What Is It?First, we have to ask, "What is soy lecithin?" What does it come from, and where is it sourced? There are many types of lecithin, and many ingredients within it. Can you even determine where a processed ingredient like this came from?
Lecithin is a generic term used to classify certain fatty compounds, such as glycerol, choline, glycolipids, phospholipids, fatty acids, phosphoric acid and triglycerides. They were first identified in 1846 by a French chemist named Theodore Gobley. These compounds are found in the tissues of both plants and animals, so determining their source is extremely important when deciding if it is vegan.
The first lecithin was derived from egg yolks. Today it is often obtained from such sources as cottonseed, milk, rapeseed, soybeans, and sunflower seed. Some of these are hard to find as a home ingredient, but many vegan food producers are obtaining them for use in manufacturing. Of course, the most common is soy lecithin because soybeans are so ubiquitous in our diets.
Why Use It?
The key use of lecithin in most foods these days is as an emulsifier. An emulsifier is a compound that allows you to break the old adage that oil and water do not mix. It is the part of egg yolks that allow a mayonnaise to happen. For a vegan version, often tofu is used instead of the yolks, another type of soy. The lecithin in the tofu acts as an emulsifier in place of the eggs.
This emulsification property is important in many prepared foods, from salad dressings to ice cream. It is also necessary in many baked goods so that fats can properly mix into the dough before cooking. Many thickened sauces require a lecithin in order to not break. Hollandaise is a classic example. Almost anything that food manufacturers want to have a smooth or regular consistency can use lecithin as an ingredient.
Is It Harmful?
Currently designated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS), lecithin is not thought to have too many side effects. It may have some abdominal ramifications, such as bloating, nausea, and diarrhea, but the clinical proof is far from conclusive. Doctors think individual reactions may be related to one's own gut bacteria culture. As with many things, moderation and context are important.
Interestingly enough, scientists are now looking at how lecithin might be used to treat certain diseases. It has been proven to help liver function. Currently, new research is being done about its use as a dementia or Alzheimer's treatment. They may well prove that it has an ability to improve the brain's use of neurotransmitters.
Is It For You?
The choice on lecithin itself as an ingredient is somewhat different from the choice on soy lecithin. Specifically soy lecithin may have issues for those with diagnosed soy allergies. It would be something for those with soy problems to talk about with their physician. Luckily, there are types of lecithin derived from other sources, including plant-based ones.
Also, there are folks who have other issues with soy products in general because of some of the compounds within them, such as phytic acid and the phytoestrogens which can cause hormonal imbalances. Or they may have an issue with its mass production method or GMO (genetically modified organism) ingredients. That, again, is a consideration for you to make as a consumer beyond your veganism.
Is It Vegan?
That answer is almost certainly yes, by any definition. Soy lecithin is produced from the soybean plant with no animal byproducts used in its creation. Opinions may differ, but by almost anyone's measure, it is vegan. If you see soy lecithin as an ingredient in something you buy, or if you try to use it as a part of your home cooking, you are probably safe.
Many people who practice veganism have their basic set of rules. Some stretch them more than others, and that's okay. It mostly comes down to your reasons for being a vegan. Are you fine with humanely sourced milk products? Or are you a strict practitioner who will not buy anything at all that has been processed? People have debated whether honey is vegan. It's your life. You make the rules. At Everything Vegan, we have shirts for everyone.
The information is out there, though for you to make that choice. There are many resources to read up on regarding the nature of soy lecithin. Is it vegan? Probably. Is it for you? That is something for you to decide.