Diet

What Is Tofu? Looking at the Positive (& Negative) Health Benefits

Is Tofu Worth The Trouble? Looking At The Health Facts
Written by Michael

Everyone knows that protein is an important part of a healthy diet, but how many people have a real sense of all the natural ways where they can get some?

Sure, meat and other animal products are full of protein, but shouldn't there be a healthy, tasty protein option for vegans and vegetarians?

There is, and the answer is tofu.

For those that choose to restrict the amount of animal products they eat, tofu is an ideal alternative for getting the muscle-building benefits of protein.

Deep fryed tofu on a table


Deep frying isn't the healthiest option, but it makes it a great treat.

As a wonder food that has been eaten throughout Asia for thousands of years, tofu is full of health benefits that make it a smart dining choice for just about everyone.

...or is it?

In recent years, tofu has come under controversy because of the conflicting health claims of its main ingredient: soy. Some research seems to claim that soy products aren't the healthy choice society is trying to convince us they are, and that it can have extremely damaging, even feminizing effects on the male body.

With all the conflicting evidence out there, what are you to believe? Internet searches on the impacts of tofu can leave you feeling lost and confused, which is why we at Total Shape have done the difficult work for you.

We've looked at the health evidence of this soy product and have come to some conclusions that we think will help you out.

To learn whether tofu can be a healthy part of your diet or if it's better off left on the grocery store shelf, read on to learn some more about this traditional food.

What Is Tofu?

Tofu, also called bean curd, is made from soy beans, or, more specifically, soy beans ground into soy milk.

To make tofu, fresh soy milk is curdled so that the proteins become coagulated, pressed into solid blocks and then cooled down in a very similar process to how dairy cheese is made from curdled milk.

Also like in cheese production, the liquid product of tofu (called the whey) is considered a waste product and discarded.

However, this description is doing tofu a disservice because it makes it sound like all tofu looks and tastes the same. In fact, the opposite is true and tofu can take on a wide variety of shapes and consistencies, including silken, soft, firm and extra firm, and it can be served fermented, pickled, dried, fried, served with pureed bananas as a dessert, frozen or simply sauteed with vegetables.

History Of Tofu

Though soybeans are eaten around the world, tofu has consistently been the most popular way to eat them. Today is East Asia, this soy product appears on people's plates as often as dairy-based milk and cheese do in the western world.

It was originated in China over 2,000 years ago, where one legend claims that a Chinese cook stumbled on the discovery after he accidentally curdled some soy milk by mixing in sea salt and nigari seaweed.

He must have liked the thick substance he created, because tofu quickly became an essential ingredient in east Asian cuisine.

In fact, even though soybeans aren't actually in the grain family, the Chinese still considered them to be one of their essential Five Sacred Grains (wheat, rice, millet and barley were the other four).

Picture of ancient tofu production

Tofu made it to Japan in the eighth century by way of Kento priests that ventured to China to study Buddhism. There, it was called 'okabe' and mixed in a number of traditional dishes.

It became a favorite dish of the military elite (the Shoguns) by the 12th century and even became a staple food source for the Zen Buddhist monks practicing throughout the country. Because it was a healthy, inexpensive food that was enjoyed by elites and commoners alike, tofu came to symbolize unity of taste throughout Japan.

Tofu became common in the western world during the rise of the hippie era of the 1960s when an interest in healthy eating caused many people to turn towards the dietary habits of the seemingly healthier Asian populations across the Pacific.

Today, the worldwide tofu industry has grown enormous, with over 200,000 tofu manufacturers worldwide. The biggest factories are located in Japan where they make over fifty tons of the bean curd every day.

What Is Tofu Made Of?

Tofu and olive oil dish on a plate


Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk.

Alright, so how is tofu made? Though the vast majority of tofu eaten in the Western world comes from factories, this simple food source is actually surprisingly easy to make. Just a few ingredients are needed to make world-class tofu: soybeans, water, and a coagulation agent.

The kind of soybean used isn't like edamame, the green snack-able soybean that's so popular with foodies. Rather, tofu soybeans are small, yellow and completely dried when used.

The first step in making tofu is to soak the soybeans until they are fully hydrated and double in size (usually 12 hours).

Next, they are crushed open to release the “milk” inside. The mixture is then heated to separate the solids from the milk, which is then extracted.

A coagulant (traditionally seawater) is then added to form curds from the milk, which are collected, poured into a press and squeezed until enough moisture has been forced out to allow the curds to bind together.

The length of time that it's is pressed depends on the overall consistency that is desired, where extra firm, it's is pressed the longest.

