History of Soy Lecithin - Page 2

by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi

A Chapter from the Unpublished Manuscript, History of Soybeans and
Soyfoods, 1100 B.C. to the 1980s

©Copyright 2004 Soyfoods Center, Lafayette, Californi

Page 1 | Page 2


The Early Years (1923-39) . The US fell heir to extensive early research and development on lecithin and soy lecithin done in Europe. The earliest known reference to soy lecithin in the US was in 1923, when Bollmann was issued a patent on a "Process for Obtaining Lecithin from Vegetable Raw Materials" (US Patent 1,464,557. Aug. 14). As early as 1923 a man named James W. Conway, who owned a small diversified business in Atlanta, Georgia, came to appreciate the potential of solvent extraction and lecithin recovery. He and his associates negotiated with Bollmann for licenses under the latter's American patents. A pioneer plant was put under construction in Norfolk, Virginia, but for various reasons it never progressed to regular commercial operations. Yet the enterprise gave stimulus to the introduction of both soy lecithin and solvent extraction (Eichberg 1939). In 1928 Bollmann was issued two more US lecithin patents. One was for a "Process of Purifying Phosphatides Obtained from Oilseeds and the Like" (No. 1,667,767. May 1), which was a patent on refining lecithin, and the second was an improved version of his basic process (No. 1,673,615. June 12). The first US research on soy lecithin was published in 1925, when Levene and Rolf at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research in New York analyzed commercial soy lecithin from Europe, as described above. That same year they fractionated brominated soy lecithin, which indicated that this lecithin was a mixture of several individual forms. By 1931 they had used acetone to isolate cephalin, a concentrated constituent of the human brain, from soy lecithin.

The first soy lecithin appeared on the US market in 1929, when it was imported from Germany by American Associated Co. of Atlanta, Georgia, one of the subsequent founders of American Lecithin Corporation (Eichberg 1942). For the next 5 years all soy lecithin used in the US was imported from Germany and Denmark, the Danish product by Fries Bros. in New York. In 1932 Schweiger was issued a US patent (No. 1,892,588. Dec. 27) for producing a light-colored lecithin by bleaching it with hydrogen peroxide, a process that is still widely used.


One organization that pioneered in the introduction of lecithin to the US was the American Lecithin Corporation. It so happened that James W. Conway, mentioned above for his early interest in lecithin and attempt to start a plant, rented office space in a building owned by American Associated Companies (AAC), a mini-conglomerate in Atlanta. In about 1928 he started discussing his ideas with AAC, which contacted Hansa Muehle^ in Hamburg and assigned Joseph Eichberg, an AAC employee, to work on the project. In 1929 Eichberg and Bruno Rewald from Hansa Muehle^ traveled the US together, checking out prospects. In about 1930 American lecithin Corporation was incorporated in Atlanta, with Joseph Eichberg as president; most of the stock was owned by AAC, but Hansa Muehle^ may have owned a small portion. As the exclusive US representative of Germany's Hansa Muehle^, ALC acquired rights under the key lecithin patents from Hansa Muehle^ (then the leading lecithin producer in Germany and owner of patents granted to Bollmann, Rewald, and others), and prepared to grant licenses on the patents and lease the equipment to American companies interested in manufacturing lecithin in America. From 1930-1934 ALC imported lecithin from Germany and marketed it in the US, but it did not manufacture lecithin.

Commercial production of lecithin began relatively late in the US, which is not surprising when it is recalled that the soybean crushing and refining industries did not really begin their takeoff until the mid-1930s. In 1934 the Archer Daniels Midland Company (ADM), at their plant in Chicago, became the first in America to manufacture soy lecithin. Made under license under the Hansa Muehle^ patents via ALC, this was also the first commercial lecithin of any type made in America. The next year the Glidden Company, again under license from ALC, began making soy lecithin at their solvent extraction plant in Chicago. In 1934-35 ALC was reorganized as the American Lecithin Company to promote the production and sale of lecithin in the US and to give the major manufacturers a major share of the ownership. The stockholders of the new ALC were ADM, Glidden, Hansa Muehle^, American Lecithin Corporation, and Aarhus Oliefabrik, the Danish lecithin producer. The various patent positions were reconciled. Joseph Eichberg was president of the new ALC and Adrian D. Joyce, then president of Glidden, was Chairman of the Board. The new company was chartered in Ohio, where laws were favorable and Glidden's legal staff was located, but Eichberg and working headquarters were located in New York. Ross & Rowe, later acquired by ADM, were active in selling for the new ALC. As domestic production swelled, imports from Europe dwindled. ALC's main source of income was from development of markets for lecithin and profits on those sales; income from royalties on patents was secondary.


