Tofu is a staple for vegetarians and health-conscious omnivores alike; but, is it actually good for us? We’re breaking down the basics of tofu including how it’s made, whether it’s healthy, and what science says about the soy protein.
What is Tofu?
Tofu consists of soymilk that has been coagulated (with the help of salts, acids, or enzymes) to form curds. Those curds then get tightly pressed and packaged into the blocks you see at the supermarket.
We know, soybean “curds” sound kind of gross, but tofu tastes as plain as can be— and its production has been perfected over centuries . After all, people have been making and eating tofu in China for some 2,000 years. So there’s that!
Health Benefits of Tofu
It’s probably news to no one that Americans consume way too many animal products (beef, chicken, pork, cheese). Quick refresher…excessive consumption of animal proteins can increase our risk of chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, among others.
The good news…Tofu is a stellar plant-based alternative to animal proteins in part because it’s free of the cholesterol and saturated fat found in animal foods that can mess with our health.
Tofu is also low in calories and rich in protein. Three ounces of tofu (about the amount that fits in the palm of your hand) provides just 80 calories and eight grams of protein. By comparison, three ounces of broiled sirloin steak serves up 200 calories and 23 grams of protein.
We also love that tofu offers up critical minerals like iron which is particularly key for premenopausal women (especially those who are vegetarians) since they’re at a greater risk for iron deficiency.
Pro tip: combine your tofu with a source of vitamin C, since the body is better able to absorb the plant form of iron when it’s consumed along with this vitamin. Need some inspo? Pair your tofu with a sauce that incorporates lemon juice, or eat it with some vitamin C-rich sauteed bell peppers or broccoli.
One last thing…it bears noting that not all soy is created equal; that is, the organic, sprouted tofu you may buy in the grocery store is not the same as the soy protein isolate you can find in a protein bar or faux chicken nuggets.
Soy derivatives like soy protein isolate (or SPI), for example, are ultra-processed forms of soy that isolate the bean’s protein components and leave the rest of its nutrients, like fiber and iron, behind. SPI is also genetically modified and chemically treated during production which means you may be consuming metals in your post-workout protein bar. Thanks, but no thanks! Get your soy from whole foods like organic sprouted tofu, edamame, tempeh, or miso instead of processed derivatives.
What the Research Says
There has long been concern that a high tofu intake can increase one’s risk of breast cancer. The thinking was that because tofu contains compounds called phytoestrogens that mimic the effects of estrogen in the body, eating it often might increase one’s risk of certain forms of breast cancer that are mediated by the hormone.
Good news…research doesn’t support this theory. That’s because whole food sources of soy, such as tofu, don’t have high enough phytoestrogen concentrations to significantly raise breast cancer risk (supplements may be another story).
On the contrary, some studies actually suggest that regular soy consumption may lower breast cancer risk, thanks to the ability of its phytoestrogens to counteract the effects of the estrogen that’s already in the body. What’s more, Asian women with higher lifetime tofu intakes have also been found to have lower incidence of breast cancer.
Women who are currently or were previously diagnosed with breast cancer, or who have the BRCA gene should talk to their doctor about the safety of soy consumption. Hormone-positive forms of breast cancer may respond differently to soy compared to hormone-negative forms.
One small study found that soy supplementation bolstered the expression of genes involved in tumor growth among women already diagnosed with breast cancer (the study wasn’t long enough to determine whether tumors actually grew). Despite these scary-sounding results, the researchers noted that women with breast cancer need not avoid soy altogether. Instead, they encouraged soy in moderation.
Our take? Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian if you have the BRCA gene or have been diagnosed with a hormone-sensitive form of breast cancer to determine whether regular soy consumption is right for you.
How to Add More Tofu to Your Diet
The beautiful thing about tofu is that it’s a (very) blank canvas. Since the plant-based protein is essentially tasteless, it’s super easy to customize based on your preferences. Make it Mexican-themed and top it with salsa, guac and cheese, or opt for an Asian take and pair it with stir-fried veggies and brown rice.
One more thing…soy is one of the few crops that is allowed to be genetically modified in the U.S. It is one food that if you do eat it, you really want to go for organic, non-GMO tofu if you’re able. The Bottom Line
Tofu is a great option for those looking to decrease their meat and poultry intake. The plant protein is free from cholesterol and rich in key nutrients like iron. Plus, it’s ultra versatile and affordable, #winning!
Contrary to popular opinion, tofu hasn’t been shown to heighten breast cancer risk and may even lower it. Of course, eating or not eating tofu won’t make or break your health. Go ahead and enjoy it up to a few times a week if you like it. If you’re not a tofu fan, don’t sweat it! There are plenty of other stellar sources of plant protein (like beans, lentils, nuts, and tempeh) to name a few.