Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Dangers of Using Soy Lecithin

"You should title this post How I killed my husband with foam," said Jason. Ok, let's not get too dramatic. Jason will live. But he is in a good bit of pain right now, and it is my fault.

I heard a quiet whimper as Jason was brushing his teeth last night. "What's wrong?" I asked. "I got a canker sore," he answered. Canker sores are painful open sores in the mouth and unfortunately, Jason lived with them most of his life because the traditional dental establishment failed to recognize until recently that normal toothpaste is a major cause. Yes -- that wonderful tool of modern dental hygiene irritates some people's mouths so much that they end up with sores.

The culprit is Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). It's a detergent and some people are very sensitive to it. A few years ago, Jason switched to Trader Joe's Peppermint toothpaste, the only one he could find with no detergents, and voila -- no more canker sores. The fact that there was one in his mouth yesterday was a mystery to both of us. There was a short return of them when he tried a new toothpaste this summer called Squigle. It claimed to prevent canker sores by using poloxamer (a mild detergent) instead of SLS. As it turned out, no detergent was mild enough for Jason. The terrible sores came back. He switched back to TJ's, and life was good again. Could it be the lingering effects of Squigle, or...

No. It couldn't be. Soy lecithin? I have been playing with it a lot lately to make foams. But it's a food. Well, sort of. It's a food additive. Many commercial foods use it. It's approved by FDA; but hey, so are the toothpastes. I knew it was an emulsifier. In other words it helps oil and water stay together. But I also remember it being referred to as surfactant. That word sounded familiar, but I couldn't remember where I heard it before until now. Of course! I heard Jason refer to the cleaning agents in toothpaste as surfactants. Uh-oh. This couldn't be good.

"Is there a difference between a surfactant and a detergent?" I asked Jason. "No. Why?" he asked. "Because I think I know why you have a canker sore," I said. "Foam!!!" we said in one voice. We didn't know whether to laugh or cry. "I was going to suggest that you add a little drop of soap to all those stocks and juices to make foam," said Jason laughing. "As it turned out, that's exactly what I was doing," I answered.

Remember how I told you the stuff I got from Mark was legal? Well, not any more. Soy lecithin is officially outlawed in our house. The use of all other food chemicals is on hold until further investigation. Any chemists out there? Please help! What about versawhip, xanthan gum, agar-agar, ultra-tex 3, and the whole post-modern pantry? Are those surfactants too?

Please don't think I am on some food-should-be-natural-chemicals-are-evil crusade. One of my children is terribly allergic to completely natural and healthy foods: kiwi and eggs. There is nothing man-made about them, but his little body thinks they are toxic. I think there is a place for many chemicals that the food industry uses in people's home kitchens, just like there is a place for baking powder. I am sure 150 years ago, baking powder was considered a strange and unnatural ingredient, yet now there isn't a household without it. What I want is not a return to the good old "natural" days, but a good explanation about how these man-made substances work -- and that's not easy to get from contemporary cookbooks.


Unknown said...

Helen, I was going to comment on this in the Got Foam? post as I was dismayed that such an intelligent and talented chef as you might promote the use of additives normally reserved to highly processed foods in your recipes.

I don’t wish to say that “chemicals” are bad, “natural” food is good, at least not in a categorical sense, because, after all, all food is chemical and the names of chemical compounds normally found in and produced by the human body sound scary. But indeed the human body — and all life — are nothing less than advanced biochemistry.

That said, while I appreciate your interest in innovating in the quest for ever finer cuisine, I found the idea of vegetable foam made with ingredients unlikely to be found in a natural diet rather unpleasant, if not unwise.

Otherwise let me tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog and watching your videos. Genius!

Gary J Moss said...

Blogger screwed up. I don’t intend to make anonymous comments. Unknown = Gary J Moss

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Gary,

Do you know of other ill side effects of soy lecithin?

Actually, the food additives are all the rage these days. "Molecular gastronomy" is mostly using industrial food additives to produce upscale and interesting food instead of chicken nuggets :) Many very intelligent and very talented chefs are doing it and I don't find any problems with it. I realize how some people might find it unpleasant, but if you eat at some of the best restaurants (French Laundry, Alinea, etc), you are consuming these additives whether you know it or not.

Do you know of a way to produce foam without soy lecithin? I'd love to know. There are ingredients like agar-agar that I haven't experimented with yet.

Gary J Moss said...

Hi Helen,
I’m just an amateur and a consumer. My feeling about the use of chemicals and additives is not dogmatic, yet I feel strongly about avoiding them and eating food in which our bodies are accustomed to the molecules we have evolved to eat. Roughly speaking, you could say I’m an adherent of the paleo movement, but again, I’m not dogmatic about it. I do enjoy a good French or Italian bread with some of my meals, for example.

