Tofu, a staple in many diets worldwide, is one of the best sources of protein you can get. But at the same time, it has a very bad reputation. There are a lot of tofu myths out there and we'll get to them bit by bit. For now, here's a little spoiler: tofu is almost always good for you!
"It's high in polyunsaturated fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and low in saturated fat. Natural soy products — like tofu or edamame — could replace red meat and other animal sources of protein higher in saturated fat," says dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women's Hospital.
Table of contents
- 1 What is Tofu?
- 2 Is Tofu Healthy for You?
- 3 Tofu Myths
- 4 When is Tofu Bad for You
- 5 At the end of the day, tofu is (almost always) good for you
- 6 Tofu in your diet
- 7 FAQ about tofu's nutritional content
What is Tofu?
To see whether tofu is bad for you, let's first see what tofu is.
Tofu, also known as bean curd, is a soy product made from coagulating soy milk and pressing the curds into soft white blocks. It's definitely not the most glamorous of foods but has a rich culture behind it.
Tofu is a traditional component of East Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines. It traces its roots back thousands of years.
There are different types of tofu, ranging from silken to extra-firm, with varying textures and uses in cooking. It is a versatile ingredient that can be used in savory dishes like stir-fries, soups, and stews, as well as sweet dishes like desserts and smoothies.
Tofu is a nutrient-dense food, offering a significant amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals in a relatively low-calorie package. It also contains all nine essential amino acids, making it a complete protein source.
Although in recent years, tofu has become more popular in the Western world, in many households around the world, tofu is still a relatively new and exotic food. Understandably, plenty of myths about it have been propagated.
Many of those myths say tofu (and soy, in general) is bad for you. But the science says something different.
Is Tofu Healthy for You?
Tofu has been a popular food choice for centuries, but not everything that's popular is also good. There are different types of tofu, with somewhat different characteristics. But in general, tofu is much healthier than most people give it credit for.
As mentioned earlier, tofu is an excellent source of complete protein, providing all nine essential amino acids your body needs (and can't produce). Per gram, it's comparable to meat -- a bit lower than most types of meat.
But because it's a low calorie-food, when you compare the protein-per-calorie ratio, it fares much better than almost all types of meat.
|Food||Protein per 3.5 oz (100 g)||Calories per 3.5 oz (100 g)||Protein-to-Calorie Ratio (g protein/calorie)|
|Extra-firm Tofu||17.3 g||76||0.22|
|Fish (e.g., Salmon)||19 g||232||0.08|
Unsurprisingly, tofu has been a staple protein source for vegetarians and vegans. But increasingly, it's becoming a coveted source of proteins for omnivores alike. No doubt, in the protein department, tofu does well.
Rich in Essential Nutrients
Tofu is rich in essential nutrients, including calcium, iron, manganese, selenium, and phosphorus. These minerals play vital roles in bone health, immune function, and energy production. It also contains vitamin A.
A 200-gram (7 ounces) serving of tofu contains:
- Calcium: 106% of the average Daily Value (DV)
- Manganese: 102% of the DV
- Copper: 84% of the DV
- Selenium: 64% of the DV
- Vitamin A: 36% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 30% of the DV
- Iron: 30% of the DV
- Magnesium: 28% of the DV
- Zinc: 14% of the DV
We've given an in-depth account of why tofu is good for you so we won't get through all of that again. The bottom line is, when it comes to micronutrients, tofu is jam-packed with the good stuff.
Rich in fiber, no cholesterol
The main reason why tofu is such a good alternative to meat is that it doesn't have any cholesterol. This makes it excellent for people looking to improve their cardiovascular health and protect their heart.
It's relatively low in calories and fat, making it an attractive option for those looking to maintain or lose weight.
|Carbs (g)||Fat (g)||Cholesterol (mg)|
|Fish (e.g., Salmon)||0||15.5||56|
Observational studies also back up the protective effect of tofu and other soy products on the heart. Soy products like tofu are associated with improved heart health. Studies have shown that consuming soy protein can help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
In 1995, a meta-analysis of 38 controlled clinical studies concluded that substituting soy protein for animal protein significantly lowered total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and triglycerides.
In addition, tofu contains isoflavones, which also have a beneficial effect on the heart. "Higher intake of isoflavones and tofu was associated with a moderately lower risk of developing CHD risk," concluded one study.
But it's important to take these findings with a grain of salt.
"Despite these findings, I don't think tofu is by any means a magic bullet," said lead study author Qi Sun, M.D., Sc.D., a researcher at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. "Overall diet quality is still critical to consider, and tofu can be a very healthy component."
It is sometimes said that soy foods increase the risk of breast cancer. This has not only been disproven, but recent research has shown that soy consumption actually reduces the risk of breast cancer.
"Higher amount of soy intake might provide reasonable benefits for the prevention of breast cancer," another study concluded.
Increasingly, research is showing that consuming soy products like tofu may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer. Isoflavones, a group of plant compounds found in soy, are linked with these potential cancer-fighting properties.
