crops in the US, making lecithin from soy is cost effective. But lecithin can also be derived from dehydrated sunflowers, canola, cottonseed, fish, animal fats and corn.
Lecithin is available in both powder and liquid forms and can also be found in granulated form.
Do You Need Lecithin to Make Chocolate?
If you’re wondering if you need lecithin to make chocolate, the answer is no, you don’t. Lecithin is an optional ingredient when making chocolate. Some chocolate makers—especially commercial chocolate manufacturers—prefer to add lecithin for a variety of reasons:
- Lecithin lowers the viscosity of chocolate, giving it a better consistency and making it easier to work with. For chocolatiers making thin chocolate shells or coatings, the lower viscosity produced by the addition of lecithin makes chocolate easier to temper.
- Lecithin keeps any water in chocolate from seizing or thickening too much.
- Lecithin makes the chocolate thin enough that it will not damage equipment.
- Lecithin does not damage the integrity of the cacao’s origin.
- Lecithin helps lower production costs.
Chocolate bars purchased from Cococlectic are free of soy, gluten, dairy and nuts, and the craft chocolate makers featured at Cococlectic do not use lecithin. The chocolate is more difficult to process, but these chocolate makers feel it’s important to create a product without it.
Why Is Lecithin Bad for You?
For all its benefits, lecithin is not necessarily good for you—in fact, it might be quite detrimental to your health. Even in normal doses, it may cause negative side effects:
- Decreased appetite
- Increased salivation
- Stomach aches
- Abdominal bloating
- Diarrhea or loose stools
Lecithin can lead to a number of other health problems as well. Because soy and any product derived from soy is a GMO, soy lecithin has all the accompanying health dangers of consuming any GMO. This includes the possibility of diseases like cancer.
One component of soy, known as phytoestrogen, mimics the effect of the naturally occurring hormone estrogen. Phytoestrogens can change or decrease the amount of naturally occurring estrogen in the body, which can lead to an increased risk of cancer, especially breast cancer. In men, phytoestrogens can cause testosterone imbalance, low sperm count, infertility and an increased risk of cancer. Another component of soy, genistein, can also cause infertility and birth defects.
Because GMOs are designed to tolerate herbicides, they absorb any chemicals used on it. When you eat GMOs, you ingest those chemicals, which can cause allergic reactions and other health problems in sensitive individuals.
Goitrogen is a compound found in soy that can disrupt the endocrine system and lead to thyroid problems. The endocrine system controls the body’s hormones, and any disruption might result in hormone-related diseases and other health problems.
Another possible negative side effect is the buildup of toxins in the body. This is because the extraction process for soy lecithin uses hexane, a chemical solvent also used in varnishes and glue.
Does All Chocolate Contain Lecithin?
While not all chocolate contains lecithin, soy lecithin is found in most chocolate bars. In fact, when you read the label on a chocolate bar, you will see soy lecithin listed about 9 out of 10 times.
But when you look at the ingredients list for Cococlectic’s chocolate bars, you will not find soy lecithin listed. Cococlectic’s featured craft chocolate makers pride themselves on creating chocolate bars using only cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
Soy lecithin in dark chocolate and lecithin in white chocolate are often found in commercially prepared chocolate. Acting as an emulsifier, soy lecithin binds cocoa solids, sugar and milk (in milk chocolate) so they stick to the cocoa butter and keep the cocoa butter and cocoa solids from separating.
A little lecithin goes a long way and takes the place of added cocoa butter, which will also thin out chocolate. However, it takes a significantly higher amount of cocoa butter to reach the required viscosity—about 3 to 4 percent of additional cocoa butter versus 0.5 percent of lecithin. When chocolate makers consider how much lecithin to put in chocolate, they know the limit is about 0.5 percent. After that point, adding more lecithin is not beneficial because it no longer improves the viscosity and can even begin to have the opposite effect and thicken the chocolate.
Where Does Lecithin in Chocolate Come From?
Most of the time, the lecithin in chocolate comes from soy. In 1889, a German chemist named Ernst Schulze isolated lecithin from soybeans, which led to Germany becoming a hub for the large-scale and industrial development of lecithin used in foods.
In the twentieth century, the food industry expanded from small scale gardening and real food ingredients to chemically-altered foods that keep people craving more. This is where soy lecithin comes in. The emulsifier and preservation properties of soy lecithin make large-scale commercial chocolate production possible.
As an alternative to soy lecithin chocolate, you might consider sunflower lecithin chocolate. Because it does not contain the GMOs found in soy lecithin, the use of sunflower lecithin in chocolate is gaining in popularity.
Soy lecithin used in chocolate usually comes in a liquid form. Soy lecithin powder will not mix easily into foods with a high fat content. It works well for mixing oil and water for dressings and breads but not for making chocolate flow more freely. Liquid soy lecithin works better with high fat content foods like chocolate.
How is lecithin put into chocolate? It’s added early in the chocolate-making process. After melting the cocoa butter, you can add the lecithin. Stir well to incorporate and make the cocoa butter stretch farther.
Chocolate Without Soy Lecithin
In addition to GMOs, some people want to avoid soy lecithin because of allergies. Most of the allergens are removed during processing, but those who are highly sensitive to soy may experience a reaction. While consuming soy lecithin is not the same as drinking a glass of soy milk—the amount of soy from lecithin in foods is much smaller and does not pose a risk to most people—you might still want to avoid it. For most people, though, consumption of soy lecithin will not cause an allergic reaction.
While it can be difficult to find soy lecithin free chocolate, it’s not impossible. The chocolate bars featured at Cococlectic include only three ingredients: cacao beans, cocoa butter and sugar—no soy lecithin.
Other retailers offer soy lecithin free chocolate as well, including many small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers who do not add soy lecithin (or any other additives) to their craft chocolate bars.
Cococlectic features American small-batch bean-to-bar chocolate makers, and each month, we showcase craft dark chocolate bars from a different chocolate maker. They are all passionate about their products and create their chocolate bars from scratch using only three main ingredients: cacao beans, sugar and cocoa butter.
Our chocolates are vegan, non-GMO, fair-trade and ethically sourced. They do not contain any soy, gluten, dairy or nut, but they may be produced in a facility that handles these ingredients.
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