While relatively new to the North American culinary scene, tofu has been a staple food in Asian cultures for many centuries. Its reputation for being somewhat bland has led many households to shy away from tofu, but the rise in plant-based eating and escalating food costs make the inexpensive and versatile soy-based protein more intriguing.
The question then comes down to: Is tofu healthy? For every tofu superfan, there seems to be another who says you should scratch it off your grocery list. So, to help you decide if you should slice into blocks of tofu more often or stick with your steak, here’s everything you need to know about tofu, from its nutrition stats to how it’s made to the verdict on its healthfulness.
What is tofu anyway?
The story of tofu starts with soybeans that are soaked and ground into a slurry, which is then strained to separate the liquid. This “milk” is combined with a coagulant (or a substance that makes it solid), traditionally nigari but also sometimes calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, or magnesium chloride, and then simmered until the curds separate from the liquid. The curds are then placed into molds and pressed to extract additional moisture and compact the curds. The length of pressing time is relative to the number of curds and the desired firmness. The longer it’s pressed, the more liquid is released, and the firmer the finished product will become.
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Blocks of tofu come in a variety of textures: silken, soft, medium-firm, firm, extra-firm, and pressed—each with different uses. Soft tofu is pressed for the least amount of time giving it a delicate texture, whereas extra firm and pressed are the densest.
What are tofu’s nutrition facts?
Both the plant-based crowd and meat lovers can benefit from the nutritional heft that tofu delivers.
A 1/2-cup serving of firm tofu contains about:
- 181 calories
- 22 g protein
- 11 g fat
- 2 g saturated fat
- 4 g carbohydrate
- 3 g fiber
- 18 mg sodium
- 3 mg iron
Is tofu healthy?
Certainly, tofu can help you meet your dietary protein needs. A 3-ounce serving of firm varieties has roughly the same amount of protein as 2 ounces of chicken breast. “The complete protein in tofu can serve as the building block of all our tissues and helps repair and rebuild skeletal muscles,” says Marni Sumbal, RD, CSSD, sports dietitian and owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition and author of Essential Sports Nutrition.
If you are concerned that getting most or all of your protein from plant-based sources like tofu will leave you at a disadvantage, don’t be. “It’s fair to say that protein type doesn’t matter so long as it’s timed appropriately with workouts, it’s consumed regularly, the quality is high (for absorption) and there is a variety to ensure that all amino acids are consumed throughout the day,” Sumbal tells Bicycling.
Keep in mind that protein numbers can vary by brand and Sumbal says soft tofu will have less of the macronutrient than firm and extra-firm blocks owing to higher moister content. This also makes soft versions lower in calories and fat as well.
Research also calls out some of the benefits of tofu. For example, a study in the journal Food & Function in 2020 found that higher intakes of soy protein (40 grams a day) could have a beneficial influence on bone health. The catch is that it’s unclear whether eating lower amounts would benefit the skeleton.
Other research published in the journal Circulation in 2020 found an association between eating one or more servings of tofu per week and a lower risk of coronary heart disease, compared with having less than one serving per month. The same benefit was not seen with soy milk.
It’s hard to judge if there is something unique to soy protein that reduces cholesterol or if this occurs because soy protein displaces other potentially cholesterol-raising foods like red meat from the diet.
There remains debate as to how significant the reduction is and whether it is enough to justify the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allowance that the heart health benefits of soy can be promoted on product labels. According to the FDA, a daily intake of 25 grams or more of soy protein is associated with a reduced risk of atherosclerosis and coronary artery disease.
Remember, though, that you can’t just add tofu to an overall lousy diet and expect to experience any benefits to your ticker. “The overall quality of your diet matters most,” Sumbal stresses.
Tofu can’t be considered very low in fat, but it’s important to know that roughly 80% of the fat calories come from unsaturated sources—monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.
A review study published in Nutrition, Metabolism, and Cardiovascular Diseases in 2017 showed that replacing saturated fat in the diet (tofu has low amounts of this type of fat) with unsaturated fats can lower the chances of suffering from coronary heart disease events like a heart attack. “The health benefits of unsaturated fats are well established as they may help lower cholesterol and reduce the risk for heart disease,” notes Sumbal.
Depending on the coagulant used during production—a magnesium- or calcium-based product—tofu will be a good source of either of these bone-friendly minerals. (Read the ingredient list to see which type of coagulant was used.)
A serving of tofu made with calcium sulfate can contain roughly the same amount of calcium as a cup of milk. Some research shows that calcium absorption from tofu is comparable to that from cow’s milk. This can make tofu an important source of calcium for people who are forgoing dairy or following a vegan diet.
