Ask the Alchemist #96

How can you recommend lecithin? It is toxic from being a refinery waste and full of chemicals.

Well, when you put it like that, it sounds like pretty awful stuff. Unfortunately it’s also written (maybe not on purpose) to sound very much worse than it is and inflammatory to boot.

Let’s get the first part out of the way. I can recommend it because I don’t see any supporting data backing up that it is toxic nor ‘full of chemicals’. Basically I disagree with the assertion.

Now let’s get into the whys. This quote seems to sum up what you are talking about:

“Soybean lecithin comes from sludge left after crude soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process. It is a waste product containing solvents and pesticides and has a consistency ranging from a gummy fluid to a plastic solid. Before being bleached to a more appealing light yellow, the color of lecithin ranges from a dirty tan to reddish brown. The hexane extraction process commonly used in soybean oil manufacture today yields less lecithin than the older ethanol-benzol process, but produces a more marketable lecithin with better color, reduced odor and less bitter flavor.”

First off, let’s cut through the hot button words. “Sludge”. It makes one think of nasty stuff at the bottom of a pond, outhouse or sewage treatment plant, doesn’t it. I’d say that is the intent. To make you think it is ‘contaminated’. How about we consult Webster?

Sludge “a muddy or slushy mass, deposit, or sediment”. Personally, I don’t find that nearly as hot button. It just means it’s a mixture of solids and water. And to that I say, so? Or think of it this way. Gravy. That luscious, yummy, flavor packed concoction that is made from the ‘sludge’ of roasting or frying meat. It’s all in the spin.

Next. the assertion it comes from the ‘waste’ of a process. Well…yeah. The whole point initially was that you are cleaning up something. Therefore, sort of by definition, you have what you want (product), and what you are trying to get rid of (waste). But that is arbitrary. It’s like the definition of a weed. It’s just a plant you don’t want in your garden. But again (and I’m pulling from others I’ve talked to about this) the take on the word "waste" is that it is tantamount to "body waste" or fecal matter.

But it’s no more that form of "waste" than using onion skins to dye Easter eggs. This is bad how? Sounds frugal to me.

Now the "gummy fluid…and solid plastic". Err? So? It’s a gummy solid because it contains a bunch of emulsifiers!!! And saying it’s of the consistency of a plastic solid doesn’t make it a plastic solid. It just means there is less water in it. After that we have ”bleaching” and the implication that it’s done only for the appealing color. What’s missed is the chemistry behind an alkaline wash as a clean up step. It’s just a way to separate impurities (waste) from the new product (the lecithin) we want.

As for the hexane extraction producing a better product (less color, odor and better tasting) with a lower yield, how is this bad? Seems you want (at least I do) quality over quantity. Don’t you?

Finally, I’m going to circle back to the "waste product containing solvents and pesticides”. This does NOT say the lecithin contains solvents and pesticides. It says the "muddy mixture we are starting with, that we want to clean up” contains solvents and pesticides…that we are going to remove in our hexane extraction and alkaline clean up procedure.

But what about hexane and pesticides in the lecithin that aren’t removed? I am so glad you asked! It took me a bit of research, and frankly the numbers are all over the board, and the calculation are a bit heavy to get into here without totally losing you, but this is what I found.

Standard lecithin can contain 100-500 ppm of hexane and pesticides (the later being 3-5 orders of magnitude smaller)…..BUT you don’t eat lecithin!! You add it in very small amounts to chocolate. And the amount you end up eating is TINY!!! I could toss a number out to you , but it would have so many zeros in it as to be basically incomprehensible. So I took another common activity where you are exposed to hexane. Driving in a car. Day in, day out you are exposed to hexane fumes from driving around. Ready for this? Based on lung capacity, monitored hexane levels in a variety of locations and standard breathing patterns, on average you take 3 times more hexane in EVERY MINUTE of driving than eating 2 oz of chocolate with 1% lecithin in it. And for "full disclosure", the spread of data is wide. It goes from 15 times more hexane per minute to 10 minutes driving equaling 2 oz chocolate. So even at worst case, I don’t see what there is to be up in arms about.

Here is an article that has a good discussion on chemical exposure in a similar vein.

If anything, I find it laudable that someone found a way to take the waste product of one procedure and turn it into the starting material of another process, thereby increasing the overall use of the original product. Sounds down right ecologically responsible and frugal to me.

With all of that though, and with no implication, I don’t believe every bit of it. I have also researched and brought in a new 100% organic lecithin. You’ll note it’s quite a bit more expensive, as there are quite the technological obstacles to overcome in its production, but in this case you still have quality.