What is tofu and is it good for you? Find out how to use tofu in cooking and whether or not you should limit your soy intake.
Have you ever looked at a block of tofu and thought, “What exactly is tofu?”. Or maybe you know it has a ton of protein but are worried that it is processed soy.
Let’s face it, there may not be another food that is as demonized as soy. Men worry that soy will decrease their testosterone and make them grow breasts. Women are concerned that soy contributes to breast cancer.
You may be surprised to find out that I (a Registered Dietitian) eat soy foods, like tofu and tempeh, at least 2-3 times per week. To me, the benefits far outweigh the downsides of eating soy. After all, it’s a protein and calcium rich plant, it’s affordable, it’s versatile, and it’s actually linked to many health benefits.
Don’t believe me? Read on to get the pros and cons of eating soy, specifically tofu.
As a matter of fact, tofu is on the list of The 75 Best Foods For Runners. Sign up below to get the list!
What is tofu?
As a complete protein (aka one that contains all the essential amino acids), soy is a versatile meat alternative that can be used in more than just stir fries. This soft block of food is created by curdling hot soymilk with a coagulant (e.g. calcium chloride, calcium sulfate or GDL).
[Read more: How Much Protein Do Plant-Based Athletes Need?]
The amount of water and natural coagulants used dictates the texture. The coagulated milk can be consumed as is, otherwise known as silken tofu, or the curds are drained and pressed into blocks.
Either way, tofu is a versatile plant-based protein that absorbs the taste of marinades, so it can be quite sweet, savory or spicy. Not to mention that it’s extremely affordable. You can get a block of tofu for less than $2, and that will provide more than 35 grams of protein!
When you buy tofu in the store, there are a variety of firmness options. Each type of tofu serves a purpose. Here’s how to know which type to choose.
Firm tofu works wonders in scrambles, stir fries, soups, sandwiches and tacos.
Silken tofu is a nice addition to a smoothie, sauces, dips, dressings, creamy desserts and even pancakes.
[Choose from one of these 17 tofu recipes to try all the types of tofu.]
In general, the firmer the tofu, the more calories, protein and fat compared to softer forms of tofu. Protein content can range from 4 grams in 3 ounces of soft silken tofu to 10 grams in the same quantity of extra firm. That being said, any variety of tofu is a fantastic source of protein and low in calories.
Additionally, tofu is a great source of vegan calcium. Plant-based eaters that avoid calcium need to make sure they get enough of this bone building mineral from other foods. Soy-based foods are full of calcium and will help keep bones strong.
Some brands of tofu are also fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin D, meaning that those nutrients are added into the food to boost their nutrition profile.
Tofu also contains fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which contribute to feelings of fullness. That means eating this plant-based protein will help satisfy hunger.
But what’s really interesting about soy is that it contains estrogen-like compounds, called isoflavones. This is what raises the alarm for most people, but it’s not as scary as you think…
What about estrogen in tofu?
Isoflavone is a plant estrogen (aka phytoestrogen), which has similar effects on the body as human estrogen [read more about hormones here]. For those who have suffered through PMS symptoms, you may be thinking “I don’t want any extra estrogen in my body”. But here’s the catch– isoflavones have much weaker effects on the body than human estrogen.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health, it’s very difficult to gauge whether or not these isoflavones pose a health risk because the research looks at various factors. For example:
- Animal versus human studies. Some of the negative health effects may have been found in animal studies. But humans and animals metabolize soy differently, so those outcomes cannot always be applied to humans.
- Hormone levels. Premenopausal women have higher levels of estrogen in the body than postmenopausal women. Because of this, soy may have an anti-estrogen effect in premenopausal women. This is a positive outcome since too much estrogen is associated with the development of breast cancer cells. Yet, soy can have an estrogen effect in postmenopausal women. That means it may help decrease hot flashes for post menopausal women.
- What type of soy is being studied? There are so many varieties of soy, and many studies use different forms to conduct research. For instance, tofu is different than soy beans. Some studies look at fermented soys, while others look at soy proteins. It’s difficult to make one sweeping claim about soy when every study is so different.
The health benefits of eating soy
Spoiler alert– the benefits of eating tofu far outweigh the supposed risks. Here are just some favorable studies on soy and health:
- A meta-analysis of Asian women found that soy isoflavone intake could lower the risk of breast cancer for both pre- and post-menopausal women. The researchers noted there is no evidence to suggest an association between intake of soy isoflavone and breast cancer for women in Western countries.
- The isoflavones in soy may offer menopausal women slight relief from hot flashes.
- There has been a lot of back and forth on whether or not soy is beneficial for heart health. While there is still not a conclusive answer, experts believe that the plant-based protein, fiber and lack of saturated fat in tofu makes it good for your heart!
Are there any downsides?
Although the internet may have you believe that eating soy is the worst possible thing you can do for your health, there is really only one downside. Research suggests that if you have an underactive thyroid (hypothyroidism), eating too much soy may interact with your medication. If that’s you, talk to your doctor before consuming too much tofu.
How to cook with it
Using tofu in cooking is super simple! I usually start with pressing and draining the tofu to remove any excess water. [Read about how to press and drain tofu here.]
You can also freeze tofu to remove any excess water. When cut into ¼ inch thick slices or cubes, it can be placed in the freezer for at least 48 hours. When you’re ready to eat, defrost it in the fridge for a few hours. It will have a chewy texture that becomes crispy when sautéed in a pan.
These recipes are perfect for firm tofu that has been drained:
- Vegan Tofu Nuggets
- Easy BBQ Tofu Salad Bowl
- Butter Lettuce & Corn Salad with Tofu Croutons & Lime Vinaigrette
If you want to make a creamy tofu dish, you can put silken tofu in the blender of food processor to make a plant-based cream. Most packages of tofu produce ~1.5 cups of pureed tofu, which is a great substitute for sour cream, yogurt or eggs.
The sour cream and yogurt have a 1:1 ratio conversion while 5 tablespoons of pureed tofu is equivalent to one egg. I love pureeing silken tofu to make my own chocolate mousse.
Other types of soy to try
Tofu is not the only type of soy in the supermarket. Both edamame and tempeh are soy products. Edamame is soy beans in a pod, while tempeh is a fermented soy bean that is usually molded into a block with others grains like rice.
Both are great sources of plant-based protein and provide heartiness to vegan and vegetarian meals. Try these recipes that contain either edamame or tempeh: