Tofu, also called bean curd, has gained popularity over the years, especially as a vegetarian- and vegan-approved source of protein. However, it’s also a highly controversial ingredient; while some praise it as a health-promoting superfood, others claim that soy products can halt thyroid hormone production and ramp up the risk of certain types of cancer.
So is tofu healthy? In this article, we’ll dive in and take a closer look at the potential tofu benefits and disadvantages to help you decide whether or not you’d like to add this plant-based protein into your diet.
What Is Tofu?
So what is tofu made of exactly? Tofu is an ingredient made by curdling soy milk (from soybeans) and then pressing the resulting curds into soft, white blocks. The process of making tofu is relatively similar to the way that cheese is made from milk.
The tofu nutrition facts are pretty impressive, packing a good amount of protein, manganese, calcium, selenium and phosphorus into each serving.
There are also many different types of tofu available based on the firmness and the amount of water pressed out of the tofu. Some of the most common varieties include:
- Soft/silken tofu
- Medium tofu
- Firm tofu
- Extra-firm tofu
- Super-firm tofu
Although less common, fermented varieties can also be found at some restaurants and specialty stores. For example, pickled tofu, also known as preserved tofu or fermented tofu, consists of dried tofu cubes that have been allowed to fully air-dry under hay and slowly ferment from aerial bacteria. Stinky tofu is another type of soft tofu fermented in a vegetable and fish brine.
Tofu is a great source of protein, along with other key micronutrients like manganese, calcium and selenium. Each serving is also low in tofu calories, with just 70 calories in 100 grams.
A 3.5-ounce serving of tofu contains the following nutrients:
- 70 calories
- 1.5 grams carbohydrate
- 8 grams protein
- 4 grams fat
- 1 gram dietary fiber
- 0.6 milligrams manganese (31 percent DV)
- 201 milligrams calcium (20 percent DV)
- 9.9 micrograms selenium (14 percent DV)
- 121 milligrams phosphorus (12 percent DV)
- 0.2 milligrams copper (11 percent DV)
- 1.6 milligrams iron (9 percent DV)
- 37 milligrams magnesium (9 percent DV)
- 0.8 milligrams zinc (6 percent DV)
- 19 micrograms folate (5 percent DV)
Tofu also contains a small amount of vitamin B6, riboflavin, thiamine, potassium, and vitamin K.
Rich in a variety of nutrients and health-promoting compounds, tofu protein has been associated with many potential benefits.
1. Promotes Heart Health
Heart disease is a major problem in the U.S., and around the world. Switching up your diet is one of the most effective ways to reduce the risk of heart problems, and research shows that soy products like tofu may be especially beneficial.
Soy isoflavones, which are a type of polyphenol found in tofu, have been shown to decrease markers of inflammation and improve blood flow, which could potentially help protect against stroke. Increased intake of isoflavones can also impact several risk factors for heart disease and may lead to reductions in insulin levels, body weight and belly fat.
2. May Protect Against Cancer
Despite tofu’s reputation as a cancer-causing ingredient, promising research is proving just the opposite. In fact, studies show that soy consumption could be tied to a lower risk of several types of cancer, including breast cancer, prostate cancer and stomach cancer.
While more research is needed to understand the cancer-fighting properties of tofu, some research indicates that it could be due to the presence of powerful soy isoflavones.
Even more impressive, one study published in Integrative Cancer Therapies noted that these isoflavones could even improve the efficacy of cancer treatments while relieving several side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation.
3. Relieves Menopause Symptoms
Menopause is a time marked by the end of a woman’s menstrual cycles, and it is often accompanied by symptoms like hot flashes, fatigue and night sweats. Although this is a natural process, side effects are often treated with supplements, medications and relaxation techniques like yoga and meditation.
Some research suggests that the soy isoflavones found in tofu could also help provide relief from menopause symptoms. One study, for instance, found that soy isoflavone supplements were able to reduce the frequency and severity of hot flashes more effectively than a placebo.
Similarly, a pilot study in 2012 showed that taking an isoflavone supplement for 12 weeks reduced menopause symptoms by 20 percent and 13 percent among perimenopausal and postmenopausal women, respectively.
4. Increases Weight Loss
Low in calories and rich in all nine of the essential amino acids that your body needs, tofu is awesome if you’re looking to lose weight. In fact, studies show that eating plenty of protein could help reduce levels of ghrelin, the hormone that is responsible for stimulating feelings of hunger.
Interestingly enough, certain compounds in tofu may also help naturally boost weight loss as well. According to a 2013 meta-analysis out of China, supplementing with soy isoflavones was effective at reducing body weight and improving levels of blood sugar and insulin, both of which can be beneficial for weight management.
5. Supports Bone Health
Tofu is a great source of several key minerals that play a central role in bone health, including manganese, calcium and phosphorus. All three of this vital nutrients (and many others found in tofu) help maintain skeletal integrity, protect against bone loss and reduce the risk of issues like fractures or osteoporosis.
What’s more, some studies show that soy isoflavones may even offer other benefits for bone health. For example, one review conducted in California compiled and analyzed data from 15 studies, concluding that increased intake of isoflavones was associated with higher bone mineral density among certain populations.
6. Improves Blood Sugar Control
Recent research has found that certain compounds found in tofu could be linked to lower blood sugar levels. For instance, a study conducted by the Department of Family Medicine at the National Taiwan University Hospital showed that taking 100 milligrams of isoflavones daily decreased fasting blood sugar levels by a whopping 15 percent after just six months.
