Jessie recently wrote this question on the Incredible Greens product page:
I was interested in the product but a bit concerned about the large amount of soy lectin? I havr read quite a few scientific journals that indicate that soy lectin causes infertility and increased cancer cell growth rate. I was wondering why you chose to use it.
I’m not sure if it’s coincidence or not, but this is the sales trend since that comment was published:
It’s trending 40% below the previous month since the comment went up.
It’s the question that heard round the world. I posted links to other articles I’ve written about lecithin here and here, but apparently there’s something in the website’s style sheets that make links show up as white so you can’t see it against the background.
That’ll get fixed, but now is a good time to take a pair of tweezers and dissect lecithin with a lot of scrutiny so people can come to peace with the issue once and for all.
The Burning Questions
From the way I read the tea leaves people have the following questions about lecithin:
- What’s in it? and how much of what we read about soy applies to lecithin? This applies to the benefits of soy (cancer prevention, good source of protein) as well as the bad (cancer causation, hormonal effects, allergies)
- What does it do in your body? Ie, is it “good” or “bad” for you?
- Does it cause or prevent cancer? That age-old question that comes up with anything we end up eating a lot of.
- Is all lecithin the same or does lecithin vary in quality?
- What purpose does it serve in a supplement, specifically Health Kismet’s nutrient powders?
And since Jessie mentioned it, apparently there’s a perception that it has an effect on fertility too. Bombs away.
Let’s look at these issues one by one, shall we?
What It’s Made Of
Lecithin itself is an oily compound that’s made primarily from a type of molecule called a phospholipid, Phospholipds are fatty acids with phosphate groups attached at the end. This gives them the useful quality of being able to bind with fatty substances and watery substances simultaneously. That’s why it’s used so often in different foods. The technical term for this sort of compound is an “emulsifier.” Our cell membranes consist of phospholipids for this same reason, and an adequate supply of lecithin through the diet is the primary way the body gets the substrate necessary to build cell walls. Phosphatidylcholine and phosphatidylserine help make your cell membranes “squishy”, which makes it much easier for things to get transported into and out of them.
This is especially true of cholesterol, which directly uses lecithin-based transporters to go into and out of cells. For this reason lecithin supplementation has proven to be very useful for removing arterial plaque. (A scientific note: this study produced strong results — cholesterol reduction of over 40% with lecithin supplementation — but there have been no follow up studies and thus might not be entirely reliable). People with high cholesterol have a traffic jam of the LDL kind trying to get into cells, and the increased membrane fluidity from dietary lecithin helps grease the wheels of cellular flow.
Phospholipids come in a variety of flavors, but the big players are as follows:
The “choline” in phosphatidylcholine is also the “choline” in acetylcholine, which is your nervous system’s primary messenger particle. It’s for this reason that lecithin consumption has been linked to improved cognitive performance, particularly among the elderly.
What’s NOT in Lecithin
Lecithin is primarily made up of phospholipids, but it’s just as useful to discuss what’s not in it. Lecithin can come from organ meats, egg yolks, and sunflower oil, but the primary source of lecithin comes from soy beans and for this reason what people believe to be true of soy they believe to be true of lecithin by extension.
For a variety of reasons this isn’t always true.
Lecithin has virtually none of the protein or carbohydrate content found in soy beans and thus doesn’t have the same drawbacks or benefits that are commonly found in soy.
When it comes to negative perceptions that means lecithin does not have the allergens or estrogen-like activity of soy. Soy allergies arise from specific amino acid sequences in soy protein that your body doesn’t recognize, which causes your immune system to attack itself. The estrogen mimicking effect of soy primarily comes from the isoflavones in the soy bean, which are not present in lecithin fractions.
Of course this means that the stories of soy-mongering centenarians in okinawa bear no relevance to lecithin consumption either. Lecithin is made up almost entirely of different plant oils with trace amounts of carbs and fat soluble vitamins. The highly soy-allergic might be able to detect the presence of lecithin in products, but everyone else is in the clear. Lecithin itself is not allergenic.
There are differences in the quality of lecithin, but it’s not in its protein or isoflavone content. The big variable in lecithin quality is the amount of oil it carries. Unfractionated lecithin is about 30% soybean oil, and that’s not exactly something people need more of. Nutritional lecithin is de-oiled, leaving nothing but the biologically active phospholipids behind.
If you’re wondering, the lecithin used in our supplements has been purified to be 98% oil free (it’s also Non-GMO). This is the difference between the lecithin used in a nutritional supplement and the lecithin found on the ingredients list of a Reese’s Cup.
If you want to delve into some nerdy details about the different types of lecithin I suggest reading this primer by the American Lecithin company, which is the biggest supplier of lecithin in the US.
Lecithin and the Big C
So what about cancer?
Does lecithin prevent it, promote it, or a little bit of both?
The truth is that very little definitive research has been done on lecithin and cancer incidence so there’s little to say one way or the other.
