tofu vegetable stirfry on a glass plate with chopsticks

For as long as I have been a plant-based dietitian, I have been getting questions about the health benefits of tofu. And almost as many questions about how to cook it! Let’s dive in.

Common questions I’m asked:

  • What is tofu…actually?
  • Isn’t the estrogen content of tofu dangerous?
  • Isn’t tofu too processed?
  • What about anti-nutrients in soy?
  • How do you make tofu taste good?

The internet has got it SO wrong about tofu. It’s a vital, low FODMAP protein source for people on plant-based diets and I am a big fan of organic, whole soy foods in the diet.

So I asked my Senior Associate Registered Dietitian, Jess Pirnak to break it down once and for all: is tofu good for you? And what the heck do you do with it? Jess takes a deep dive into the current research to help you make an informed decision about cooking with tofu. Take it away, Jess!

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Living in today’s plant-based world of recipe, it’s not surprising to discover tofu in every grocery store in North America.

But what you might find surprising is that tofu has been around for centuries. Apparently, the first written record of tofu dates back to 950 A.D.

For such a humble, versatile, ancient food why is it still such a mystery?

According to the Economist and Forbes magazine, 2019 is the year of the vegan, so it is about time we dig deep into tofu and explore exactly what it is, how it is made and whether it is healthy or not.

What is Tofu?

Tofu is processed soybean curd. If that sounds weird, it’s not that different than cheese…let me explain!

The three ingredients behind tofu are soybeans, water and a coagulant—usually nigari (magnesium chloride) or gypsum (calcium sulfate).

For all the science geeks out there, a coagulant is a substance that allows fluid to curdle to become a solid.

The whole process of making tofu is very similar to cheese making. If you’ve ever made ricotta at home, you know that you add a coagulant (lemon juice) to milk and then separate the casein curds from the liquid whey.

After soaking raw, dried soybeans overnight and then blending those soybeans to make soymilk, the coagulant is added. From there, the soymilk forms curds, which are drained and pressed into blocks to create tofu!

That tofu can be further pressed to remove moisture, creating medium, firm or extra firm textures.

The Health Benefits of Tofu

Tofu contains several anti-inflammatory, antioxidant phyto-chemicals making it a great addition to an anti-inflammatory diet.

Tofu is also a good source of ‘complete’ plant protein, meaning that it has a well balanced amino acid profile, in addition to:

  • fibre
  • potassium
  • magnesium
  • iron
  • copper
  • manganese

If made with calcium sulphate, tofu also contains high amounts of calcium, so make sure to check the nutrition facts label on the package.

Calcium is an important nutrient to pay attention to, especially before you hit 30, as our bones reach their maximum strength and density between the age of 25-30. Don’t get me wrong; it is still important to consume calcium after the age of 30 as we can still replace the bone mass that is lost each day.

Tofu is a great way to build strong bones, without dairy.

If it fits your budget, we recommend purchasing organic tofu to help you minimize your exposure to genetically modified soybeans and hexane used in the production of conventional soy beans.

The Different Types of Tofu

There are two main types of tofu—silken tofu and regular tofu—and they have very specific benefits and drawbacks when it comes to cooking.

Silken Tofu

Silken tofu has exactly that, a silky smooth, perfectly creamy texture. Sold in tubes or boxes, it’s perfect for desserts, smoothies, dips and sauces and can even be used to replace eggs. It falls apart very easily…this is not one you want to bake or stir-fry!

Regular Tofu

This is the tofu you’re going to crumble, slice or cube. It’s usually sold water packed and comes in different firmness levels such as soft, medium, firm, extra-firm or pressed.

To be honest, I don’t really understand when someone uses the soft and medium varieties. If you want soft, go for silken for those uses.

If pan frying, baking, or crumbling, I prefer the extra firm. I will use pressed when I want to BBQ slabs of marinated tofu or am stir-frying it.

Is Soy Safe?

Now that you know what tofu is and how it is made the real question is: is it healthy?

A few years ago, early animal studies created some bad publicity for soy foods by claiming the estrogen-like compounds found in soy may raise the risk of hormone related cancers. Other rumours declared that men who ate soy foods would develop boobs. Yes, I said it: man boobs!

After the dust settled, what we know now from stronger human studies and a consistent body of research is that soy foods are safe for those diagnosed with cancer AND those without and it will NOT cause man boobs.

The fact is that soy foods contain several key nutrients and phytochemicals, including isoflavones. Isoflavones are a group of phytoestrogens, studied for their cancer prevention properties when eaten in similar amounts to a typical Asian diet, which is about two servings a day.

It is important to note that phytoestrogens are not the same strength as your body’s own estrogen – in fact, they are known as ‘weak estrogens’ which tend to have a moderating (not strictly additive) effect on your body’s hormone levels.

However, it should be noted that soy supplements may contain a concentrated source of plant estrogens than found in natural whole foods and until more information is available women are being advised to avoid soy supplements (eg. soy products in concentrated or pill form).

You may also have heard of anti-nutrients such as lectins that are found in soybeans. Here’s why you don’t need to worry about lectins.

How to Cook Tofu

Now that you know how healthy tofu can be, need some inspiration on how to prepare it? Here are some tips and recipes to have you using tofu like a pro in no time.

  • Simmer cubes of medium-firm tofu along with your favourite soup vegetables such as carrots, celery, zucchini, and onions in a broth made of miso dissolved in hot water to create homemade miso soup
  • Next time you make your usual smoothie add 1/2 cup soft silken tofu instead of your go-to protein powder.
  • Use sliced smoked tofu (no cooking necessary!) or pan-fried tempeh in a sandwich. One of my favourite sandwiches is a vegan “reuben,” which includes two pieces of cooked tempeh, and sauerkraut all between two slices of rye bread.
  • Marinate extra firm tofu by first cutting it into cubes and tossing it in a tandoori paste mixture (5 Tbsp of tandoori paste with 1 Tbsp of oil). Let marinate for 3-4 hours then pan fry the tofu until all sides are browned. Add to any salad or dish.

12 Must-Make Tofu Recipes:

Quick Note on Storing Tofu

If you do not use it all in one go, cover the leftover tofu with cold water in an airtight container and change the water daily.

Tofu will keep in the refrigerator for a few days or you can also freeze firm tofu for up to three months. However, soft or silken tofu should not be frozen. Now, get cooking!

Photo Credit: Vita Marija Murenaite on Unsplash

Jess’ References: 

1. Wu AH, Lee E, Vigen C. Soy isoflavones and breast cancer. Am Soc Clin Oncol Educ Book. 2013;102-106.
2. Nechuta SJ, Caan BJ, Chen WY, et al. Soy food intake after diagnosis of breast cancer and survival: an in-depth analysis of combined evidence from cohort studies of US and Chinese women. Am J Clin Nutr. 2012;96(1):123-132.
3. American Institute for Cancer Research: Soy www.airc.org
4. A Nutrition Guide for Women with Breast Cancer BC Cancer Agency. 2012