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Food Grade Lye!? What's that?

Becky De Graaf informative

Poisoned Apple
What do apples, lye, and a caldron all have in common? I'll give you a hint: it's not the evil queen in Snow White.
And it's not that they are all used to produce poison.
The truth is, they all can be food grade quality. 
But, wait a second, isn't lye poisonous?  Can't I lose an eye from that stuff? 
Well, technically, yes -- you can lose your sight, your hair, and your skin...
However, it's not actually poisonous, just highly corrosive.
It's a sure fact that cultures around the world use lye in the preparation of certain dishes.  At very diluted ratios, lye makes delicious pretzels, cures olive, and cooks eggs and fish. Despite the wonderful cuisine that has developed from using lye in the kitchen, I know I wouldn't feel comfortable if I saw the local chef picking up drain cleaner at the hardware store for tonight's dinner. While the drain cleaner at the hardware store also claims to be 100% lye, it lost the award for being "food-grade."
Food Grade Lye Is Pure
Pure lye is by itself always food grade. When a manufacturer sells certified food grade lye, they are guaranteeing that it is not contaminated. 
There are 3 main processes for producing lye:
  • Mercury Cell Process
  • Diaphragm Cell Process
  • Membrane Cell Process

The first two processes raise concerns of trace contamination with mercury and asbestos; however, the third process produces the highest quality of lye with the least amount of energy consumption.

The risk of contamination doesn't stop there. A chemistry plant will make a lot of different chemicals using the same equipment.  Just like how chocolate bars "may contain traces of nuts" and rice "may contain traces of gluten," lye may pick up traces of other heavy metals like lead.

Food Grade Lye Is Accurate

Knowing my lye is 100% pure, uncontaminated lye means that 5lbs of lye equals 5lbs of lye. Tech grade lye (drain cleaner) could range from anywhere between 90%-97% purity.  My 5lbs of contaminated lye could really be only 4.8lbs, 4.65lbs, or even 4.5lbs of actual lye.

Guessing the purity of lye leads to calculation errors -- granted, in your favor.  Less lye means less oils are turning into soap resulting in more oils being left over to moisturize your skin, so it's not like you're going to wash your skin right down the drain.  However, why wash in a bathtub full of mercury, asbestos, or even lead when you don't have to?

OK, I exaggerated a bit there -- it wouldn't be a bathtub full, just trace amounts. But still.

Becky's Tallow Treasures uses lye that is certified food grade and certified kosher

Would you put a junk-yard engine in a brand, new Ferrari? 

No. And, I wouldn't either. 
We're not going to stop at the highest quality, organic oils we can find; we're also going to seek out the highest quality lye on the market as well.
Thanks for reading!

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  • Andrea on

    Dear Becky! Great post that really inspires me to go on in my efforts! I am a small soapmaker living in spain and i proposed myself to only use pure, organic, local/ regional as well as fairly traded ingredients ( including organic pig lard from local farms). But – the lye issue still remains unsolved for me! Allmost all lye producers here in spain rely on mercury technology ( though the industry commited to phase out this technology) and lye production is often integrated with chlorine and PVC production. It was quite ironic, bitter and frustrating for me once i realized that the company which offers the purest lye here, the one i am using ( despite the fact that their production process is based on mercury cells but they have a certificate) is one of the biggest PVC producers in Spain and now, after fusing with an english based chemical giant, even in Europe. That is to say, the production of the lye i am using depends on PVC production due to economies of scale- one of the most toxic plastic types. Not to speak of the fact that these companies have been polluting their surrounding ecosysyems and communities for decades ( documented by research of NGOs and universities). I am now consulting with different organisations in order to find a lye producer that neither relies on mercury cells nor is engaged in pvc production – but i am also limited when it comes to purchase lye outside of spain since i already have high costs due to the high quality ingredients i am using. Shipping costs to my mediterranean island are prohibitive, plus, it creates more emissions..I really do not see at the moment how i can resolve this issue, but reading your post inspired me not to give up on this topic. Thank you very much – you are the first soapbusiness who i have seen to speak about the lye issue. Many greetings from spain!!

  • Bryan Martinez on

    Again, another learning experience. I wasn’t aware of the different percentages of lye and it’s uses. Thanks Becky! :)

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