In 1935 two ADM research scientists, Sorensen and Beal (sp??), patented an extraction process (US Patent 2,024,398. Dec. 17) using hexane; this led to hexane becoming the standard solvent for vegetable oil extraction in the US. The new hexane process yielded less lecithin than the Bollmann ethanol-benzol process; of the 1.5-3% phosphatides in whole soybeans, roughly 1% was left in the meal (Eichberg 1939). However the new lecithin had a much lower carbohydrate content and a much better color, odor, and flavor (less bitter). Hence, it found more widespread acceptance. Nevertheless, ADM (and Glidden) continued to operate under license on a number of other Hansa Muehle^ patents, as for bleaching and various applications. Glidden first began to market its own lecithin in 1946 ( Soybean Digest 1946) and ADM followed suit in about 1950, when it stopped selling through ALC. ALC went its own way too; in 1947 it first started to do some of its own additional processing and refining of lecithin, making various specialty products, for bakers and others. After severance of marketing ties with Glidden and ??, ADM (American Lecithin Company??) continued to license others to manufacture lecithin under some of the patents and then bought lecithin from them and marketed it. In about 1959 Eichberg and ALC moved back to Atlanta and organized a new corporation. Today ALC is still active buying and selling lecithin and making some compositions of their own, though all the early patents have, of course, expired.

Egg yolks, although used in only small amounts for pharmaceutical purposes, were the leading US source of lecithin until 1935, when they were passed by soybeans. At the time of its introduction to the US in 1929, soy lecithin sold for $1.40 a pound, or about 15 times the price of soy oil. The price quickly dropped, especially as production began in America. By 1939 the price had fallen to $0.47 a pound, about 1/3 of the 1929 level, and by 1942 to $0.25-$0.30 a pounds, which was then about 2.5 times the price of soy oil (Eichberg 1939, 1942). By 1950 it sold for about $0.15 a pound, or about the same price as soy oil, which was much less than egg yolk lecithin. Of course, soy lecithin was a by-product of soy oil refining, which was key factor in its low cost. Soy lecithin replaced egg yolk lecithin primarily because of its lower price, but also because it had excellent emulsifying and other functional properties, plus its good taste and color.


The various food and industrial uses for lecithin that had been developed in Europe were quickly adopted in America. As in Europe, the two earliest applications were in chocolate and margarine. The first commercial lecithin brought to America in 1929 was used in chocolates and shortly thereafter it came to be used in at levels up to 0.3% in margarines. By helping to counteract spattering and sticking, it served to transform margarine into a more universal household fat, for kitchen as well as table spread use (Eichberg 1939, 1947). By the mid-1930s lecithin was also increasingly used in cosmetics, soaps, paints, shortening, textiles, and rubber.

During the 1930s various scientists and manufacturers helped to make lecithin better known and understood in the US. Dr. A.A. Horvath, in numerous articles and speeches (1931c, 1935, 1936, 1937) discussed the importance of lecithin and in 1936 noted: "If the soybean oil mills in our country had extracted in 1934 only one-fourth of the phosphatides contained in the 7,000,000 bushels of crushed beans that were produced, it would have yielded about 3,500,000 lb of technical grade phosphatides and provided an additional income of nearly $1,500,000." Henry Ford, in 1938, began to work with lecithin as part of his chemurgy campaign (see Chapter 63) and he was soon using it to extend the life of rubber products in his cars.

During the mid-1930s a growing number of articles appeared in the technical literature discussing the manufacture, composition, and applications of soy lecithin. Of particular interest were the reviews of Working (1936), Wiesehahn (1937), and Eichberg (1939).

