Despite some of the myths you may have heard, tofu is a healthy food that's rich in protein and nutrients and has no cholesterol.
"It's a very nutritious food," said Dr. Qi Sun, an expert in nutrition and a professor at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston. "For the vast majority of people, it should be reasonable to incorporate tofu in their daily diet without any issues," Sun said.
While not all tofu is made equal tofu is almost always a good addition to your diet. Here's what you need to know.
Table of contents
- 1 What is Tofu?
- 2 Is Tofu Healthy for You?
- 3 Is Tofu Good for Weight Loss?
- 4 Is tofu good for the environment?
- 5 Conclusion: Tofu is Good for You (and the planet)
- 6 FAQ about tofu
What is Tofu?
Tofu, also known as bean curd, is a popular protein source made from soybeans. In fact, tofu is mostly soy and water.
It's a vegetarian type of food that was first created in China some 2,000 years ago and has become a staple in many parts of the world since.
To create tofu, soy milk is first extracted from soybeans. Then, a coagulant separates the milk into curds and whey. The curds are then pressed into blocks, forming the tofu you find in grocery stores.
Granted, this process has improved a lot in recent years.
"Recently great progress has been made in the manufacturing techniques of soybean protein foods, such as soy milk, tofu, abura‐age, textured protein products, and soy sauce," writes Danji Fukushima, an expert on soybeans, in a published study. "The quality of soy milk and tofu was very much improved by controlling the action of the biologically active substances," he adds.
There are several varieties of tofu, each with its unique texture.
- Silken tofu: Soft and creamy, this type of tofu is perfect for blending into smoothies, soups, or dressings.
- Soft tofu: With a slightly firmer texture than silken tofu, soft tofu is excellent for soups or desserts.
- Firm tofu: As the name suggests, firm tofu has a more robust texture, making it suitable for stir-fries, baking, or grilling.
- Extra-firm tofu: This variety is the most durable and works best in dishes from stir-fries to grilled tofu steaks.
The nutritional profile of these types of tofu can vary somewhat. In general, the firmer the tofu, the "denser" it is. Softer tofus tend to have more water. The differences between the types of tofu are not all that major in terms of nutrition, it's more the texture that's different.
So, what's the deal with tofu?
Is Tofu Healthy for You?
Meat substitutes are on the rise. Although tofu is an ancient food that's been consumed in various cultures for centuries, it's enjoying a recent increase in popularity. This is primarily because tofu is a good meat replacement and a healthy alternative. It has all the protein without any of the cholesterol. Studies also show that regular consumption of tofu is linked to health improvements.
"Soy constituents’ benefits mostly relate to the reduction of cholesterol levels and menopause symptoms and the reduction of the risk for several chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease and osteoporosis," writes Hossein Jooyandeh in a recently published study.
Tofu also contains the essential amino acids your body needs to function. Essential amino acids are not produced by the human body although they are critical to our overall health -- the only way to source these compounds is from the food you eat. Tofu is rich in minerals and vitamins and often has a high calcium or magnesium content (this depends on how the tofu is produced).
Tofu and other soy foods are also rich in isoflavones. Isoflavones are plant-created chemicals associated with a variety of health benefits.
Another study concludes that:
Recent experimental evidence suggests that phytochemicals in soy are responsible for its beneficial effects, which may also include prevention of osteoporosis, a hereditary chronic nosebleed syndrome, and autoimmune diseases.
In most (if not all) countries, dietary guidelines recommend consuming more plant-based foods. The 2021 American Heart Association scientific statement emphasizes choosing plant-based proteins for heart health. In fact, some guidelines specifically mention tofu as part of a healthy dietary pattern. Here's why.
Tofu is rich in protein -- without cholesterol
Perhaps the main appeal of tofu is that it's rich in protein. Per gram, it doesn't fare quite as well as some types of meat, but the key is that tofu is low in calories. When you look at how it fares per calorie, it's one of the best protein sources you can get in your diet.
|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|
So tofu is an excellent source of protein. This also explains why, traditionally, tofu has been regarded as the go-to protein source for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet. But more and more, tofu has emerged as a solid option for everyone.