The link to prostate cancer is particularly complex. A previous study concluded that soy consumption may raise the risk of prostate cancer but a broader meta-analysis showed that actually, soy foods like tofu may reduce the risk of prostate cancer, not increase it. The review concluded:
"Soy foods showed a favorable effect in decreasing the risk of prostate cancer, although the protective mechanism is not fully understood. The hormonal effects related to the weak estrogenic action of isoflavones have not been fully confirmed. The protective effect of soy foods could be related to antioxidant effect or induction of apoptosis or inhibition of angiogenesis."
Menopause Symptom Relief
Clinical studies have shown that isoflavones in tofu may alleviate menopause symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats.
While this link is still being investigated, tofu is especially recommended for menopausal women.
Despite the health advantages of tofu and soy-like products, tofu (and soy products, in general). These range from the alleged feminisation of men to causing hormone issues. Let's see what the science says.
Myth 1: Tofu is full of unhealthy, processed ingredients.
- Truth: Tofu is a relatively simple food, traditionally made from just three ingredients: soybeans, water, and a coagulant. However, like any food product, the quality can vary depending on the brand and how it's processed.
You can get processed tofu, fried tofu, and all sorts of things. If you want the healthiest tofu, look for the simplest, most unprocessed product, with the fewest ingredients.
Myth 2: Tofu is a "weak" source of protein.
- Truth: Tofu is actually a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids your body needs. A half-cup serving of tofu can provide around 10 grams of protein, making it a strong plant-based protein source.
Myth 3: Tofu is tasteless and boring.
- Truth: Tofu is indeed quite neutral in taste, but this allows it to take on the flavors of whatever it's cooked with. Its versatility makes it an excellent ingredient in a variety of dishes, from stir-fries to desserts.
So it is tasteless, but it's only boring if you don't know how to cook.
Myth 4: Tofu is only for vegetarians and vegans.
- Truth: While tofu is a staple in vegetarian and vegan diets, there's no reason why anyone can't enjoy it. It provides a healthy, low-fat source of protein, which is excellent for omnivores as well.
It can be a great way to diversify your protein sources and reduce the amount of meat in your diet.
Myth 5: Tofu leads to the feminization of men.
- Truth: This idea is linked to advertising and misinformation more than real science. The alleged evidence comes from two isolated case reports of elder Japanese men whose caloric intake came almost exclusively from soy. Yes, if your diet is 90% or more soy, you'll have problems.
But then again, that's the case with everything. If you just eat one food, you're bound to get in trouble. A thorough review found that "that isoflavones do not exert feminizing effects on men at intake levels equal to and even considerably higher than are typical for Asian males."
Myth 6: Tofu is high in estrogen and can disrupt hormones.
- Truth: Tofu contains phytoestrogens, which are plant-based compounds that can mimic the function of human estrogen to a certain extent. However, their effect is much weaker than human estrogen. Many studies have found that moderate consumption of soy foods like tofu doesn't have harmful effects on hormone levels in men or women.
“Soy has a relatively high concentration of certain hormones that are similar to human hormones and people got freaked out about that,” says Isaac Emery, a food sustainability consultant, for The Guardian. “But the reality is you would have to consume an impossibly large amount of soy milk and tofu for that to ever be a problem.”
Myth 7: Eating tofu can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
- Truth: Yet again, some people worry about tofu's phytic acid content, which can inhibit the absorption of certain nutrients. However, the effect is minimal, and eating a balanced diet with a variety of foods will ensure you get the nutrients you need. It's also worth noting that tofu is a good source of various nutrients, including calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Myth 8: Tofu is hard to cook.
- Truth: Tofu can be incredibly easy to cook once you know the basics. Pressing tofu can remove excess water and make it better at absorbing flavors. From there, you can bake, fry, grill, or stir-fry it, or even eat it raw in certain dishes. You can put it in everything from smoothies to stews or fry-ups.
Myth 8: Soy is GMO and it's bad for you.
- Truth: While it is true that most of the soybeans produced in the United States are genetically modified, the safety of genetically modified soybeans for human consumption has been extensively researched and confirmed by multiple scientific organizations, including the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.
When is Tofu Bad for You
While tofu offers numerous health benefits, there are some fringe instances where it may be less suitable or even harmful. It should be okay for most people, but you may want to avoid tofu in the following cases.
Allergies and Sensitivities
Obviously, if you're allergic to soy, you shouldn't eat tofu. Soy allergy is very rare, but it does exist. Symptoms may include itching, hives, swelling, and in severe cases, difficulty breathing and anaphylaxis.
Tofu contains isoflavones, which can have minor effects on the thyroid. It is a common myth that you shouldn't consume tofu if you have thyroid issues. A meta-analysis (study of studies) concluded that:
"Soy supplementation has no effect on the thyroid hormones and only very modestly raises Thyroid Stimulating Hormone (TSH) levels, the clinical significance, if any, of the rise in TSH is unclear."
Still, if you want to be extra sure, and while research is still carried out on the topic, you may want to avoid tofu if you have serious thyroid issues.