After the pressing process is through, the tofu is put into cold water to help it finish setting. At this point, the tofu is done and ready to be enjoyed or stored for use at a later time.

Types of Tofu

Though all tofu is made from soybean curds, there is a wide variety of ways in which it is served. Some of the most common types of tofu that you can find in the store are described below.

  • Firm and extra firm: This type of tofu is more dense than other types and keeps its shape when cooked, meaning it is useful for frying, grilling and stir frying.
  • Soft Tofu: This tofu doesn't keep its shape as well as firm varieties but it makes a greater filler ingredient in casseroles and soups.
  • Silken tofu: As the name implies, this type of tofu has a silky smooth texture and is fantastic added to dips, puddings, and smoothies for an extra boost of protein.

Fermented Tofu: What's the Deal?

Though the vast majority of tofu produced in the United States isn't fermented, a large amount of international tofu is fermented before eating. Fermented tofu goes by a wide variety of names, including pickled tofu, tofu cheese, preserved tofu, Chinese tofu, sufu, stinky curd, stinky sufu and stinky tofu.

The process for fermenting tofu can vary considerably, but it usually involves specially sourced bacteria and salty brine. Recent scientific research has shown that the free radical- scavenging activity in fermented tofu might be healthier to eat than regular coagulated varieties.

Is Tofu Good for You? (Pros & cons)

The health benefits have been celebrated for centuries. Not only is it an excellent source of protein for vegetarians and vegans, there is also evidence that it has many other natural health benefits like preventing cancer and treating hair loss.

Woman serving tofu dish in restaurant

Ready to taste?

However, on the other side of the conversation are people that are convinced that the estrogen-mimicking compounds in soy products are helping to feminize males and make them develop dreaded man-boobs (the moob).

As actively as some vegetarians advocate this soy product, many fearful men strive to avoid the substance at all costs. With such conflicting beliefs abounding about tofu, what should you do? Lets look at the benefits of tofu from both sides of the argument.

Tofu Nutrition Facts

When it comes to looking at tofu as a natural health food, there is certainly a lot to like. In fact, it is one of the most perfectly balanced natural foods available, so long as you mind your portions.

Coming in at just 94 calories per half cup serving, tofu will never wreck your diet, and the 10 grams of protein will keep you full for hours. With all that protein you get no cholesterol and only trace amounts of carbs (naturally gluten free!), meaning your low-carb diet won't be ruined.

But that's not all you get from this curdled bean. In fact, one serving of tofu will satisfy 44 percent of your daily calcium intake, 40 percent of your iron and 9 percent of your magnesium.

It also contains trace amounts of valuable nutrients like vitamin K, riboflavin, thiamin, vitamin B-6, niacin, choline, foliate, selenium, manganese and phosphorus.

7 Positives Health Benefits of Tofu

Soy, the main component of tofu, is a natural source of a complete dietary protein, which means you don't have to combine it with any other substances in order to get the body-building benefits. Soybeans also have naturally high levels of polyunsaturated fats like omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid.

It has long been understood that eating a diet filled with plant-based foods is healthy for you and reduces your risk of developing numerous lifestyle diseases and health conditions like diabetes, heart disease and obesity.

This is because of the high level of isoflavones present in tofu. These chemicals are phytoestrogens and help to reduce the levels of cholesterol in the body, meaning that your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases goes down considerably.

Happy woman eating tofu on a red background

94 calories per half cup serving!

Studies have been showing for years that a diet filled with plant based foods will lower your risk of early death as well as your odds of developing heart disease and obesity while also helping you to have fuller hair, more energy and even a better complexion.

Some of the specific benefits of adding this soy product to your diet are explained below.

1. Diabetes

Tofu is a perfect food option for diabetics because of the low fat and low calorie content.

Eating at least 200 grams of tofu a day can help to significantly reduce your risk of developing diabetes, and eating a diet filled with a range of soy foods is a proven way to reduce the risk that your blood develops insulin resistance.

Best of all, the sky-high levels of protein and other essential nutrients in tofu means that the blood sugar levels in diabetics will be better controlled at safe levels.

2. Heart Disease

In the developed world, heart disease is one of the leading causes of death, and it's caused primarily by eating a diet full of unhealthy, highly processed foods.

However, you can find a heart-saving solution through tofu.

Eating a diet full of tofu will help you lower your risk of heart disease by reducing the levels of lipoprotein (a bad cholesterol) in your body.

This works to improve your overall cardiovascular health as well.

Woman on a market selling tofu

Eat tofu and keep your blood pressure levels under control.

