Can soybean oil and soy lecithin trigger an allergic reaction?


I’m drafting this post late one night in the hot muggy dark when I should be sleeping, would rather be sleeping, because I’ve spent the past hour awake and unable to successfully switch off. I think it’s because my brain is still percolating on today’s research and trying to fit it in with all of the other health-related research of the last few months; it’s rather like trying to put together one of those large jigsaw puzzles where you only have a vague idea of the expected outcome because you’ve lost the lid to the box which has the finished picture.

If you, or a family member or loved one, has been diagnosed with a soy allergy then you’re probably familiar with the phrasing that “the vast majority” (emphasis on the air quotes) of sufferers will not experience an allergenic reaction to soybean oil or soy lecithin. This does then rather prompt the question of, ‘Why not?’

What is Soybean Oil?

This oil is incredibly widely used worldwide. In the USA particularly it is apparently the most widely used edible oil taking up 55% of the market share in 2014. It’s cheap to obtain (because it’s grown year round in many countries as livestock feed), doesn’t have a lot of inherent flavour, and is proven to be highly adaptable and stable for uses within the food industry.

This is problematic if you’re allergic to it because it can appear in anything from dried fruit (like sultanas), to peanut butter, to cookies, to non-dairy coffee creamers. Anything that contains undeclared “vegetable oils” becomes suspect because there is a high likelihood that part (or all) of that is soybean oil.

The soybeans are cracked, heated, rolled, solvent-extracted with hexanes, refined, and then may be further blended and/or hydrogenated (partially or fully). Some sites discuss health concerns about soybean oil purely to do with potential adverse health concerns relating to hexanes, hydrogenation, or trans-fats. I haven’t researched those sufficiently to have formed an opinion so I’ll leave that to readers to follow up on should they wish.

What is soy lecithin?

To make soy lecithin, soybean oil is extracted from the raw soybeans using a chemical solvent (usually hexane). Then, the crude soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process, wherein water is mixed thoroughly with the soy oil until the lecithin becomes hydrated and separates from the oil. Then, the lecithin is dried and occasionally bleached using hydrogen peroxide. (1) (2).

Soy lecithin is used as an emulsifier to help stabilize food products and prevent them from separating out into their component forms (like in chocolate or margarine). Sometimes it will be declared on food packaging in full (i.e. soy lecithin), other times there is simply an additive number; 322 is almost always soy, 471 often so.

Can soybean oil or soy lecithin trigger an allergic reaction?

That’s really the crux of the matter if you (or loved one) has been diagnosed as allergic to soy. I’ve seen the full gamut of opinion online and in published books.

Some sources will argue that the high heats used to produce soybean oil and soy lecithin denature the allergenic proteins; others argue that there are no soy proteins in these products (or so few that they can’t cause a reaction). Admittedly, some of these articles I suspect of having a commercial bias.

Some take the middle ground and say that “the vast majority” of people sensitive to soy will not have an allergic reaction and to discuss it with your medical specialist (which you should do).

Some argue that it is difficult to accurately test concentration levels of soybean protein in these products and that often there is no legal requirement to do so (or insufficient oversight for sufficient regulatory surety). For instance, one study in 2001 found that the level of proteins found in six lecithin samples ranged from 100 to 1,400 ppm (parts per million); that’s a big range even in such a small sample size. By comparison, the 2013 ruling by the FDA required that gluten-free foods contain less than 20 ppm (3).

There don’t seem to be large-scale studies into using these products to trigger IgE antibodies. Small studies publishing in 1998 seem to suggest that these can cause an allergic reaction but only in some people that are allergic to soy (4, 5). One (non-medical) article suggested that sensitivity to soy lecithin may be linked to gut permeability (i.e. the more damaged and inflamed the gut has become, the more susceptible one becomes to even the tiniest trace of soy protein).


Yes, it is possible to have an allergic response to soybean oil and/or soy lecithin. Miss 2 appears to be allergic to soybean oil and I have reason to suspect that soy lecithin may also be a problem. Anecdotally, I’ve read blogs by people that react to these and corresponded with others that have. Working out if you’re allergic to soybean oil and/or lecithin can be a lengthy and frustrating process that often comes back to food diaries, trial and error, and consulting with a medical specialist.

Part of the problem with these two products is the possible variations; one day a food product might contain sufficient ppm of soy protein to trigger a reaction and another time it might not. For instance, leaving aside questions of general health, take the following example:

One Friday night you go to the supermarket and purchase (A) ice cream and (B) ice cream cones; both of these products contain soy lecithin as emulsifiers.