That said, I find it dismaying that today’s top chefs are widely using (according to what you say) food additives in a big way to achieve novel results. And I’m not sure why, because we have several centuries of fine recipes, long since out of fashion, that, if reintroduced in a creative way, would go a long way to enlarging our cuisine and keeping it novel.

But if we had to stick to our current traditions, I believe that there is simply no substitute for fresh foods, traditional foods, prepared in a professional manner — the way ou do. This belief is one reason I so much enjoy coming to your website.

As for the specific question of “foam,” isn’t this something that you could do with a creative combination of egg whites, cream of tartar, and/or some other traditional ingredients? I think the most novel approach would be that which refrained from using additives and found a way to create the desired effects using traditional ingredients. Isn’t that what classical French, Italian, and other fine cuisines are all about?

p.s. I do know that soy lecithin is a commonly used ingredient in processed foods. But I now avoid processed foods like the plague. I’m sure you would be the first to agree, for example, why wouldn’t you make your own mayonnaise using an egg, some water, some vinegar, pinch mustard, pinch salt, pinch sugar with pure-grade olive oil instead of buying the industrial stuff made with soybean oil and preservatives? We are finding out that seed oils in large quantities are not as good for us as they are touted to be. Indeed, they may actually be unhealthy for us when frequently consumed over the course of a lifetime.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi Gary,

Hi Gary,

What a lively discussion soy lecithin is generating :)

About the question of why chefs play with new ways to make food -- the same reason artists play with new ways to make art. Pissing someone off is part and parcel of the creative process.

The same argument that new flavors and textures are simply unnecessary can be applied to visual arts. Don't we have enough wonderful art already? If artists keep painting like da Vinci, we'll have more beautiful painting to look at. Instead they splash paint on canvas creating God knows what and call it art. Cooking is also a creative endeavor and today's chefs want to find a way to create something new.

It's wonderful if you decide to avoid processed food, but it's a personal decision. Besides, the line between natural and man made is very fuzzy. "Cream of tartar" is potassium bitartrate, which is a by-product of wine making. It is man made just like soy lecithin. Baking powder is so ubiquitous that no one considers it to be an additive, but it is also man made. So is commercial yeast. That's a very novel concept. Until a few hundred years ago, the only yeast people were baking with was natural yeast (that's how sour dough breads are still made).

In order for the classic cuisines to have developed over hundreds of years, many toxic substances were consumed and many people died. When potatoes were introduced in Europe, they killed many people because the fruit was poisonous. It took them a while to figure out that you should only eat the root. Before humans figured out to eat chanterelles and porcini, they consumed a good number of poisonous mushrooms.

The kind of stuff our media screams about now (margarine, preservatives, etc) are nothing compared to what our ancestors went through to give us the classic cuisines.

So why don't I eat margarine? Simply because butter tastes better :) I am a hedonist through and through. The first thing that informs my cooking is taste. The second is how do all the members of my family feel after the meal. If carbs make me feel hungry 2 hours later, or if soy lecithin gives my husband mouth sores, or if eggs give my child an allergic reaction, we reduce their use (and eliminate them completely for the person they bother). But those are our personal decisions. I know of people who have a bad reaction to food dies or xantham gum, or some other additives. Of course, they should avoid them. But recommending that others avoid them would be similar to me recommending to other parents that they don't give their children eggs.

I am familiar with Paleo movement. Like any diet, life style, or religion, it's a personal thing. If it works for you, that's all that matters. The regular diet of our family is not that far from Paleo, actually :)

My occasional experiments with hydrocolloids and low temperature cooking methods doesn't mean that I'll stop cooking classic French and Italian dishes. I love them! They are comforting and satisfying and that's a lot of what cooking is about.

Anonymous said...

I realize this is an old post but I thought it might be important to revive it. :D

Lecithin is a natural emulsifier extracted from eggs, sunflower seeds, or soybeans... though some non organic versions have been solvent extracted which could cause problems.

I get canker sores from normal toothpaste, dental disinfectant, hydrogen peroxide and a few other things, like raw tomatoes. But I have yet to get it from my organic lecithin or eggs which have plenty of natural occurring lecithin. If that changes, I'll let you know.

I put it to you that the solvent extractor is more the culprit as lecithin is also in the cell lining of the mouth, all your nerve endings and most of your brain. It even aides in the transport of brain chemicals, hormones, and amino acids. It's very good for you.

Just a thought: all additives are not bad for you. Some are natural and fine when processed properly.

That being said, I empathize with the pain of canker sores which can also come from too much ascorbic acid or vitamin C...which is another thing I cannot take. Good luck.

Helen Rennie said...

Hi there,

So sorry you suffer from canker sores. I should have labeled that zip lock bag in the picture more carefully. It's soy lecithin. My husband can have normal lecithin (in eggs, etc) just fine. He can also have small amounts of soy lecithin, but we can't have foams every day :) Lately he's been taking some supplements (N-Acetylglucosamine) that has helped with canker sores tremendously.