Eating tofu regularly helps your body reduce the risk of stroke and other dangerous diseases through the lowering of bad cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL levels in your blood, while also helping your body to raise the levels of HDL or healthy cholesterol.

It turns out that fermented forms of tofu have a few last heart benefits that make it worth adding to your plate.

Peptides-glycinin and conglycinin are bio-active anti-inflammatory agents found in tofu that work to reduce inflammation and blood vessel damage in your body, which makes it much easier to lower your blood pressure levels and keep it under control.

Reduced inflammation has plenty of other body benefits, including weight loss and ease maintaining a healthy weight.

3. Obesity

When eaten as part of a reduced- calorie diet, tofu is an easy way to lose weight. Because tofu is often eaten as a substitute for calorie-rich meats, it can help you weigh 3 to 20 percent less than people that eat meat.

Obese buddha statue in grass

Who is to blame for obesity?

The high amount of protein in tofu means you'll manage to feel full eating fewer calories which can make a huge difference in weight loss.

In fact, there is evidence that soy protein can make a bigger difference in weight loss than other types of protein, as some studies have shown that people that got their protein from soy lost more body fat than those that relied on animal-based source.

4. Cancer

There are many benefits to tofu that make it a smart food choice for warding off cancer. First, tofu contains lots of selenium, which is a mineral that the body needs to run its antioxidant-processing system and help prevent colon cancer.

In fact, studies have shown that men can reduce their risk of prostate cancer by eating tofu and women that eat plenty of it every week are over 60% less likely to develop the kinds of risky breast tissue that often cause breast cancer.

Genistein, a phytonutrient found in soy, has been studied extensively to try to understand the role it places in cancer prevention. The evidence shows that increases the quantities of a protein called p53 that is responsible for suppressing tumor growth, especially in the breasts and prostate.

Once it becomes activated, this protein compound can trigger pre-programmed cell death, called apoptosis, in cancer cells, which prevents the cancer from spreading throughout your body. To get the best benefits from genistein, it's important to eat many forms of fermented soy, as the protein compound is much more prevalent there.

5. Menopause

When women hit menopause, their daily calcium requirements go up. Tofu can provide the high doses of calcium needed to keep women healthy, while also helping them to reduce the prevalence of hot flashes, prevent rheumatoid arthritis and help prevent the risk of losing bone mass.

Young and old woman smiling

You only live once!

Likewise, menopause and pre-menopause can wreck havoc on a woman's estrogen levels, meaning that she might experience severe mood swings, headaches, trouble sleeping, and dizziness due to hot flashes.

However, the flavanoids and isoflavonoids in tofu can help to restore the estrogen levels to the proper amounts, which can provide great relief for these symptoms and cause them to go away.

6. Aging

It may sound too good to be true, but there is plenty of evidence that tofu can make a big difference in how youthful you look by actively slowing down the aging process.

A diet full of tofu helps your skin to retain its elasticity and keeps your facial muscles toned, which prevents sagging and leaves your skin looking youthful.

Though eating regular servings can make a big difference, an even better way to keep your skin looking youthful is to make a paste out of silken tofu and apply it to your face in order to nourish your skin from the outside in. With regular application, crow lines and fine wrinkles will start to disappear!

7. Hairloss

Human hair is made out of protein, and the primary protein used in the process is called keratin. Thankfully, this soy product is a natural way to provide it for your body.

By eating tofu regularly, you'll be providing the required keratin levels to your body which will help your body produce more hair while the selenium levels in tofu are useful by helping your scalp hold on to the hairs you already have.

It might seem like a small diet change to switch out some meat in your daily diet in exchange for tofu, but this little behavior change can make a big difference for the overall health of your body.

Whether you suffer from diabetes, heart disease or a simply struggling through the first signs of menopause, a diet filled with tofu might be part of the natural health solution for you.

4 Negative Health Benefits of Tofu

Nothing in food science is ever as simple as we'd like it to be, and tofu fits under the category of a relatively complex topic. Though there is ample evidence of the health benefits that tofu can provide for you, unfortunately other studies have criticized this bean curd for its soy content and estrogen mimickers.

However, it's important to be clear that much of the controversy comes from confusion about the health effects of highly processed forms of soy, like soy milk or soy protein concentrate.

Because tofu is considered a form of soy that's closer to its natural form than these creations, it tends to have a better health reputation.

Nonetheless, lets look at some of the healthy claims about soy that have come out in recent years.

1. Cancer

Yes, cancer is also in the 'health positives' column, but some scientific evidence reveals that eating tofu might actually cause the development of breast cancer in some women.