  • How much soy protein is in the separate batches of lecithin in products (A) and (B)? What if one has 18 ppm and the other has 1650 ppm?
  • What percentage of each product is made up of soy lecithin? What if one product is 5% and one product is 0.5%?
  • How much of each product are you consuming? What if your ratio of ice-cream to cone is 4:1 ?
  • What if the only reason you have a reaction is because of allergenic loading; i.e. you’re not actually reacting to (A) or (B) but rather to the combined exposure as a result of (A) + (B)?

Maybe you react and maybe you don’t. Maybe you buy exactly those same products (from exactly those same manufacturers) a month later and you do react because one or more of those questions above has a different answer.

Final conclusion: Food allergies suck.

I feel like I should make some off-the-cuff remark like “Food allergies suck (but not as much as vampires)” just to lighten the mood but the reality is that they do. Kia kaha, stay strong.


Chocolate Irish Potato Cake (Vegan & Allergy Friendly)



  • 4T ground linseed/flaxseed + 6T hot water
    • OR use 4 eggs.
  • 1c hot unseasoned mashed potato (instant is fine)
    • 1c of potato flakes + approx. 3/4c boiling water makes 1c mashed potato.
  • 1c hot water
  • 3/4c rice bran oil
    • OR 3/4c softened butter
  • 1 1/2c sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2c flour (or gluten free baking mix)
  • 2 1/4 tsp Baking Powder
  • 1/2 tsp Baking Soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 1/4c cocoa
  • Optional: 1 tsp cinnamon

Allergies: soy free, dairy free, egg free, peanut free, tree nut free, gluten free*.

Note: I’ve included ingredient options so that you can choose whether to use butter & eggs; I made mine without. It’s worth having a recipe like this even if you don’t have allergies. It’s great if you’ve run out of other ingredients (or would rather use the eggs for breakfast!), it’s cost effective, it’s allergy friendly to share with others, and you’re getting extra nutrients + fibre from the linseed. The other fabulous thing about linseed as an egg replacement is that it makes cakes and breads beautifully moist.

My inspiration for this recipe came from finding potato flakes in a bulk foods store and wondering what I could do with them. I gather from the internet that in some countries (like the USA) it’s reasonably common to find potato flakes or instant mashed potato at the supermarket; elsewhere, have a hunt in bulk food and health food stores.


Note: This is a thick batter and you’ll get the smoothest batter by using a food processor. You can also use a big mixing bowl and electric hand mixer but in that case you’ll want to go a bit slower (i.e. egg, beat, egg, beat, etc. and alternate the potato & dry ingredients) to blend & aerate it.

  1. Pre-heat oven to 180’C.
  2. Prepare your egg replacement. Use a bowl or mug, put in 4T ground linseed and 6T hot water. Mix and then leave it, for 5-10 mins, until needed (this gives the seeds time to absorb the water) it turns into a stretchy liquid that’s a bit thicker than egg.
  3. Mix up your mashed potato. You can use a bowl, put in 1c of potato flakes, and then slowly add 3/4 – 1 cup of boiling water while stirring until smooth. It turns into mashed potato very quickly.
  4. Slowly add 1c of hot water to the mashed potato stirring carefully to create a smooth liquid.
  5. In the food processor, blend the oil, sugar, and vanilla until smooth.
  6. Add the linseed (egg-replacement) and blend.
  7. Add the liquidy potato.
  8. Add the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cocoa, cinnamon and blend till smooth.
  9. Pour into a silicon cake tin.
  10. Cook for 25 min and check (a knife is likely to come out sticky); cook for another 15 mins and check (a knife is now likely to come out clean). Turn the oven off and leave the cake inside for another 10 minutes. Pull cake out and place on bench to cool.
  11. Dust with icing sugar.

This comes out as a beautifully moist, rich, chocolatey cake.


  • If anyone successfully plays around with coconut flour/sugar, let me know. I wonder if it would turn out like a gluten-free Bounty Bar cake.
  • If you like coffee consider adding 2T dark roasted instant coffee when adding the dry ingredients.
  • For birthdays or special occasions, try splitting the batter between two cake tins. Layer the cakes with cherry, plum, or raspberry jam in between and a thick chocolate frosting on top.
  • For another allergy friendly chocolate cake, check out this Depression-Era Chocolate cake.

How is atopic eczema treated?


