What is tofu and is it a healthy alternative?

As plant-based diets are becoming mainstream across the world, tofu is gaining momentum as a healthy and versatile food option.

It might look bland or even intimidating at first, but this protein-rich food is actually easy to cook and it can be very tasty thanks to its ability to take on the flavors of anything you are cooking it with — all while providing you with plenty of important nutrients.

Credit Stephen Downes. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Tofu is essentially a food produced from condensed soy milk pressed into solid white blocks, a process somewhat similar to making cheese (although contrary to popular belief, tofu is not meant to be a cheese replacement). It originated in China and it has been a staple of Asian cuisines for hundreds or thousands of years, now becoming popular in Western cuisine, particularly for those who want replacements for animal protein.

It is believed that tofu was discovered by a Chinese chef more than 2,000 years ago when he accidentally mixed fresh soy milk with nigari — the liquid or powder that remains when salt is extracted from seawater. Nigari is a coagulant rich with minerals that help tofu solidify and keep its form.

Tofu can be purchased in bulk or individual packages. It can also be found dehydrated, freeze-dried, jarred, or canned — its versatility being one of the main reasons why it has become a favorite of many.

It’s a cheap way to include plant-based protein in a diet, usually costing less than $2 for a two to four serving block. It can be made at home if you really know what you’re doing, but you’re probably better off with the off-the-shelf options.

How do I eat tofu?

Tofu is excellently paired with things like soy sauce or curry sauce, but any strong flavors will do. Image credits: Charles Deluvio.

Fir thing you need to know: on its own, tofu is pretty bland and flavorless. This is exactly why so many people are put off by it. But just because it’s bland on its own, doesn’t mean it’s bland when cooked. Tofu is a flavor magnet: anything you cook it with, it will suck the flavor right from it. This makes tofu really versatile for any flavors you prefer. Tofu can also be steamed, grilled, baked, pan-cooked and even fried, especially in the air fryer — which again, makes it all the more versatile. Some people even prefer to freeze it to give it a more exquisite, meat-like texture.

The fact that it has a high-water content makes it necessary to first drain and press the tofu to take out the excess liquid. You can just use dish towels and cookbooks to press and expel water. Otherwise, it won’t absorb all the flavors and will take a firm texture when you cook it.

After you have pressed it, then cut the tofu into whatever shape and size you desire before you start cooking, such as slices, cubes, or slabs. Tofu will absorb whatever sauce, marinade, or spices you add so there’s no need to let it sit for too long while cooking.

You can find raw tofu in the refrigerated section at the supermarket or as pre-baked and seasoned. There are actually different types of tofu available, including silken, soft, firm, and extra-firm. Silken is sometimes used for things like omelets, or even smoothies and desserts, soft it’s great for soups and stews, while firm and extra-firm are used for baking and frying at high temperatures.

Tofu needs to be stored in the refrigerator. Unopened packs remain good for five to seven days after the “sell by” date listed on the package. Freezing is also an option, lasting up to six months. But before you do that, better drain the excess liquid and wrap it in a freezer bag.

How healthy is tofu?

Credit kattebelletje. Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Overall, tofu has a lot of proteins and contains all the essential amino acids that the body needs. But that’s not all. Tofu is an excellent food from a nutritional and health perspective as it provides a wide array of vitamins and minerals, fats, and carbs. Recent studies have consistently found that sources of plant protein such as tofu are linked with better health and increased longevity.

Soybeans used to produce tofu have natural plant compounds called isoflavones, which can attach to and activate estrogen receptors in your body. Studies have shown that people who consume large amounts of isoflavones have lower blood pressure and better blow flow in the arteries.

Depending on which type of tofu you end up buying, it may also be fortified with vitamins or minerals, such as calcium, Vitamin D, or Vitamin B12. These are nutrients vegetarians and vegans often don’t get enough of, but these are very useful in all balanced diets.

Tofu salad. Image credits: Anh Nguyen.

Tofu is made from soybeans and most of them as grown in the US and are genetically modified (GMO), which some see as controversial. Although GMOs are controversial, research has not found them to be harmful to human health so far. However, research on the impacts of GMOs on human health is not always conclusive, so if you want to be extra safe, you have the option of buying non-GMO or organic tofu brands.

Can tofu reduce heart disease risk?

There aren’t that many studies yet that have looked at the effect of tofu on heart health. But research has shown that high consumption of legumes such as soy can lead to a lower rate of heart disease. Tofu also has a small amount of saturated fat, which makes it a good choice for the heart.

The already mentioned isoflavones that soybeans reduce blood vessel inflammation and improve their elasticity, which is good news for the heart. A study found that a dose of 80mg of isoflavones per day for 12 weeks improved the blood flow of people at risk of stroke by almost 70%.

At the same time, a study in postmenopausal women found that a high intake of soy isoflavone can lead to several heart-protective factors, such as improvements in waist circumference and good HDL cholesterol. Tofu also has saponins, which is thought to have protective effects on heart health.

Can tofu reduce risk of cancer and diabetes?

Several studies have looked at the effects of tofu on different types of cancer. Research showed that women that eat soy products at least once a week have an average 50% lower risk of breast cancer. This is likely due to isoflavones. Exposure to soy during childhood and adolescence is believed to be most protective. Higher intakes of tofu have been also linked to an up to 61% lower risk of stomach cancer in men and women. A review of several studies recently linked a higher soy intake to a 7% lower risk of cancers of the digestive system. Lower risk of prostate cancer was also found due to the higher consumption of soy.

The soy isoflavones were found to boost sugar control as well. A study on postmenopausal women found that consumption of 100mg of isoflavones per day lowered blood sugar levels by 15% and insulin levels by 23%. Another study showed that taking isoflavones every day for a year improved insulin sensitivity.

Much of the health effects of tofu boil down to animal protein vs plant protein. Studies have consistently found that plant protein is typically healthy in a number of ways. Here’s what a recent review found:

“Higher intake of total protein was associated with a lower risk of all cause mortality, and intake of plant protein was associated with a lower risk of all cause and cardiovascular disease mortality. Replacement of foods high in animal protein with plant protein sources could be associated with longevity.”

Can tofu also cause problems?

It’s generally considered safe to eat tofu and other soyfoods every day. Nevertheless, you might want to moderate the intake if you have estrogen-sensitive breast tumors due to tofu’s weak hormonal effects and if you have a poor thyroid function because of tofu’s goitrogen content.

A recent report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) found that soy and soy isoflavones pose no concerns for thyroid function or breast and uterine cancers. Nevertheless, if you have any concerns regarding eating tofu or implementing changes on your diet, it’s always better to discuss it with your doctor.

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