The tofu is ultraprocessed
While tofu itself is a nutritious food, some tofu products are highly processed and contain added sugars, sodium, and unhealthy fats. These additives can negate the health benefits of tofu and contribute to weight gain and other health issues. Studies show that, in general, ultra-processed food is unhealthy. Stick to minimally processed tofu and flavor it with herbs, spices, and healthy sauces.
At the end of the day, tofu is (almost always) good for you
Tofu has earned its place as a nutritional powerhouse, boasting a wide range of health benefits. It's an excellent source of protein, essential nutrients, and heart-healthy fats. Moreover, it's low in calories and fat, making it a wise choice for weight management.
The bad reputation it has is undeserved. Tofu can be a beneficial addition to most diets, but it's essential to pay attention to your body and your individual needs. If you have a soy allergy or sensitivity, or if you're concerned about thyroid function, it's crucial to consult your healthcare provider before including tofu in your diet.
For the majority of people, however, tofu can be a tasty, versatile, and nutritious option. By choosing organic and non-GMO tofu and avoiding highly processed tofu products, you can enjoy the numerous health benefits this ancient food has to offer.
Tofu in your diet
Now that you're aware of the health benefits of tofu and its potential risks, let's explore some tips on how to incorporate this plant-based protein into your daily meals. With a bit of creativity, tofu can be a delicious and satisfying addition to your diet.
Cooking Tips and Tricks
Tofu is a blank canvas that easily absorbs flavors and can be cooked in various ways. Here are some suggestions to help you get the most out of this versatile ingredient:
- Press your tofu: To achieve a firmer texture and help it absorb marinades better, press your tofu before cooking. Wrap the tofu in a clean kitchen towel and place a heavy object (like a cast-iron skillet) on top to press out excess liquid. Let it sit for about 30 minutes before using.
- Marinate: Marinating tofu helps it absorb flavors and enhances its taste. Try using soy sauce, rice vinegar, sesame oil, garlic, ginger, and spices to create a flavorful marinade. Let the tofu marinate for at least 30 minutes, or even better, overnight.
- Experiment with different cooking methods: Tofu can be stir-fried, grilled, baked, or even scrambled. Don't be afraid to try new cooking techniques and find your favorite way to enjoy tofu.
- Crumble it: Crumbled tofu can be used in place of ground meat in dishes like tacos, chili, or pasta sauce. Simply mash the tofu with a fork or crumble it with your fingers and cook as you would ground meat.
- Blend it: Silken tofu is perfect for blending into smoothies, soups, and sauces. It adds a creamy texture without altering the taste, and it's an excellent way to sneak in some extra protein.
To help you get started on your tofu journey, here are some simple and delicious recipe ideas to try:
- Tofu Scramble: Crumble firm tofu and sauté it with your favorite vegetables, spices, and a touch of nutritional yeast for a satisfying and protein-packed breakfast.
- Grilled Tofu Kabobs: Marinate tofu cubes and skewer them with colorful vegetables. Grill the kabobs until they're slightly charred and serve them over rice or quinoa for a healthy and flavorful meal.
- Tofu Curry: Simmer cubed tofu in a rich and fragrant curry sauce made with coconut milk, tomatoes, and spices. Serve it over rice or with flatbread for a comforting and satisfying dish.
- Tofu Stir-Fry: Stir-fry tofu with an assortment of vegetables, such as bell peppers, carrots, and broccoli, in a flavorful sauce made with soy sauce, garlic, and ginger. Serve over brown rice or noodles for a quick and nutritious dinner.
- Chocolate Tofu Mousse: Blend silken tofu with melted dark chocolate, a touch of sweetener, and vanilla extract until smooth. Chill the mixture until it's firm and enjoy a guilt-free dessert packed with protein.
In conclusion, tofu is not only delicious and versatile, but it's also (almost always) good for you. So go ahead and enjoy that tofu scramble, stir-fry, or smoothie – your body will thank you!
FAQ about tofu's nutritional content
No, tofu is not bad for you. In fact, it can be a healthy and nutritious addition to a balanced diet.
Tofu is relatively low in calories compared to many other protein sources. A 3-ounce serving of tofu contains around 70-80 calories.
Yes, tofu is a good source of protein, with around 8 grams of protein per 3-ounce serving.
Tofu contains some fat, but it is mainly unsaturated fat, which can have health benefits when consumed in moderation.
Yes, tofu is a good source of several essential vitamins and minerals, including calcium, iron, and magnesium.
Tofu contains plant-based compounds called phytoestrogens, which can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. However, the amount of phytoestrogens in tofu is relatively low and is unlikely to have a significant impact on hormonal balance.
Some tofu is made from genetically modified soybeans, but this does not make it inherently bad for you. The safety of genetically modified soybeans for human consumption has been extensively researched and confirmed by multiple scientific organizations.
In general, tofu is safe and healthy to consume in moderation. However, some people may have allergies or intolerances to soy, and excessive consumption of soy products may have negative effects on some people's health.
Tofu can be a versatile ingredient and can be used in a variety of dishes, from stir-fries to salads to smoothies. Look for recipes that incorporate tofu and experiment with different preparations and flavorings to find what you like best.