Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, nor a food scientist. This blog post is not meant to be in favor of or against the ingredient it is regarding, it is simply presenting the facts so the reader can make his or her own decisions.
I’m going to start a little series within the blog where I can explore different aspects of food! I want to have a space to share favorite recipes, handy tricks, and information about the science of food. My husband, Matt Damon (well, his fairer-skinned doppelganger), is a food scientist. He is my Wikipedia of anything I want to know about ingredients and food processes. If he doesn’t have the answer right away, he can always point me in the right direction.
I try to be fairly conscious of what I feed my family. I make meals from scratch when I can, but when I can’t, there are prepackaged foods available and that is a miracle of modern science. Honestly, there are not enough hours in the day to make every single morsel of food that my family eats and that is OKAY! Hear me, moms? Packaged foods are how we survive with our sanity intact, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about buying them.
I have a few ingredients that I try to avoid for personal preference reasons, but I’m not going to delve into that, because I want to remain unbiased about ingredients as I make these posts. Because of my preferences, I tend to be a label checker. Lately, I have noticed “soy lecithin” on several of the packaged items that I’ve bought. I asked my husband about what it was and why it was necessary. To explain it, he brought home the coolest food book ever: Ingredient: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & Food Products. This book served as my reference for this post.
What is soy lecithin? It is a leftover substance from the processing of soybean oil. It starts as a dark brown sludge, then water is removed with heat until it resembles molasses. It is further refined to a clear liquid, then processed into the form of granules or powders.
Now, why would we want to use these soybean oil leftovers? That’s where the second word of the ingredient comes in: lecithin. Lecithin is an emulsifier (an ingredient that binds fat and water to prevent separation, helps ingredients mix smoothly, aids in dissolving, and controls crystallization) that was first known to be in eggs. 30% of an egg is lecithin!
Why do we see soy lecithin on so many processed foods? Commercial bakers use it because it helps extend the shelf life and quality of their products. Soy lecithin helps other ingredients to work together, mixing, dissolving, binding together, etc. It keeps chocolate smooth and non-hazy. It is the ingredient that keeps your peanut butter smooth and homogeneous instead of separated into peanut paste and oil. Above all, it is cheaper to extract the lecithin in large amounts from soy than from eggs.
So, if you’re making bread at home, you will likely use eggs in the dough. Your family is going to devour the delicious bread before shelf life issues like drying out could even begin. If you are a commercial baker, your bread is not going to make it from oven to table before going bad. Soy lecithin can do the job of eggs, without the spoilage of eggs. That bread will make it to the consumer’s table in the same condition it left the commercial bakery.
Do you have any mystery ingredients in your food? Comment with your food question and I’ll see what we can find out!