Eczema – the painful cycle of inflammation

Eczema cannot be cured. It can be treated and managed; key to this is caring for skin and managing the cycle of inflammation. Ensure that you discuss treatment with a medical professional; it’s also a good idea to ask what they can prescribe (as this may be free or discounted) as this often includes soap replacements and moisturisers as well as treatment creams.


It’s important to keep skin supple and moisturised. It’s a good idea to bathe every day (as the water will help to hydrate skin) and avoid soaps and other products that will have a drying effect. I’ve heard some people find goats milk soap to be gentler than normal soap and some emollient lotions can be used as soap replacements (though you may find they do better in a shower than a bath as I’ve found they can be kind of gluggy in bath water).

It’s a good idea to moisturise every day even when eczema isn’t flared up. Be careful when selecting moisturisers as general ones often contain alcohol that can still have a drying effect. It’s a good idea to discuss options with your doctor or pharmacist, and to look for ones endorsed by an eczema association.

Also, try different ones. You might find that some work better for you than others or that you prefer the smell or texture of some over others. I have a sorbitol/glycerin cream from the doctor which is ‘fragrance free’ but which I personally think smells so bad, v.s. one from Curash which I don’t think smells at all.

First: Emollients


Emollients are basically moisturisers that are essential for increasing skin hydration and mimicking the barrier effect of the surface lipids the skin is lacking.

These should be used at least once a day at a different time to when corticosteroids are applied (as they will dilute these and prevent them from being as effective). It’s most effective to apply emollients after a warm bath or shower while skin is still damp.

Types of Emollients

From most effective to least effective.

  • Ointment – This provides a ‘lock-in’ protective layer. It can leave a greasy film so is often preferred at night (over day).
  • Cream –  Thinner and easier to apply. It is less effective than ointment and will need to be applied more often.
  • Lotion – Has a runny consistency and is less effective again than cream.

Generally, the rougher and drier the skin is, the thicker the emollient that is required. So a lotion may be suitable when when skin is good but cream, and then ointment, as it gets worse.

Emollients are important as part of a daily routine and will help to soothe skin during a flare-up. They will not treat the inflammation and it is important that a treatment cream is also used.

Second: Corticosteroids


Topical corticosteroids (like hydrocortisone) actually treat the inflammation and help to reduce itchiness. They help to reduce blood flow in the skin and suppress over-active infection-fighting white blood cells. They imitate the effects of cortisol hormones produced naturally in the adrenal glands.

Doctors may prescribe different strength corticosteroid creams for different parts of the body (i.e. a weaker one for the face, and a stronger one for feet or hands where skin is thicker).

Additional treatments

Depending on the severity of symptoms, doctors may also discuss additional treatment options such as wet wrap, or oral anti-histamines.

There is little research supporting the effectiveness of using oral antihistamines to treat eczema but they can provide relief; for instance, night time ones can temporarily ease inflammation and also cause drowsiness.  Not only is scratching bad for the skin but chronic sleeplessness (due to lying in bed scratching) can cause a raft of flow-on troubles, especially for young children, so a night anti-histamine is something to consider discussing with your doctor.


Key source: “Eczema: The Essential Guide” by Sharon Dempsey

What is eczema?


Eczema – Coming from Greek phrase “to bubble” or “to boil over”.

Eczema, also called ‘atopic dermatitis’, is a chronic skin condition characterised by inflamed, dry, and itchy skin which can have periods of acute flare ups. It’s one of three diseases that form the Atopic Triad; eczema, asthma, and allergic rhinitis are linked diseases which some people are genetically predisposed to develop. Eczema is not an allergy, however, it’s common for children that develop eczema to also have food allergies.

NOTE: Eczema is not a contagious disease. It’s not something that can be caught from touching, playing with, or bathing with someone that has eczema.


Eczema – Cause factors

Eczema can be maddening for those that suffer from it. Skin starts off becoming swollen, red, and bumpy. The skin becomes itchy, often intensely so, and sufferers can rub the skin raw simply because the pain is easier to tolerate than the itch. The skin can also feel hot and painful. Little water blisters can appear that will burst and weep easily if scratched. It’s important not to scratch as this will damage the skin further (easier said than done, especially for young kids!).

Skin will bleed easily because of the inflammation and scratching damages the skin cells resulting in additional blood and immune cells rushing to the area.

It’s also common for areas of skin where eczema frequently flares up to become rough, scaly, chapped, and cracked. This is because dead skin cells are shed and replaced at a faster rate than healthy skin; these dead cells often sit on the skin. These areas of skin also lose moisture more easily and as it escapes the skin dries out and cracks form.

It’s important to discuss treatment options with a medical professional; eczema requires on-going management and care for the skin.