US Research on the Therapeutic Value of Lecithin (1931-1980s) . Research on possible therapeutic, pharmaceutical, and nutritional uses of lecithin, already well underway in Europe, began in the US in the early 1930s, at about the same time as commercial lecithin production. Several points are worth noting concerning this research, which has continued to date: first that extensive research has been done; second that it is largely unreported in the popular literature that makes strong claims for the therapeutic value of lecithin; and third that much of the research is generally considered inconclusive. The earliest lecithin research in the US was done with animals using egg yolk lecithin. In 1931 and 1932 three studies on the effects of lecithin on the pancreas and liver functions of dogs were published in the American Journal of Physiology and the Journal of Physiology were promising. By 1943 at least 16 animal experiments had been published (American Lecithin Co. 1944).


In about 1939 the American Lecithin Co. began to give grants to sponsor lecithin research in the US and to bring lecithin to the attention of the medical profession. A number of scientists and physicians did studies of the therapeutic value of soy lecithin. In about 1944 the results of these and other promising studies, all already published in reputable scientific journals, were collected by ALC into a 23-page booklet entitled Soybean Lecithin . The ten human studies included those on lowering high serum cholesterol, absorption of vitamin A, psoriasis, and liver disorders. There were also summaries of 16 animal studies. A number of the more significant human studies will be summarized below. In the early 1940s American Lecithin Co. introduced, for therapeutic purposes, a cookie type product with a lecithin filling called Lexo Wafers and then in about 1945 called GRANULESTIN, consisting of mainly granular lecithin plus small amounts of wheat germ. In 1946, after Glidden and ALC had separated, Jack Lathe of Glidden in Chicago began to push the sale of granular lecithin aggressively in the health food market. Glidden packaged the product under their own label as "RG Granules" (J. Eichberg 1983, personal communication).

Many of the early US studies on the therapeutic value of lecithin were concerned with its ability to combat arteriosclerosis and reduce serum cholesterol levels. During the early 1940s, when extensive research began, it was noted that lecithin, originally present in many traditional whole and unprocessed foods, was increasingly considered a nuisance (especially in vegetable oils and whole grains) and was removed or altered by modern refining techniques, thus increasing the likelihood of a dietary imbalance or deficiency (Eichberg 1942). In 1942 Kesten and Silbowitz fed soy lecithin to rabbits maintained on an atherogenic diet. Hypercholesterolemia (high serum cholesterol) and arteriosclerosis were reduced in five of the seven animals. In 1943 Adlersberg and Sobotka (Ref??) reported striking decreases in serum cholesterol levels in five human patients receiving 12-15 grams daily of unrefined soy lecithin in the diet for 2-3 months. Six months after the lecithin supplements had been discontinued the cholesterol concentrations had returned to their former high levels. Similar results in treating atherosclerosis and hypocholesterolemia were obtained by Steiner and Domanski (1944 Ref??), who administered 25 gm of soy lecithin in the diets of eight patients for 6 weeks. In 1952 Pottenger and Krohn fed 122 patients a diet high in saturated fats and cholesterol, then administered 1 teaspoon of soy lecithin at mealtimes to 99 of the patients. Blood cholesterol showed a marked decrease in 79% of the patients who took the lecithin, but not in those who did not take it. In 1958 Morrison, in a very impressive study, administered 1-2 tablespoons of soy lecithin (containing only 3% soy oil) to patients with high serum cholesterol levels, which low fat diets and other cholesterol lowering agents had been unable to cure. Effective and statistically significant reduction in serum cholesterol occurred in the majority of the patients treated; 12 of the 15 patients treated showed a striking reduction of 41% or 156 mg in 3 months following lecithin intake.

Lecithin was used to combat other diseases as well. In 1940 Jukes showed it to be an essential factor in the prevention of fatty degeneration of the liver. Goldman (1942) and Smith, Goldman, and Fox (1942 Ref??) used it in the treatment of psoriasis. Pottenger (1944) used it to cure a wide range of skin diseases, including keratoses (horny growths), eczema, and scleroderma. Dietrich (1950??) administered lecithin and vitamin E to reduce insulin requirements of diabetics. During the 1950s lecithin was also reported to be useful in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and was recommended as a source of choline and inositol, both important B-vitamins, and of polyunsaturated linoleic acid, found in the soy oil; egg lecithin, by contrast, contains primarily saturated fatty acids.

Research on using lecithin to combat coronary heart disease slowed during the 1960s and 1970s, despite the greatly increased concern with the disease, America's number one killer, and despite unequivocal earlier successes in lowering serum cholesterol. There were several possible reasons for this. First, the big pharmaceutical companies had little incentive to spend large amounts of research money on proving that lecithin, a natural food, had therapeutic value, since they would be unable to get a money-making patented compound out of it. The lecithin would be available to anyone at low cost. Second, lecithin, being a complex natural food, was not as highly regarded by the medical profession as if it had been a pure chemical substance; nor was it considered wise to try to prove that a natural food could have therapeutic value. The Western medical and nutritional professions looked down on such notions. Third, the growing natural- and health-food industries looked to lecithin manufacturers to conduct studies on the health benefits of their product, but the small profits from lecithin sales would not warrant the large cost of such studies. And fourth, a number of researchers (as summarized by Wood and Allison 1981) were unable to show that lecithin lowered serum cholesterol or other lipids. Despite all this, popular interest in lecithin grew dramatically after the mid-1950s, together with the rising popular concern with cholesterol and heart disease. Interest was fueled by books (such as Adelle Davis' Let's Eat Right to Keep Fit , 1954) and health food magazines (such as Prevention ) that brought positive findings on lecithin and cholesterol reduction to the attention of the growing natural- and health food movements. Many scientific studies continued to show promising results. In 1965 O. Davis and co-workers (Ref??) studied 362 patients with high serum cholesterol who were maintained on their usual diet supplemented by 25 gm per day of soy lecithin for periods of 6-18 weeks. Plasma cholesterols were significantly reduced in 6 weeks and were maintained in 192 patients who were observed after 18 weeks. Six weeks after the regimen was stopped a rise in cholesterol was noted. Skorepa et al. (1976) reported that the consumption of 1.8 gm per day of phosphatidyl choline (chemically pure lecithin) for 8 weeks reduced total serum cholesterol by 12% in 12 hypercholesterolemic patients. Beil and Grundy (1980 Ref??) found that sustained administration of 25 gm per day or more of lecithin gave best results in reducing the size and numbers of chylomicrons (lipid particles formed in the blood during fat assimilation) and lowering the plasma cholesterol content.

During the 1970s some new directions in the therapeutic use of lecithin were investigated. Various researchers found it effective in the treatment of tardive dyskinesia (define??), in restoring memory, and combatting various neurological disturbances?? By the early 1980s a remarkably large body of research existed on the therapeutic uses of lecithin, however it was somewhat inconclusive, with some contradictory findings. In addition, the 1976 "Peeters Report," funded by a major German lecithin seller, both stirred up controversy and added interesting new research findings (see Europe, above). Then in 1979 an entire book on Choline and Lecithin in Brain Disorders , edited by Barbeau et al. (Ref??) was published. Its findings looked promising??

For these and other reasons, in 1981 the Bureau of Food of the US Food and Drug Administration contracted with the Life Sciences Research Office of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology to do a comprehensive review of the literature. Wood and Allison, in their report

"Effects of Consumption of Choline and Lecithin on Neurological and Cardiovascular Systems," containing over 300 references, concluded that while regular consumption of soy lecithin lowers cholesterol content, the preponderance of evidence indicates that a diet rich in unsaturated fats and oils is more effective in doing this, although there are some data to the contrary. "There is little basis for ascribing benefits or hazards to healthy persons from supplementation of their diets with lecithin or choline." However it produced improvement in some patients with tardive dyskinesia and other neurological disorders, and may possibly lead to improved memory. The lecithin industry apparently agreed with the generally cautious tenor of the report. For example, in 19?? when Central Soya published a promotional brochure on their granular lecithin, they noted that "The therapeutical benefits of soy phosphatides have not been fully established . . . " There was general agreement that the most promising interest lay in the possible use of lecithin to treat neurological and nervous disorders, and to affect aging and memory. Szuhaj (1983) noted: "Research work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has shown that lecithin is effective in reducing the symptoms of specific neurological disorders. The findings have led medical researchers into exploring the effects of lecithin and memory. Their findings over the next decade will prove most interesting."

The US Lecithin Industry and Market (1940-1980s) . Starting in the early 1940s, recovery and utilization of soy lecithin in the US began to grow very rapidly, from about 907 tonnes (2 million lb) in 1946, to 3,629 tonnes (8 million lb and 20% of total production) in 1947-48, up to 36,280 tonnes (80 million lb and 36% of total production) in 1976 (Stanley 1950; Brian 1976; Brekke 1980). The roughly two-thirds of all lecithin produced that was not recovered, since food and industrial markets could not absorb it, was left in the degumming emulsion and used in livestock feeds or sold for soap stock. By the early 1980s the US produced about 45% of the world's commercial lecithin (Szuhaj 1983). The great majority of the commercial lecithin produced in the US has always been soy lecithin, although small amounts from other vegetable oils (such as corn and sunflower oils) are also available.

In 1950 Joseph Stanley, of the Joseph Stanley Company in Chicago, wrote a 54-page chapter entitled "Production and Utilization of Lecithin" in Markely's classic work on soybeans. Containing by far the best English-language review of the world literature to date with hundreds of references, it also gave a clear picture of the history and present status of soy lecithin. Food and industrial applications were described in detail. The main food applications, in approximate order of importance, were margarine, chocolate, confectionery and ice cream, baked products, and macaroni. It listed specifications for the six basic types of commercial lecithins (plastic or fluid; unbleached, single-bleached, or double-bleached) established in 1946 by the National Soybean Processors Association, noted that practically all large users preferred fluid lecithin because it was easier to handle and dissolve, and added that "In commercial directories the term `lecithin' now means soybean lecithin, and the listings for egg lecithin have disappeared."

The use of lecithin in margarine expanded dramatically in the US during the 1940s, leaping from 37.6 tonnes in 1940 to 748.8 tonnes in 1950, a 20-fold increase in one decade (Howard 1951). By 1950 large amounts of synthetic emulsifiers, such as mono- and diglycerides, had come to be used in margarine, slowing the rate of lecithin usage (Bailey 1951). At least one booklet, Hewitt's Lecithin & Health (1957, 1978), promoted lecithin's therapeutic and health value.

As of 1983 the largest US producers of commercial lecithin, in approximate order of market share, were Central Soya, A.E. Staley, Archer Daniels Midland, Honeymead, Riceland, and Ralston Purina. Central Soya can trace the start of its rise to industry leadership back to 1958, when it greatly expanded its line of further-processed edible and industrial soy products by leasing, then purchasing the Glidden Company's soy lecithin business, with facilities in Chicago and Indianapolis. Included in this purchase were research facilities and a staff with broad experience in lecithin R&D. By the 1960s Central Soya had passed ADM to become America's leading maker of (soy) lecithin. In the late 1970s Central Soya began extensive advertising of their Centrolex brand oil-free (acetone extracted) lecithin granules to the health and natural food trades. In 1981 the company introduced Centrolex granular Lecithin with Fruit & Nuts in four new combinations: Apple & Cinnamon, Carob & Coconut, Coconut & Pineapple, and Almond & Carob. These widely advertised products were delicious sprinkled on cereals, salads, yogurt, ice cream, or by the spoonful, however the public never really discovered them. By the early 1980s Central Soya produced lecithins in more than 50 product variations of liquid and granular, sold under at least nine different brand names. Centrolex granules and Centrocap, a specially processed liquid lecithin, were used as dietary supplements.

