If you follow a vegan diet carefully, you have to pay close attention to what ingredients are included in your food products, your skincare solutions, and even your makeup. Being vegan isn’t just avoiding dairy and animal products; it includes only using ingredients that are sourced from sustainable manufacturing methods and that don’t cause animal cruelty either directly or indirectly.
So where does lecithin fall on the range from anti-vegan to vegan friendly? Turns out, it’s a bit complicated.
Lecithin is a common emulsifying compound with a long history and a very complex manufacturing processes in this day and age. It can be difficult for vegans to know whether lecithin is vegan or not, especially since there are two types of lecithin you might consume in your products.
Today, let’s explore what lecithin is, what it’s used for, and break down whether lecithin is vegan depending on its source and manufacturing methods.
What is Lecithin?
Before we can get into the weeds of whether lecithin is vegan or not, we have to break down what lecithin is in the first place.
“Lecithin” is actually a relatively generic term that includes a variety of fatty compounds like fatty acids, phospholipids, phosphoric acid, triglycerides, glycerol, and glycolipids. All of these are very important for bodily functionality or energy processing, so it’s often helpful to just speak of all of them by saying lecithin.
In nature, lecithin can be found in the tissues of animals and plants. Therefore, it can be tricky to determine whether lecithin in a food or product recipe or formula is vegan friendly or not.
What is Lecithin Used For?
Most of the time, lecithin is used in various products like foods, makeup, and more as an emulsifier.
Emulsifiers are compounds that let you mix ingredients, such as oil and water, more than they would naturally. Think of them as binding agents that prevent disparate ingredients from falling apart or drifting away like they would normally. In nature, you can find lecithin as an emulsifier in egg yolk; when you make mayonnaise, it’s the emulsifying effect of lecithin that causes the mixing reaction to occur.
For another example, vegan mayonnaise uses tofu in place of egg yolk. The emulsifying effect of lecithin is still responsible for mayonnaise by mixing the different compounds together thoroughly.
Furthermore, lecithin is used as an emulsifier in a variety of prepared foods like ice cream, salad dressing, baked goods like bread and cookies, and much more. If you need a relatively thick sauce, some type of lecithin may be necessary to ensure the compounds don’t break apart or spread out.
Because of all these uses, the FDA has a major interest in lecithin and what manufacturers use it properly. According to the FDA, lecithin is generally recognized as safe and doesn’t usually come with any side effects. That said, you’ll still need to know whether a specific type of lecithin is vegan-friendly before adding it to your diet.
Soy vs. Sunflower Lecithin
There are two types of vegan-friendly lecithin you might come across. These include soy lecithin and sunflower lecithin.
Soy lecithin is derived from soybeans, as its name suggests. So far, so good for vegans! You can often find powdered soy lecithin without any extra ingredients, marking these as clearly vegan-friendly no matter what. That said, if you find soy lecithin used in gel capsules, it’s probably not vegan since it will usually be mixed with other products.
Additionally, depending on your definition of what constitutes “vegan-friendly”, soy lecithin may not actually be a good choice because soy is oftentimes planted in cleared lands that used to be rainforests. By definition, this would not be very environmentally friendly. Rainforests are hugely important for the ecosystem of the earth and destroying them can indirectly cause animal cruelty.
Therefore, if soy lecithin comes from destroyed rainforests, it’s probably not vegan-friendly by most definitions.
One last thing – since soy lecithin naturally comes from soybeans, you may need to be careful if you have a soy allergy. A diagnosed soy allergy can lead to a variety of side effects, like skin rashes, difficulty breathing, and more. So if you are allergic to soy, you should instead look for sunflower lecithin.
What About Sunflower Lecithin? Is It Vegan?
What about sunflower lecithin? As with soy lecithin, some sunflower lecithin is vegan and some sunflower lecithin is unfortunately not. Typically, if you find sunflower lecithin in either liquid or powder forms, you are good to go. But many other sunflower lecithin supplements will include animal products like glycerin, gelatin, and bovine cellulose.
For the best results, you’ll want to target lecithin from organic or vegan-friendly companies to be sure.
So, is Lecithin Vegan?
Bottom line: lecithin is only vegan if you can be sure that it is made without harming the environment or without being mixed with animal products. In most cases, the only vegan-friendly lecithin varieties are soy lecithin powder and pure liquid or powder sunflower lecithin.
In our eyes, this makes lecithin sometimes vegan and sometimes not. As mentioned, you’ll want to do some research before choosing a skincare solution or food product that contains lecithin, as it’s very easy to accidentally use or consume lecithin that was harvested in immoral or environmentally unfriendly ways.
It all boils down to what constitutes “vegan” to you. Are you mostly focused on vegan products that don’t come from animals or animal by-products? In that case, lecithin should be good to go so long as it comes from soybeans or from sunflower seeds.
But if you’re vegan lifestyle also includes a focus on environmental friendliness, lecithin is much sketchier and you’ll have to be careful before incorporating it into your diet.
The vegan lifestyle is always evolving, and it can be tough to know which ingredients or foods are safe for your diet. Fortunately, we’ve got a collection of vegan recipes and even vegan-friendly restaurant menus plus other vegan information for you to check out. See what else we offer today!