However, with that said the Susan G. Komen foundation has come out and said that soy and its lecithin by-product are okay by their books, and in its most recent brief the American Center for Cancer Research has stated that the most recent evidence for the relationship between soy and cancer is modestly positive. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has given breast cancer patients the green light to consume it in moderation, and the only epidemiological evidence has turned up a positive correlation between lecithin consumption and lower than normal rates of breast cancer incidence.
Should any of this give you strong convictions about what leaves might be turned over about the link between lecithin and disease prevention in the future? No. Not really. The basic gist of all this information is more preliminary than substantive, but for the time being it’s the best information we have to frame the conversation.
Why Put Lecithin In A Supplement?
Nothing covered so far directly answers the question of why you’d want to put lecithin in a supplement, much less a greens powder.
I mean, phosphatidylcholine is useful and all, but why choose it over the abundance of other natural compounds which can heal our bodies?
The answer is that adding lecithin accelerates the benefits provided by the other ingredients in the supplement and makes them more synergistic. A big issue with any supplement is how fresh it’ll be when you actually open it, and how much of its ingredients will actually find their way into your body once they travel down your esophagus and into your stomach.
The latter two issues are the hardest quality assurance factors to control and lecithin helps a lot with both……and it doesn’t have any substitutes.
Simply put, other ingredients become more nutritious when they’re blended with lecithin. This is especially true for volatile, water soluble nutrients that degrade easily when exposed to air. That’s precisely the type of nutrient that’s found in a greens powder.
For example, the bio-avaibility of encapsulated resveratrol increases 38% when blended with lecithin vs. being taken on its own. And this increase in absorbance is present throughout the entire life of the product. From when it’s at the plant, shipped, and finally digested.
ConsumerLabs tested 11 different green foods product and found that 5 of them were contaminated and didn’t meet label claims. Significantly improving your odds of getting your product from farm to shelf is a big deal. If it can be done with a natural ingredient that’s health promoting in its own right then it represents a good tradeoff in the product development process.
Not one every manufacturer would make, but it’s enough to make me use it.
Lecithin also contributes to a product’s subjective qualities. Since it’s an emulsifier it allows you to put a greater variety of ingredients into a product and still keep it soluble. It also has a creamy mouth feel and masks bitter flavors and off-notes that are oh-so-present in green foods. If you combine lecithin with stevia you have an easy way to mute a lot of the collateral damage that comes with mixing a bunch of green goop together.
I’ve Tried to Use Less
Incredible Greens is popular in its niche due to its mild taste, mixability and probiotics. That’s mostly due to the lecithin content. I worried about the perception having lecithin would create, so for Health Kismet’s next two products the lecithin content was reduced drastically. It was cut down 85% in Incredible Berries and completely removed in the Purple Dragon.
I considered this a positive development. However, customer response for both has trailed that of Incredible Greens. When it comes to sales, Incredible Greens dominates:
The biggest complaint people have the Berries and the Dragon?
“It just doesn’t quite have the same texture and smooth feel that Incredible Greens has. I just don’t quite like drinking it as much as I do the greens.”
Well guess why?
Because they have less lecithin! They both have more of an aftertaste, aren’t as soluble, and have more concentrated taste sensations, which isn’t always a good thing when you’re dealing with botanical extracts.
So it’s a bit of a catch-22.
For atonement our next product Incredible Mood is going to pack more lecithin than either Incredible Berries or the Purple Dragon, but less than Incredible Greens. Probably 500mg/serving. (It’ll also have a lot of cocoa which will make things easier). It’ll also use sunflower lecithin instead of soy lecithin to alleviate some of the mood affiliations people have with soy at the moment.
Greens Powders without Lecithin
If you choose to avoid lecithin in your supplements you have no shortage of products to choose from. Lots of manufacturers deliberately avoid it to differentiate themselves.
Some of these products include but are not limited to:
1). Amazing Grass
3). Pure Synergy
4). Boku Superfood
5). Barleans Greens. (Not the chocolate kind, mind you).
There are much more if you’re willing to look hard enough. There are plenty of greens powders that pack it in too (including mine).
In fact there are so many greens powders out there that it’s practically guaranteed you’ll find a plethora of them containing any one single ingredient if you look hard enough.
And in Case You Forgot……
Jessie also had questions about lecithin and fertility.
It’d certainly be bad news if lecithin made us less potent between the sheets,wouldn’t it?
Not to worry folks, I’m not covertly killing your sperm count every time you sip my greens.
The concerns about soy and fertility come from articles like these. They mostly concern themselves with the phytoestrogen content in soy foods.
Two important points to remember here:
- There is no phytoestrogen content in lecithin. That’s concentrated in the isoflavones of the soy bean.
- Phytoestrogens have 1/1000 the impact of real estrogen, which isn’t enough to move the needle regardless. You don’t have to worry about spontaneously lactating if you regularly consume soy. The consensus right now is that phytoestrogens don’t affect the hormone levels enough to make a difference for all but a very small minority of people.
It’s used in a lot of male fertility supplements, but you should avoid those the same way you ought to stay away from the $15 Tiddy Bears sold in infomercials.
Alright guys, that’s it for now. Have a good week!