Tofu is made from soy, which contains compounds called isoflavones that have been linked to breast cancer, but recent research actually shows eating soy can reduce the risk of breast cancer, not increase it.
The type of tofu that you choose will have an impact on its nutritional value, but overall it’s a low-calorie protein option compared to most animal-based proteins that may aid in weight loss.
Tofu contains calcium and magnesium, which keep bones strong and preserve bone mineral density as you age.
Long categorized as a health food, the benefits of tofu have come under more scrutiny in recent years.
Tofu is a vegetarian-friendly protein source derived from fermented soybeans, a type of legume. It is made by curdling soy milk, pressing it into a block, and then cooling it — a process similar to how cheese is made from traditional dairy milk.
Tofu, also known as bean curd, originated roughly 2,000 years ago in China. While tofu is considered a novel food in the West by some, it’s been an important part of traditional Asian diets for centuries.
“I think most Americans could benefit from having soy in their diet,” says Kailey Proctor, a registered dietitian with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California. “It is a plant-based source of protein that adapts to the flavors of the dish, is low in saturated fat, and cholesterol-free.”
Learn more about the benefits, misgivings, and many ways to incorporate tofu healthfully into your diet.
Types of tofu and their nutritional content
Like cheeses, tofu is divided into different types, depending on its firmness. The common types of tofu are:
Silken: The softest type of tofu, also known as Japanese tofu, has a similar texture to mozzarella cheese and can be used in creamy sauces for ravioli.
Regular: This type of tofu is slightly harder and can be scrambled and eaten similar to scrambled eggs.
Firm: The most popular and widely available type of tofu, it has a texture like feta cheese. Firm tofu can be used in a variety of ways, from deep-frying to stir-fries, and is known for absorbing flavors from marinades and sauces.
Extra-firm: This tofu is also easy to cook with, but doesn’t absorb flavors as well as firm tofu.
Super-firm: This variety of tofu has a texture similar to meat.
The type of tofu that you choose will have an impact on its nutritional value, Proctor says.
“As the firmness increases, the caloric intake and protein content increases,” she says. For example, 3 oz. of silken tofu contains 35 calories compared to the same amount of extra firm tofu, which has nearly double that at 70 calories.
“Overall though, tofu is a low-calorie protein option compared to most animal-based proteins,” Proctor says.
What are the benefits of tofu?
There is a popular misconception that eating soy products, including tofu, can increase cancer risk, but studies indicate that soy does not increase cancer risk. In fact, eating tofu and other soy products can have health benefits, including supporting heart health.
Tofu is a healthy option because it is a high-protein, low-calorie food for people trying to lose weight, Proctor says. In general, tofu provides a substantial serving of protein with fewer calories than red meat sources.
Here’s how tofu compares to other sources of protein. In a 3 oz. serving of each, you’ll find:
Firm Tofu: 17.3 grams of protein, 144 calories, 1.3 grams saturated fat
Skirt steak: 28.7 grams of protein, 286 calories, 6.1 grams saturated fat
Chicken breast: 32.1 grams of protein, 157 calories, 1 gram saturated fat
Wild Atlantic Salmon: 25.4 grams of protein, 182 calories, 1.3 grams saturated fat
Unlike meat-based protein sources, tofu is cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. Consuming a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, and eating 25 grams of soy protein a day may reduce the risk of heart disease, according to the FDA.
More broadly, eating less meat and a vegetarian-based diet has been linked to the prevention of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes.
Tofu has other nutritional benefits, too. “Tofu also contains calcium and magnesium, which keep bones strong and preserve bone mineral density as we age,” Proctor says.
Misunderstandings about tofu
Tofu has been associated with an increased risk of breast cancer, but the scientific evidence behind that is largely unfounded. The idea is based around the fact that soy products, like tofu, contain isoflavones, which may increase estrogen levels in certain people, though it’s effects are highly individualized.
High estrogen levels have been linked to increased risk for breast cancer, so some people are worried about whether eating soy products like tofu can increase their risk. However, recent research indicates that eating soy can potentially lower the risk of breast cancer. Moreover, information from Harvard and the USDA, says that tofu is a healthy protein source.
“Many believe that by eating tofu or soy, it increases their chances of getting breast cancer, but that hasn’t been shown,” Proctor says. “Phytoestrogen, in tofu and soy, is different than estrogen, the female hormone in the body. More research is showing us that it may help reduce women at risk of developing breast cancer.”
Potential downsides of tofu
Although tofu is often promoted as “green” food, it may not have much of an environmental advantage over meats.
“In terms of environmental health, tofu is a little controversial,” Proctor says. “While following a vegetarian and vegan diet helps reduce our carbon footprint, some reports indicate tofu might not because of the processing that goes into making it compared to beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds.”
Finally, soy is a common allergen, so if you experience any adverse symptoms — like vomiting, wheezing, or a weak pulse — during or shortly after eating tofu talk with your doctor. “Anyone with a soy allergy should avoid tofu,” Proctor says.
Incorporating tofu into your diet
Most people could benefit from incorporating tofu into their diet, Proctor says.
“Tofu has no flavor and takes on the flavor of the dishes it is being prepared in,” she says, so no need to worry about not liking the taste. For many Americans, however, cooking tofu has a learning curve.
“Drawbacks of tofu are usually people being intimidated by it – they don’t know how to cook it or how to prepare it,” Proctor says.
Luckily, it’s a fairly fool-proof food to prepare. Here are Proctor’s suggestions for introducing yourself to tofu and incorporating it into your diet:
Add silken tofu to your smoothies to increase protein and creaminess with no effect on taste.
Scramble regular tofu with a touch of turmeric to get the yellow color you’re used to with scrambled eggs.
Chop firm tofu and incorporate it into a stir-fry.
“Save deep-fried tofu for a special occasion,” Proctor says.
For most people, tofu can be a healthy and low-calorie source of protein. Proctor recommends getting up to 2-3 servings of soy each day — much more than most Americans eat.
“Like most foods, balance and moderation are important,” she says. “You want to vary your protein sources to ensure you get a range of vitamins and minerals.”
If you’re concerned about eating genetically modified organisms, non-GMO and organic tofu options are plentiful. Whether you are looking to lose weight or reduce your meat consumption, tofu is worth a try, Proctor says.
“Tofu is a good source of protein for vegetarians, vegans, or those looking to eat more of a plant-based diet,” she says.
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