In the fine chocolate industry there is a tendency to have strong, fierce, “black-or-white” kind of opinions on every subject. Whether it’s CCN-51, raw chocolate or Fairtrade certifications, nobody is afraid to take sides when it comes to certain hot topics. Chocoholics are passionate creatures, indeed.
But there is a subject that makes even the most confident minds wonder. It’s not entirely positive or entirely negative. Discussions about it could go on and on for days, and also experts are not quite sure where to stand.
The protagonist of such controversy? A mysterious additive called Soy Lecithin.
The reason why soy lecithin is such a debatable ingredient is because it can be seen as either:
- a practical tool that makes the bean-to-bar process easier,
- an unnecessary addition to cut corners in a cheap and lazy way.
Before figuring out the right answer and forming any judgement, let’s analyze soy lecithin from every perspective. First of all, let’s see WHAT soy lecithin exactly is.
Technically, soy lecithin is a phospholipid (shall we just call it “fat”?) derived from soybeans. Practically, it’s an industrial waste product: it is extracted from the sludge that is left after the soy oil undergoes a degumming process.
This is why soy lecithin is the most common type of lecithin on the market; it’s a byproduct which is easily and inexpensively derived from soybean oil manufacturing (the lion’s share of vegetable oils in North America). Physically, it presents itself in liquid form as a yellow-brownish fatty substance with a fairly thick viscosity.
Next: WHERE can we find soy lecithin?
Soy lecithin is found in way more products than we might think, especially packaged foods. Manufacturers like this additive so much because it serves two convenient purposes:
- it’s an emulsifier. The goal of an emulsifier is to bind somewhat equal parts of water and oil together, which they ordinarily would never do. That’s why we often see it in creamy salad dressings, mayonnaise, reduced-fat buttery spreads and other foods that have a hefty portion of oil.
- it’s a surfactant. The goal of a surfactant is to reduce the surface tension of liquids, which allows them to spread out faster and be absorbed quicker. For this reason, soy lecithin is often added to cake and other baking mixes so that water stirs more easily, with fewer stubborn lumps in the batter.
Now that we have a better understanding of soy lecithin, let’s see HOW it is used in the manufacturing of chocolate.
Soy lecithin has no “emulsifying” purposes in chocolate, since the latter doesn’t contain any water (although it can fix water problems caused by humidity). The main purpose of adding soy lecithin to chocolate is to lower its viscosity. This gives a more workable consistency to the chocolate, which becomes easier to temper and to mold. The same result could be achieved by adding cocoa butter, which is unfortunately way more expensive.
If you read the ingredients list of a chocolate bar, you will see that soy lecithin (if present) is listed among the very last ingredients. This is because a little lecithin goes a long way. Chocolate makers only need to add a tiny amount to their creations. If 3.0% or 4.0% additional cocoa butter is needed to thin down a coating, only 0.5% of lecithin would be needed to get the same result. However, there is a limit for lecithin. After 0,5%, the reducing effects on viscosity stop and can even start to go the other way and increase the viscosity. But chocolate makers never surpass that amount anyway.
The best time to add soy lecithin to the chocolate is at the last stage (in the melangeur or conching machine), since it takes only a few minutes for the lecithin to incorporate.
After gathering all these details, time has come to understand WHY some chocolate makers use soy lecithin in their creations and why others don’t.
Let’s start with the positive attributes:
- As mentioned above, soy lecithin lowers the viscosity of the chocolate. What does it mean? It means that the chocolate becomes “thinner” and its flow properties are improved. Chocolate with soy lecithin has a more workable consistency that makes it easier to temper and to mold. This makes the job of the chocolate maker easier.
- Soy lecithin and cocoa butter are added to the chocolate with pretty much the same purpose. Again, to make the chocolate flow better during the bean-to-bar process. However, soy lecithin wins over cocoa butter for price and quantity. Cocoa butter is way more expensive and is needed in larger quantities to achieve the same result. Replacing cocoa butter with soy lecithin makes the entire process less expensive.
- Soy lecithin is particularly useful to chocolate manufacturers who use larger machine setups. Since it reduces viscosity, chocolate with soy lecithin works better through large pipes and machines. This addition prevents the chocolate (especially the one with a high percentage of cacao) from getting stuck somewhere along the process without moving.
- As we mentioned, soy lecithin does not behave like an emulsifier (binding water and oil) in chocolate. But sometimes, either due to a lighter roast, humidity or because of certain ingredients (some sugars and milk powder) that easily absorb water, water does make it into the chocolate. The addition of a small amount of lecithin keeps the water from causing problems such as seizing or thickening the chocolate.
- Soy lecithin also improves the shelf life of a chocolate product, increasing its profitability, and improves sugar crystallization, keeping the chocolate from blooming too easily.
Now onto the negative attributes that make soy lecithin an unwanted addition for many professionals and consumers:
- If on one side soy lecithin makes the bean-to-bar process easier, on the other side it alters the texture and the taste of the chocolate. Regarding texture, many consumers complain that soy lecithin confers a “waxy” consistency to the chocolate. This is nothing similar to the creaminess and the roundness that added cocoa butter would give to the chocolate. It is more a candle-like, plastic consistency that is not always pleasant for the palate. Also, adding soy lecithin doesn’t help with bringing out the intrinsic aromas of cacao. If cocoa butter helps to bring flavors to the taste buds, soy lecithin is said to actually flatten tasting notes and contribute to the standardization of the chocolate.
- Soy lecithin naturally occurs in soybeans, but the way it is produced is nothing natural. To get it from the soybeans, it needs to be extracted with harsh chemical solvents, like hexane and acetone. Moreover, soy lecithin is bleached to transform the color from a dirty brownish hue to a light yellow. Being the result of industrial activities and containing toxic solvent residues, it is understandable why chocolate consumers wouldn’t want it in their bodies.
- Commercial soy these days is almost always genetically modified. So unless the label says ‘organic soy lecithin’, it probably came from a genetically modified soybean. Organic lecithin is produced using a mechanical process without the use of chemical solvents. However, its cost is way higher than commercial soy lecithin, probably defeating the purpose of substituting it to cocoa butter in the first place.
You would expect to see ‘allergens’ among the negative attributes of soy lecithin (“Allergic to soy? Avoid soy lecithin!”). However, the matter is more complicated than that. The Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has this to say:
“Soybeans are well-recognized as allergenic foods, and the soybean allergens are found in the protein fraction. But the vast majority of this protein is actually removed in the soy lecithin manufacturing process.
Apparently, soy lecithin does not contain sufficient soy protein residues to provoke allergic reactions in the majority of soy-allergic consumers. Many allergists do not even advise their soybean-allergic patients to avoid soybean lecithin when it is included as an ingredient on food products.”
Many other medical sources confirm that the risk for an allergic reaction to soy lecithin and soy oils is low, but a reaction can occur. Studies show that most people who have an allergy to soy may eat products that contain soy lecithin and soy oils. Therefore, only individuals with an extreme allergy to soy or that are extremely sensitive to soy should stay away from chocolate containing soy lecithin.
In conclusion, there are as many reasons to be in favor of soy lecithin as there are to be against it. It is included in such small quantities that it might be ok to add it to chocolate. But since it’s an artificial ingredient, many won’t find it a good fit for craft chocolate. However, it could make things easier for chocolate makers who already have to face so many difficulties. But yet again, it alters the purity of chocolate and its original flavor and texture.
As you can see, developing a strong opinion on soy lecithin is not an easy task.
What do you think of soy lecithin in chocolate?
I did NOT get paid and did NOT receive any kind of favor for writing this article. These are my honest opinions at your service.