Another benefit is that tofu doesn't have cholesterol. So if you're having cardiovascular health problems, tofu is definitely a good addition to your diet.
A Rich Source of Nutrients
In addition to proteins, tofu boasts an impressive nutrient profile, providing a variety of essential amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. Tofu contains all nine essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of proteins that your body needs but cannot produce on its own.
Tofu is a good source of vitamins A, C, D, E, K, and the B vitamins (such as riboflavin, thiamine, niacin, pantothenic acid, biotin, vitamin B-6, vitamin B-12 and folate). Most of that fat is of the healthy polyunsaturated kind -- the healthy fats.
In addition to protein, tofu is rich in several important minerals:
- Calcium: Important for maintaining strong bones and teeth, as well as proper muscle function and nerve communication.
- Iron: Essential for red blood cell production and transporting oxygen throughout the body.
- Manganese: A trace mineral that plays a role in bone health, metabolism, and antioxidant function.
- Phosphorus: Necessary for bone and teeth formation, as well as cell growth and repair.
- Selenium: A trace element that supports the immune system and helps prevent cell damage from free radicals.
Keep in mind, this doesn't make tofu a superfood or a magic panacea. It simply means that it's a healthy food. In fact, studies have found that regular consumption of tofu and other soy products can have a protective effect against some conditions.
Soy (and consequently, tofu) is rich in isoflavones. Recent research has shown that isoflavones are linked to improved blood vessel function and reduced inflammation. Additionally, the American Heart Association recommends consuming soy protein to help lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, which can reduce the risk of heart disease.
A study on some 160,000 people found that a higher intake of isoflavones and tofu was associated with "a moderately lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease." This effect was more pronounced in women.
However, it's notable that tofu consumption was linked to better cardiovascular health in all groups. Furthermore, the people who had the highest intake of isoflavones had the lowest risk of heart disease. This large-scale study adds to the growing literature on the protective effects of soy foods.
Soy products, including tofu, contain phytoestrogens. These phytoestrogens are plant-based compounds that can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body. Contrary to some myths, this doesn't make you more "woman-like," but it can have health benefits.
Studies have also found that higher intake of soy and soy isoflavones seems to reduce with risk of cancer incidence. This suggests a beneficial role of soy against cancer. It's possible that once more, isoflavones are producing this benefit.
Some studies have suggested that consuming soy may help reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, such as breast and prostate cancer. This goes against myths that tofu may be bad for breast health. In fact, soy isoflavones (called genistein and daidzein) have been shown to accumulate in prostatic tissue, where they may be cytotoxic to cancer cells.
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."
However, more research is needed to understand the full extent of the relationship between soy consumption and cancer risk.
Tofu is a good source of calcium and vitamin D -- both of which are essential for maintaining strong bones. Consuming tofu can help provide adequate amounts of these nutrients which can help maintain good bone health and prevent conditions such as osteoporosis.
In addition to calcium and vitamin D, tofu also contains isoflavones, which have been shown to improve bone density. Amu J. Lanou, an expert on nutrition and professor of health and wellness, and the executive director of the North Carolina Center of Health and Wellness for the University of North Carolina Asheville published a study that concluded:
"Soy foods are associated with improved markers of bone health and improved outcomes, especially among Asian women. Although the optimal amounts and types of soy foods needed to support bone health are not yet clear, dietary pattern evidence suggests that regular consumption of soy foods is likely to be useful for optimal bone health as an integral part of a dietary pattern that is built largely from whole plant foods."
Yet again, a familiar culprit comes up: isoflavones.
For women experiencing menopause, tofu may offer some relief from common symptoms. The isoflavones found in soy products can mimic estrogen in the body, helping to alleviate hot flashes and night sweats.
In clinical studies, postmenopausal women who eat high amounts of dietary soy protein had fewer and less intense hot flashes and night sweats than those who eat less soy.
However, the effectiveness of soy isoflavones in reducing menopause symptoms varies from person to person.
Is Tofu Good for Weight Loss?