The study that caused this controversy looked at a specific type of break cancer that's based on estrogen receptors, and early studies found an increase in tumor growth in rats fed soy.

Cute rat eating tofu

Rats metabolize soy differently than humans.

However, farther research revealed that rats metabolize soy differently than humans, so the overall impacts aren't known.

It does seem clear that there is a correlation between the level of processing in soy and the risk of tumor development, so to be safe you should stick to minimally processed soy foods like tofu.

2. Food Allergies

For reasons not well understood, soybeans are one of the eight most common forms of allergen in the United States, and for some people even a little exposure can be fatal.

3. Thyroid Health

The role that tofu plays in thyroid health has been debated endlessly, and there is evidence on both sides for its benefits and negative effects on your thyroid.

At this point there are still more questions than answers, but if you have thyroid problems already it might be smart to limit your tofu intake.

4. Genetically Modified Soybeans

Much of the controversy around soy products and tofu comes from the use of a specific type of soybean - genetically modified organisms (GMO) to be exact.

At this point, about 93% of the soybeans grown in the US are GMOs, which is one of the reasons why soy is so cheap. However, this lower price point might come at a high cost.

There is lots of controversy about the effects of eating GMO foods because not enough research has been conducted to prove that they are completely safe. At this point it's been noted that soy allergies increase with GMO soy and that there are potential negative impacts to the liver (at least in mice and rats).

For this reason, many people prefer to avoid soy products completely unless they can be sure that they have been grown organically.

Should Men Eat It?

The largest controversy about the health effects are about whether it is a smart food choice for men. Soy naturally contain large amounts of isoflavones, which encourage estrogen activity in the body.

Chinese man eating tofu

I'm a mighty, mighty man!

There are long held beliefs and plenty of anecdotal evidence that consuming soy can cause men to 'feminize' through the loss of a sex drive and the growth of breasts.

However, the medical literature on this topic doesn't seem to reach this conclusion and instead regulates the feminizing qualities of soy products to myth status. The research that HAS shown feminization in men due to soy only occurred when men drank soy milk every day.

There seems to be little risk of feminization through eating tofu, possibly because of the fermentation properties that the soybeans go through.

Though there are reasons that men suffering from erectile dysfunction should avoid all soy products, for the vast majority of men the healthy benefits of occasionally eating tofu far outweigh any negative health impacts.

2 Fun Cooking Techniques

How you choose to prepare tofu is limited only by your creativity. However, there are some tried-and-true ways that will turn even the biggest carnivore into a tofu fanatic.

Below are some fun cooking techniques:

Delicious tofu dish

How you choose to prepare is limited only by your creativity.

1. Regular Tofu

  • Crumble and saute it for a vegan scramble.
  • Dose in soy sauce and saute with veggies.
  • Bread and pan fry like a piece of chicken.
  • Marinate with BBQ sauce and put it on the grill.
  • Crumble into pieces and pan fry with taco seasoning as a ground beef substitute.
  • Add cubes of tofu to miso soup.

2. Silken Tofu

  • Replace the cream in any soup recipe.
  • Blend together tofu with olive oil, garlic and lemon juice to make a tofu aoli dip.
  • Puree for use in recipes that call for mayonnaise, sour cream, or cream cheese.
  • Blend with onion soup mix for a delicious onion dip.
  • Add to a smoothie as a milk or yogurt substitute.

Storage Options

The tofu you buy from the store usually comes in individual refrigerated packages that come with expiration dates to help you know how long it will last.

If you open a package and don't use all of it at once, rinse the rest of the tofu and put it in a container covered with water. Plan on changing this water daily until you eat the rest of it. Under this method, tofu should last about a week.

You can also freeze it in its package for longer term storage, about five months. This will change the color and texture so that your tofu becomes slightly yellowish and more spongy, but it should still taste great.

Summary

Clearly, there's a lot to like about tofu. Rich in protein and low in calories, tofu is a healthy food option for any occasion and its versatility means that it can be cooked in a wide variety of ways for optimal flavor.

Whether you are trying to eat less meat or are simply trying out some new, lower calorie cooking options, adding tofu to your diet is a smart way to stay healthy and try new flavors. Whether you're a man or woman, tofu can be a healthy part of your diet, so long as you eat it in moderation.

Now we want to hear from you! What are your all time favorite recipes? Do you have a secret silken tofu strategy that makes even carnivores swoon? We want to hear all about it. Drop us a comment under this post!

About the author

Michael

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Miami, FL. I’ve spent the last 10 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits.