When looking at a chocolate’s ingredients list, usually you’ll see “lecithin (emulsifier)” somewhere near the end. Often you’ll also see a percentage and a type, almost always soy or sunflower. So what is lecithin?
Lecithin is actually a generic term, used to describe any amphiphilic— attracting both water & fatty substances— fatty substances which occur in animal and plant tissues. In food, lecithins are used to emulsify, smooth out texture, and repel sticking materials, while in medicine, plant lecithin is prescribed to naturally lower cholesterol. For commercial application, lecithin is most commonly extracted from soy or sunflower plants.
But what does lecithin do in chocolate?
Chocolate is naturally a very thick substance, even when melted. Lecithin is added to chocolate in order to lessen its viscosity, binding the cocoa butter, cocoa solids, sugar, and milk powder. This can be necessary when the ratio of fat to solids is off balance, as when the amount of cocoa butter naturally present in the cacao is lower; this can happen when the cacao is grown closer to the equator. Some makers choose to fix this problem by adding more cocoa butter, and therefore often lecithin in chocolate is seen as a negative. Many people even think of it as “cheating.”
But the more ingredients that are used in a chocolate recipe, the more complex the formulation, meaning that sometimes more cocoa butter isn’t the answer. Some makers use it just to lower the cost of materials, but other makers use it so as to not damage equipment or to preserve the integrity of the cacao’s origin. Added cocoa butter usually comes from a different origin from the base cacao, so adding it can dilute and change that cacao’s expression on the palate.
On the other hand, allergies to soy or sunflower can mean that the addition of lecithin to chocolate stops some people from enjoying it. However, for those with only a mild allergy, there is some good news: lecithin has about ten times the smoothing power of cocoa butter. This means that not only is it cheaper for makers, but you can use so much less of it for essentially the same effect, and sometimes in conjunction with added cocoa butter.
Lecithin is added to chocolate by weight, often shown on the packaging as a percentage, almost always below 0.1%. This is because after 0.5%, the viscosity-reducing benefits of lecithin actually begin to reverse; using more than this amount can even make the chocolate overly thick. This acts as a natural limit for the amount of lecithin used in chocolate, sort of like a supplement to boost the already-present fats.
Additionally, some people avoid products made with soy lecithin, as they feel that they can actually taste it when it’s been added. However, modern research hasn’t yet delved into testing how lecithins affect taste, so for now all of that is anecdotal. There is, on the other hand, a fair amount of research into fat as the sixth "flavor" which humans can detect in food (carbohydrates having been labelled as "sweet" and protein as "umami"). So it is possible that each soy and sunflower lecithin affect a person’s perception of fat on the tongue in a different way, leading to a slightly different tasting experience.
But why do some makers choose to use sunflower and others use soy lecithin?
Both soy and sunflower lecithin are a collection of phospholipids & oils derived from plants. The controversy stems from the growing of soy and the differences between how each lecithin is removed from the plant. The extraction process for soy lecithin involves the use of a chemical solvent, such as hexane, and then a “de-gumming” process which hydrates and then separates the lecithin. Most of the world’s soy is also derived from genetically modified plants, which many people seek to avoid.
Separately, sunflower lecithin is extracted using a cold-press process similar to that used for olive oil. Most sunflowers are also grown in organic farming situations, unlike soy, which is why sunflower lecithin is often thought to be superior to soy lecithin, despite being more expensive. It’s important to keep in mind, though, that in most processed foods lecithin makes up well under 1% of the total product.
So is lecithin in chocolate a bad sign? Well, not exactly. These days, lecithin is used in many processed foods, and plenty of ethically-made, delicious chocolate is crafted using a small amount. It’s up to you whether or not you give them a try.