Tofu can be a valuable addition to a weight loss plan for several reasons:
Low in Calories
Tofu is relatively low in calories, making it an attractive option for those looking to reduce their caloric intake. A 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of firm tofu contains around 70 to 80 calories, while the same amount of extra-firm tofu has approximately 90 to 100 calories. By incorporating tofu into your meals, you can enjoy satisfying dishes without significantly increasing your calorie count.
High in Protein and filling
Protein is essential for maintaining and building lean muscle mass, which can help boost your metabolism and increase the number of calories you burn throughout the day. Tofu is an excellent source of plant-based protein, as we've discussed. Eating a diet high in protein can help you feel fuller for longer, reducing the likelihood of overeating and promoting weight loss.
In addition, tofu doesn't carry the downsides of some of the other foods that are rich in protein. It's got zero cholesterol and contains healthy fats.
Versatile and Easy to Prepare
One of the keys to successful weight loss is finding healthy, satisfying foods that you enjoy eating. Tofu is a versatile ingredient that works in a wide variety of dishes, from stir-fries and salads to smoothies and desserts. It readily absorbs the flavors of the ingredients it's cooked with. This makes it super easy to create flavorful, nutrient-rich meals that support your weight loss goals.
Remarkably, a study on millennials found that it's not the health benefits that make it so popular. People just want something that's simple and easy to cook.
"They basically seem to care less about any health benefits of Tofu," said lead Cornell researcher Brian Wansink, "They eat it to look good and because it's quick to cook and it's filling."
"Millennials are much more likely to eat Tofu if you simply tell them 'It cooks like chicken, but doesn't spoil,' than if you lecture them about its nutritional value," said Wansink.
Some people are put off by tofu because it has a very mild flavor. But that's exactly what makes it so versatile. You can use it in any type of dish pretty much, from fruit pudding to a stew, and it will suck the flavor from the sauces and foo
Is tofu good for the environment?
Soy often gets a bad rep because of its alleged environmental problems. However, just 7% of soy is used directly for human food products such as tofu, soy milk, edamame beans, and tempeh. In fact, the vast majority of soy production (77%) is fed to animals. Yes, soy is linked to deforestation, but ironically, the main driver for that is meat consumption.
No matter how you look at it, eating tofu (or other soy products) is better for the planet than eating meat. Pound per pound and calorie per calorie, soy produces far less greenhouse gas emissions and deforestation than meat -- particularly red meat.
In fact, studies show that if everyone switched to a plant-based diet, we would reduce global land use for agriculture by 75%. Tofu requires around 100 times less land than beef, for instance.
In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, tofu also fares substantially better.
All in all, tofu is a product with a pretty good carbon and land footprint. It's definitely not bad for the environment when compared to similar products.
Conclusion: Tofu is Good for You (and the planet)
In conclusion, tofu is a nutritious and versatile food that can work in pretty much any diet. It is an excellent source of plant-based protein, essential vitamins, and minerals, and has been associated with a variety of health benefits, including improved heart health, cancer prevention, and better bone health.
Furthermore, tofu can be a helpful component of a weight loss plan, as it is low in calories and high in protein, You can incorporate it into a wide range of delicious dishes.
With so many advantages, it's clear that tofu is indeed good for you, offering a tasty and nutritious option for both plant-based and omnivorous diets alike.
FAQ about tofu
Tofu is a food made from soybeans that are soaked, ground, and boiled, then coagulated and pressed into blocks.
Yes, tofu is a nutritious food that is rich in protein, iron, and calcium. It is also low in fat and calories and is a good source of antioxidants.
Tofu is a good source of protein, which is essential for building and repairing muscles. It is also high in calcium, which helps to build and maintain strong bones. Tofu may also help to lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease.
Tofu is generally safe for most people to eat. However, some people may be allergic to soy or have an intolerance to it. If you have any concerns, it's best to speak to your doctor or a registered dietitian.
Tofu can be used in a variety of ways, such as in stir-fries, salads, soups, or as a meat substitute in sandwiches or burgers. It can also be blended into smoothies or used to make dips and spreads.
There is no set amount of tofu that you should eat, as it will depend on your individual needs and preferences. However, a serving size of tofu is typically around 3-4 ounces.