Eczema – painful inflammation cycle

Key source: “Eczema: The Essential Guide” by Sharon Dempsey

What is the Atopic Triad?


Atopic Triad

‘Atopic’ refers to diseases that are hereditary and therefore tend to run in families; they also often occur together. It’s common for someone to have eczema, a form of allergic rhinitis (like hayfever), and asthma (though they may have these at different times of their lives); someone that is ‘atopic’ (or a family that is ‘atopic’) are also more likely to have food allergies. It’s possible to have mild cases of these diseases (like eczema) and not be atopic; it requires a doctor’s diagnosis and the demonstration of allergic antibodies.

It’s worth researching ‘atopy’ when it’s diagnosed by a doctor because it helps to have an awareness that your toddler that has eczema has a higher chance of developing asthma later in childhood (see ‘The Atopic March’).  It also means that if one parent has hayfever and another has a mild food allergy, children have a greater chance of being ‘atopic’ although they may exhibit this differently than either of their parents.

If you have suspicions of a food allergy, allergic rhinitis encompasses more than just hay fever in response to pollen. In general terms it means that an allergen has caused the inside of the nose to swell and become inflamed. This can cause cold-like symptoms, such as sneezing, itchiness, and a blocked or runny nose. Ongoing inflammation in the sinuses can also result in ‘allergy shiners‘ (like a continually bruised look beneath the eyes even if sleep hasn’t been disrupted). The problem is that under 5’s do get a let of colds and it can be hard to distinguish between an actual cold and a warning sign that there is an underlying allergy. If there’s a family history of atopic illnesses or your child has been diagnosed with other atopic illnesses (like eczema) then it’s worth reading up on the most common food allergies and discussing these with your doctor. For most children, a food allergy will result in them creating IgE antibodies which can be screened for with skin or blood testing.



Key source: “Eczema: The Essential Guide” by Sharon Dempsey

The Complicated World of Food Allergies: Allergy (immediate) v.s. Allergy (delayed) v.s. Intolerance


Identifying why your baby or toddler is miserable, screaming, unable to sleep, refluxy, colicky, vomiting, prone to rashes etc. is often a daunting task that bears with it a heavy burden of responsibility. It can feel like a frustrating, maddening,  and isolating process. You are your child’s best advocate. You are the one spending the nights pacing them through the house so that you don’t feel so horrifyingly impotent and because it seems to marginally comfort them. You are the one weeping because they are clearly so unhappy. You are the one that sees them day in and day out (and often through the night). You are the one with a niggling fear that something is wrong, even if they are your first and only, because they are nothing like the healthy, happy, peacefully sleeping babies you see with other mothers.

There can be a number of medical reasons for the circumstances above and a food allergy or intolerance is one of those (it may also be coupled with another condition such as Gastric Reflux Disease [GERDS] and be a compounding factor for the other condition). Many allergens can pass across in breast milk and even minute traces can be enough to trigger a reaction. For some, the allergy or intolerance may not be apparent until they begin eating solids, or until they’re a toddler, or until they’re almost starting school. I still have vivid memories of sitting in the car as a three or four year old wishing desperately that I could trade bodies with someone to see if they also had a sore stomach all the time; it was so constant and such a naturalized part of my young world that I never told my parents. It wasn’t until a major vomiting incident at a birthday party, triggered by a small ice-cream, that an investigative process started that identified I was intolerant to dairy.

Terms like allergy and intolerance can be bandied around interchangeably in the media, and sometimes by medical professionals, but they have quite different meanings. There are also two different types of food allergies, immediate and delayed, with the former getting more press.

Food Allergy: Immediate: IgE mediated

A food allergy is an inappropriate immune response to a particular food protein. An immediate type allergy happens very quickly after the food is eaten (or sometimes after minute traces of the food touch the skin or membranes). Reactions are caused by a particular part of the immune system causing the body to release histamine and other chemicals, leading to hives, swelling, and, in rare cases, anaphylaxis (a severe, life-threatening reaction). A skin prick or blood-specific IgE testing can be useful for diagnosis.

Oral Allergy Syndrome

A sub-set of this is Oral Allergy Sydrome which usually develops later in childhood or in adulthood. It happens after a person develops an allergy to a pollen. As well as getting seasonal hay fever, their immune system starts identifying foods that contain proteins with a similar structure to the pollen. The immune system then mistakenly identifies this food as being pollen when it is consumed and causes a mild allergic reaction in the mouth (such as itching or swelling). This can happen even with food that has previously been regularly eaten without issue. So for example, an allergy to birch tree pollen can cause a reaction when eating apple, peach, plum, cherry, potato, carrot, hazelnut, pumpkin seed and aubergine. A ragweed pollen allergy can cause a reaction to melon and banana; mugwort pollen can cause a reaction to celery and tomato; grass-pollen can cause a reaction to tomato, melon, and peach.