Not only that, but isoflavones may also help decrease levels of insulin, the hormone responsible for shuttling sugar from the bloodstream to the cells. This can help combat insulin resistance and improve your body’s ability to use this hormone more efficiently to maintain better blood sugar control.
7. Versatile and Easy to Prepare
There are plenty of options for how to cook bean curd and how to make tofu taste delicious. Because it absorbs the flavors of whatever foods, sauces and seasonings it’s cooked with, it works well in a variety of different dishes.
Salads, stir-fries and scrambles are a few of the most common tofu recipes that are easy to prepare, for both cooking enthusiasts and novice chefs alike. However, it can also be baked, roasted, sautéed, fried or grilled and used to give just about any dish a meatless twist.
Be sure to press tofu for at least 15–20 minutes before cooking, which helps remove excess water to improve the texture of the final product. Tofu can also be marinated for up to 24 hours as well to help ensure that the flavors are completely infused.
Risks and Side Effects
Despite the many potential benefits of this popular plant-based protein, there are a few tofu health risks to consider as well.
For starters, the majority of soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified. Some people opt to minimize exposure to genetically modified organisms (GMOs) due to concerns about nutritional differences, antibiotic resistance and an increased risk of food allergies. Selecting organic tofu can ensure that you’re getting the highest quality possible while avoiding consumption of GMOs.
Soy allergies are also incredibly common. If you have an allergy to soy, it’s very important to avoid tofu and other soy products. Furthermore, if you experience any negative symptoms like hives, rashes or itching after consumption, discontinue use and talk to your doctor.
Those with a history of hormone-sensitive cancers, such as breast cancer, may opt to avoid soy products due to their content of soy isoflavones, which can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. However, more and more emerging research has found that intake of soy foods is not associated with a higher risk of breast cancer.
In fact, one study published in Nutrition and Cancer even found that regular consumption of tofu was tied to a lower risk of developing breast cancer in premenopausal women.
The effects of tofu on brain function have also been a subject of controversy. While some studies have fond that phytoestrogens can help improve cognitive function and memory among older adults, a 2008 study out of Loughborough concluded that a higher intake of tofu was associated with worse memory, due to either its phytoestrogen levels or the presence of potential toxins. Therefore, more research is needed to understand how tofu may impact brain function.
Tofu also contains phytates, which are largely responsible for its firm texture. Phytates are a type of antinutrient that can bind to minerals like calcium and zinc and prevent their absorption in the body. It also contains trypsin inhibitors, which interfere with the digestion and absorption of protein.
Fortunately, this should not be much of a concern for most people, as soaking, sprouting, cooking and fermenting tofu can significantly slash the antinutrient content.
Finally, soy contains goitrogens, which are compounds that can interfere with the production of thyroid hormones. For this reason, it’s important to keep soy intake in moderation and enjoy as part of a balanced diet, especially if you have a history of thyroid issues.
If you’re looking for other plant-based protein sources, here are some great alternatives to tofu:
Natto — Natto is a fermented soy superfood that’s been shown in scientific studies to have great health benefits, including reducing blood pressure. Natto is also an excellent source of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals. Additionally, the good bacteria Bacillus subtilis in natto creates an enzyme called nattokinase, which produces vitamin K2.
Tempeh — Tempeh is another type of soy protein that is made from fermented soybeans. The main difference between tempeh vs tofu is the fermentation process, which can help significantly ramp up the benefits. It also uses the whole soybean, giving it a higher content of protein and certain vitamins and minerals.
Tempeh is is known to reduce cholesterol, increase bone density, reduce menopausal symptoms and promote muscle recovery. In addition to these amazing benefits, tempeh is loaded with protein and contains high levels of B vitamins.
Legumes — Legumes such as beans, lentils and chickpeas are great options if you’re looking to bump up the amount of plant-based protein in your diet. In addition to supplying a double dose of protein and fiber, legumes are also generally rich in other important nutrients, including magnesium, iron, manganese, folate and thiamine.
Interesting Facts About Tofu
Tofu has been around for centuries. The making of tofu was first recorded during the Han Dynasty (between 206 B.C. and 220 A.D.) about 2,000 years ago. Some say it was discovered by a Chinese cook who accidentally curdled soy milk when he added nigari seaweed.
It took hundreds of years before Japan got in on the action and coined the term “tofu.” Its creation and consumption continued to advance throughout Asia over the years, corresponding with the spread of Buddhism as it is a common source of protein in the vegetarian diet.
Tofu didn’t make its way to the U.S. until 1765 when a man named Samuel Bowen, a well-traveled sailor, settled near Savannah and planted soybeans for his employer at the time. Soybeans became a commercial crop in the U.S. in the 1920s, but were actually used for hay and green manure. Widespread of soybean products began during World War II when the soybean crop replaced imported fats and oils that were being blocked by disrupted trade routes due to the war.
In recent years, soy consumption has skyrocketed, and annual soy food sales in the U.S.increased from $1 billion to $4.5 billion between 1996–2013.
- Tofu is a food that is made by curdling soy milk from soybeans and pressing the curds into soft white blocks.
- Besides being high in protein, tofu is also a good source of manganese, calcium, selenium and phosphorus.
- Potential health benefits of tofu include better blood sugar control, improved heart health, enhanced bone strength, increased weight loss and protection against certain types of cancer.
- On the other hand, most soy is sourced from GMO crops, highly allergenic and contains goitrogens and antinutrients. Some may also choose to avoid soy due to concerns about hormone-sensitive cancers and brain function.
- Regardless of whether or not you choose to include tofu in your diet, there are plenty of other healthy plant-based protein options available as well, including tempeh, natto and legumes.