During the late 1970s a small scandal rocked the US Lecithin and health food industries. In about?? 1971 or 1972 an article appeared in Family Circle magazine about a miracle diet containing apple-cider vinegar, vitamin B-6, and lecithin. Consumers rushed to buy lecithin at health food stores and soon a shortage occurred in the industry. At that time a food distributor named Trophic International Inc. in Orem, Utah, which was no longer able to get supplies of Central Soya's granular lecithin which they had previously carried, decide to develop new product to keep supply lines full. So in about 1972-73 they introduced a product consisting of about 60% defatted soy flour, 35% liquid lecithin, and small amounts of dolomite (rich in calcium and magnesium to balance lecithin's high phosphorus), choline, and inositol. They labeled their product "Higher Potency 400 mg Choline Inositol Soya Lecithin Granules" and noted on the label that the lecithin was (unlike most granules) made by an "acetone free process." Because of the high content of low-cost defatted soy flour, Trophic was able to substantially undersell regular lecithin granules. Trophic also published a booklet, Lecithin: What you Need to Know (Ref?? yr??), in which they questioned the terminology used by regular "lecithin granules" since they were only a refined fraction of regular lecithin, the lecithin phosphatides. In 1977 an independent laboratory analyzed Trophic's product, which by now was selling quite well. Whereas the Food Chemicals Codex (Ref??), a set of industry standards, specifies that any lecithin product must contain not less than 50.0% phosphatides and not more than 0.3% benzene-insoluble matter (such as flour), Trophic's product was found to contain only 21.2% phosphatides and 59.9% BIM. The American Lecithin Company, Central Soya, and others protested to the FDA. On 23 November 1977 the FDA wrote Trophic a letter and insisted that they change the deceptive name of their product to "Soy Flour and Soy Lecithin Granules with Choline." This letter was followed by others on 23 February and on 31 July 1978 in which the FDA demanded compliance. The final 3-page letter spelled out 40 violations. Trophic finally complied by changing their product name to "Soy and Lecithin Granules." In 1979 a number of major articles on the controversy appeared in national magazines, including Whole Foods (Fillip 1979) and Forum (Null 1979). On the question of acetone extraction, a spokesperson from American Lecithin Co. noted that the liquid lecithin and the defatted soy flour in the Trophic product were both obtained by extraction of soybeans with hexane solvent, and that any acetone remaining in the regular granules was well below the FDA limit of 30 parts per million. "I can see no virtue of hexane over acetone," he concluded (Fillip 1979). As of 1983 the Trophic product remains on the market under its corrected label, which quelled much of the controversy. According to Al Smith, founder of Trophic International, the product continues to sell well. It is used mostly by customers who get nervous, easily upset, or disturbed--to calm their nerves (personal communication 1983).

During the late 1970s a number of other lecithin products began to be sold to the booming health and natural food trades. These included Sunrise-brand soy lecithin and a mint-flavored soy lecithin marketed by Fearn Natural Foods. In the early 1980s Canasoy introduced Soya Lecithin Spread, which was marketed to the health food trade as a non-hydrogenated margarine for those concerned with eating hydrogenated fats. The ingredients, in order of predominance, were soy oil, soy lecithin, honey, carrot oil, (for color) and sea salt. By the early 1980s, in many health food and some natural food stores, soy lecithin (usually in easy-to-use granular form) was the best-selling and best-known food derived from soybeans.

In the bigger picture, the largest uses of commercial lecithin were probably in the baking industry, the paint and coatings industry, the margarine industry, and the chocolate-candy-confectionery industry. Health food uses were an extremely small part of the total usage. The most widely used grade/variety of lecithin was the standard commercial fluid unbleached soy lecithin. Deoiled granules, sold mostly for the health food trade, comprised a small share of total output. As of 1982, when Archer Daniels Midland stopped making granular lecithin, the only firms left producing that product were Central Soya and Arkansas Grain.


Although lecithin was first discovered and developed in Europe, it attracted interest in East Asia at a rather early date. The earliest references seen to lecithin was in 1897 when Hanai, a Japanese agricultural chemist, wrote a 4-page article in English titled "Physiological Observations on Lecithin." Soybeans were said to be a good concentrated source. The earliest known production of commercial lecithin in East Asia was in about 1923-26, when a commercial soybean processing plant was in operation at Imienpo, North Manchuria, extracting oil and phosphatides (lecithin) using the Tcherdynzev process. The oil was extracted with ethyl alcohol then the phosphatides were removed using calcium chloride (Horvath 1936; Matagrin 1939). By 1937 this or a similar product was being marketed as Soyalex. The high cost of the alcohol eventually led to its being discontinued as a solvent. In 1934 Ma and co-workers reported in a medical journal that lecithin could cure opium addiction (described above at Europe).

After the 1940s lecithin came to be widely recovered at soy oil mills and it found many food and industrial applications similar to those in the West.


Page 1 | Page 2