The process of cooking often destroys the pollen-like protein so someone may react to raw apple but have no reaction, or milder symptoms, when eating apple pie.

Food Allergy: Delayed: non-IgE mediated

The reaction can occur hours (or sometimes days) after the food is eaten, making them very difficult to diagnose. The reaction is caused by a different part of the immune system to IgE mediated reactions; one of the biggest problems is diagnosis as allergy tests are unhelpful for delayed allergy. In truth, delayed allergy is a spectrum of disease, in terms of severity and where the problems show themselves such as in the gut or skin. The most common causes are cow’s milk and soya, and less so wheat and egg. Typical symptoms may include persistent non-responsive eczema, rash, refluc, colic, diarrhoea, poor weight gain, difficulty feeding, and, less commonly, constipation. Breathing symptoms are rarer and do not occur in isolation, i.e. they may have noisy breathing or a wheezy cough in conjunction with reflux.

Diagnosing often involves detailed daily diaries (covering everything from food, sleep, bowel motions, and mood), food inclusion-exclusion challenges, and working through skin prick and/or blood-specific IgE testing. This should be done under the qualified care of a dietician and peadiatrician. It can be a long, difficult journey but it is important to keep detailed, accurate notes and to persevere.

Food intolerance

“More common than a food allergy, food intolerance is a reaction to food that does not involve the immune system. Although symptoms can mimic an allergy, the causes are different and on-set of symptoms is often slower and longer lasting. Symptoms of food intolerance can include almost anything but most commonly fatigue and gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea and vomiting, bloating (often as part of irritable bowel syndrome) are described.”

Atopic disease

You may hear doctors talk about a family as having a family history of being atopic. “This refers to a group of illnesses, including eczema, hay fever, food allergy, and asthma that are characterised by the presence of immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies.”

Atopic illness in a parent(s) makes it more likely that children will also present with these – although they may be to something different. For instance,  parents might have asthma, hayfever, and an oral food allergy but their children may have eczema and an allergies or intolerances to different foods than their parents.


It is important to seek professional medical advice if an allergy is suspected.

There is of course a wide range of information on the web (some more reliable than others). The source that I have drawn on for this post, often quoting directly, is my favourite of the six allergy books that I’ve read in the past two months and the most relevant to my family: The Allergy-Free Baby & Toddler Book by Charlotte Muquit & Dr Adam Fox. I also found it the most approachable in terms of language and found it comforting that it included anecdotes from a number of other families.

My other recommendation is that if you have access to a free public library system then make use of it. Just like finding the right pair of shoes, look at a range of books until you find the one most relatable to your circumstances. If you find one that you really like, and would want to re-read, then buy just that one book. I definitely found it helpful having an understanding of what tests and diagnostic process to expect and I actually took my copy of Charlotte Muquit’s book into some appointments with me.

Crazy One-Dish Chocolate Cake!


I love this chocolate cake recipe (you can also use it to make cupcakes) because it’s allergy friendly, vegan friendly, and toddler friendly (everything gets mixed and cooked in one dish!). There’s no eggs, dairy, soy, or nuts, and it can be made using gluten-free flour.

I found the recipe thanks to Happy Mum Happy Child and apparently it’s based on a Depression-era recipe when dairy was hard to get hold of.


  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (or gluten free plain flour)
  • 3 tablespoon cocoa powder
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon white vinegar
  • 5 tablespoons oil (I use rice-bran oil)
  • 1 cup cold coffee (or use water)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence

Preheat oven to 190 degrees Celsius. Combine all dry ingredients in a greased 20 x 20cm baking pan (that’s right, in the dish you’re baking it in).
Make 3 depressions (holes) in the dry ingredients. You want there to be two small ones, and one large one.
Pour the vinegar into one of the small holes, and the vanilla into the other small hole.
Add the vegetable oil to the large one.
Pour the cold coffee (or water) over the entire thing and mix until smooth and combined (I used a wooden spoon).
Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean.
Once cooled, ice or lather in caramel syrup and enjoy with whipped cream.


Allergens: soy free, dairy free, nut free, egg free, can be made gluten free (replace the flour with gf flour).