Tofu is rich in protein.
For centuries, tofu has been a staple of east and southeast Asian cuisines. It has also been a staple of American vegetarian and vegan diets for the past 50 years. Tofu is versatile and can be used in many dishes, including smoothies and stir-fries. It also has a variety of health benefits.
What exactly is tofu?
Tofu is also known as bean curd. It is made from curdling fresh soymilk and pressing the curds into blocks. This is similar to traditional dairy cheese, which is caused by solidifying cow’s milk. It can be soft, firm, or extra firm depending on how it is cooked.
Nutritional facts about tofu
The US Department of Agriculture states that a quarter block of firm tofu (or 81g) contains 14 grams of protein and 7 grams of fat. It also has 2.3 grams of carbs, 1.9g of fiber, 11 mg of sodium, and 1.9g of fiber. This food is high in nutrients and has 117 calories.
Tanya Freirich RD, certified dietitian nutritionist, says that tofu is an excellent source of protein. Tofu is also rich in calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus. It also contains manganese and copper.
Summer Yule, RDN, tells Health that it is a good source of lean, plant-based protein and is a healthy choice for many people, especially those with dairy or protein food restrictions like vegans.
Tofu’s impact on Health
Research is ongoing to determine the health benefits of tofu or other soy-based foods. Here are the facts:
Coronary heart disease
Tofu’s plant estrogens may help to keep your heart healthy. The 2020 American Heart Association journal Circulation published data from over 200,000 people. It found that those who consumed at least one serving per week of tofu had an 18% lower chance of developing coronary heart disease.
“Soybeans may help lower blood pressure and, consequently, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke,” adds Freirich.
Tofu is also known to help lower LDL (aka, “bad”) cholesterol, as well as modestly lowering triglycerides and modestly increasing HDL (aka, “good”) cholesterol. A meta-analysis of 46 studies found that soy protein significantly reduced LDL cholesterol by about 3-4% in adults.
Memory and brain health
Although there is some evidence that tofu and other soy-based foods may improve cognitive function, such as memory and problem-solving skills, it’s not clear if the research is conclusive. A 2020 study found that equol (a metabolite from soy products) may reduce dementia risk. According to the researchers, those who produced more equol from eating soy products had half the amount of white matter lesions–a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease–as those with lower equol levels.
Soy may have benefits for women going through menopause. Although researchers didn’t examine tofu, a 2021 study on postmenopausal women showed that adding half a cup of soybeans to a low fat, plant-based diet resulted in an 84% decrease in mild-to-severe hot flushes. And an older analysis of 10 studies found that soy isoflavones (aka, phytoestrogens), which are in tofu, also significantly reduced hot flashes. Freirich explained that isoflavones are estrogen-like.
Numerous studies have shown that soy isoflavones can also prevent bone loss and increase bone density. This makes bones stronger. After menopause, women often lose bone mass and have poor bone health. But it seems that eating tofu, which is also packed with bone-boosting calcium and vitamin D, could help compensate.
Progression or recurrence of cancer
Some studies suggest that regular soy intake may help slow the progression or decrease the recurrence of certain cancers. Men who have prostate cancer may find that eating tofu, and other soy-based foods keeps their prostate-specific antigen levels low, which means cancer progresses more slowly or not at all. But the evidence is conflicting, and one study suggests that eating foods high in certain soy compounds might increase your risk of aggressive prostate cancer.
There is increasing evidence that regular soy consumption may reduce breast cancer recurrence. However, the evidence is not strong enough to recommend soy for all breast cancer survivors.
The soy controversy
In the 1990s, studies linked the consumption of tofu and other foods containing plant estrogens to cancer. Still, certified dietitian-nutritionist Vanessa Rissetto, RD, co-founder of nutritional coaching group Culina Health, points out that soy foods have been rigorously investigated over the past 25 years for their role in chronic disease prevention and treatment. She tells Health that although soy can adversely affect some people, most concerns stem from research on rodents.
More recently, human studies have shown that tofu doesn’t contain enough plant estrogens to cause breast cancer. Freirich says that the European Food Safety Authority and the North American Menopause Society found that plant estrogens do not increase breast cancer risk. “Of course, research continues to uncover the mechanisms by which different tissues and people react to different components of our food.”
According to the Mayo Clinic (a medicine called monoamine oxidase inhibitors, prescribed for depression), you should avoid tofu. Tyramine is one of the amino acids in tofu. It helps regulate blood pressure. MAOIs prevent the enzyme from breaking down tyramine. Tyramine levels can quickly rise if you are taking MAOIs and consuming high-tyramine food. This can cause a severe spike in blood pressure and require emergency treatment,” per the Mayo Clinic.
Freirich also stated that there are concerns about soy products and thyroid function in people taking thyroid medication. She advises that you talk to your doctor before increasing your soy product intake.
There’s another thing to remember: Soy is a common food allergy, especially in children under 3. According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, allergic reactions first appear in infants and young children under 3, and many outgrow the allergy during childhood.
Yule says that tofu can be good when consumed in moderation. However, it is possible to overeat it, even with healthy food. In one “unusual” case, a man who drank excessive amounts of soy products developed gynecomastia, a condition of overdevelopment or enlargement of breast tissue in men or boys.
How to make tofu
Before you can cook your tofu, it is essential to do some preparation. The tofu comes in water, so you need to get rid of as much as possible. Yule recommends a red-cheese press, but she also suggests the old-fashioned method of pressing your tofu between 2 weighted plates.
Yule warns against deep-frying and using sugary sauces to get the most out of your tofu. She says that tofu is like a blank canvas. One way to enjoy it is marinated in sesame oil and low sodium soy sauce, then air-fried.
You can also pan-fry or grill, stir-fry, saute tofu, and even cook it. Freirich suggests that you fill half of your plate with non-starchy veggies, 25% with protein like tofu, 25% with whole grains like brown rice for a healthier meal.
The type of tofu will determine how it should cook for the best results. For recipes that require crumbling or mixing, medium and soft tofu are best. Firmer varieties can be used for grilling and pan-frying. Silken tofu is best used for sauces and dips.