A block of tofu also offers up a few other essential micronutrients, namely iron, phosphorus, manganese, and selenium.
What’s more: One preliminary investigation showed that endurance athletes who consumed higher levels of soy-derived isoflavones, which can behave as antioxidants in the body, experienced an increase in their antioxidant defenses against the rigors of exercise.
Are there any downsides to tofu?
Unlike some other plant-based proteins like beans and lentils, what you won’t get with tofu is much in the way of carbs—only about 2 grams in a 3-ounce serving. So for active people who need enough carbs in their diet to support training needs, Sumbal suggests that when consuming tofu as part of a balanced meal, it’s best to pair it with a wholesome carbohydrate source like quinoa or brown rice.
Also, while soy contains so-called antinutrients, like phytic acid that can inhibit absorption of minerals like iron, zinc, and calcium, Sumbal says the process that goes into making tofu as well as heating tofu can significantly lower levels of these compounds making them less of a worry. You can also find brands of sprouted tofu on the market that seems to increase levels of protein, while also reducing the amounts of antinutrients. But even though phytic acid is called an anti-nutrient, Sumbal believes it’s not a concern in a well-balanced, varied diet.
For all the finer points of tofu, the presence of the estrogen-like isoflavones (phytoestrogens) has led to concerns that eating soy products, like tofu and soy milk, may exert untoward health effects including sending testosterone levels (and libido) plunging in men and raising the chances of developing breast cancer in women. “The credible evidence that phytoestrogens harm the body is low at this time,” says Sumbal.
Most research shows these plant compounds are likely beneficial, not detrimental. A study published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in 2019 shows that higher intakes of soy can lower breast cancer risk and it appears that eating more soy-based foods can help guys dodge prostate cancer. A meta-analysis published in Reproductive Toxicology in 2021 also found little evidence to show that consuming soy protein or isoflavones can have a detrimental impact on male hormone levels. It’s also the isoflavones that may bring the good news for cholesterol levels, especially in people with elevated levels.
Due to tofu’s (albeit weak) hormonal effects, however, some doctors tell women with estrogen-sensitive breast tumors to limit their soy intake.
Perhaps the biggest drawback of consuming tofu is that it may lead to gas as a side effect. “Tofu is made from soybeans, which contain oligosaccharides, a sugar that’s part of the list of FODMAPs that may cause digestive issues in some people when fermented by gut bacteria,” Sumbal explains. “If consumed in large amounts, it may cause gas and bloating.” With increased exposure, however, many people start experiencing fewer issues.
Sumbal also says if GI issues persist try focusing on firm tofu instead of soft as the former has a lower FODMAP content. “Sprouted tofu may also have reduced amounts of oligosaccharides,” she adds.
Some people are concerned about eating tofu because they might be made from genetically modified soybeans. You should know that most of the soybeans used for tofu production are not genetically modified. But if you want to be sure, look for certified organic products, as they must be made from non-GMO beans.
How can you add more tofu to meals?
The way you prepare and use tofu depends on which type you have.
Dense-firm and extra-firm tofu are great for searing in a skillet or on a grill and roasting in the oven. Use it in stir-fries, kebabs, or as a sandwich filling—anywhere you want it to hold its shape. When shredded, this tofu can also be used as a stand-in for scrambled eggs, egg salad, or a ground taco filling.
The texture of medium-firm tofu lends itself well to soups and casseroles. It also can be baked.
Custardy silken or soft tofu blends well into dips, sauces, dessert puddings, dressings, and smoothies—its mild flavor is easily masked by other ingredients in smoothies. It can also be used as a dairy or egg substitute for baking recipes. Seasoned baked tofu can be sliced straight out of the package and added to salads and grain bowls for a protein boost.
Here are a few culinary tips to get the most out of your tofu:
- For a better sear, it’s best to press out as much water from blocks of firm and extra-firm tofu. Line a cutting board with a couple of sheets of paper towel. Top with tofu and a couple more sheets of paper towel. Place another cutting board or another flat object on top and weigh down with something heavy for several minutes.
- Freezing and thawing firm or extra-firm tofu yields a spongy, porous texture that better soaks up any marinades or sauces. It’s best to press excess liquid from the block of tofu before freezing.
- Soaking medium to extra-firm tofu in salted water for about 15 minutes is a way to pre-season the tofu and create a crispier crust and texture.
- Coating a block of tofu in some cornstarch before searing will help give it a crispy crust.
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