Tofu, made from soybean curds, is naturally gluten-free and low calorie, contains no cholesterol and is an excellent source of protein, iron, and calcium. It is an important source of protein especially for vegans, vegetarians and those looking to move toward a more plant-based diet.
To make tofu, soymilk is first coagulated which leads to the separation of the curds from the whey. The resulting curds are then pressed and compacted into the gelatinous white blocks recognized as tofu.1
This MNT Knowledge Center feature is part of a collection of articles on the health benefits of popular foods.
Nutritional breakdown of tofu
Tofu provides 44% of daily calcium needs, 9% of magnesium, and 40% of iron and also contains small amounts of vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B-6, folate, choline, phosphorus, manganese and selenium.
Tofu, made from soybean curds, is naturally gluten-free and low calorie, contains no cholesterol and is an excellent source of protein, iron, and calcium.
Soy is the prime component of tofu and is a complete source of dietary protein, providing all of the essential amino acids needed in the diet. Soybeans are also high in healthy polyunsaturated fats, especially omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid.
The isoflavones (a type of compound called phytoestrogens) in soy foods have been linked to a decreased risk for osteoporosis, while the calcium and magnesium in soy may help to lessen PMS symptoms, regulate blood sugar and prevent migraine headaches.
Possible health benefits of consuming tofu
Consuming plant-based foods of all kinds has long been associated with a reduced risk of many lifestyle-related health conditions. Countless studies have suggested that increasing consumption of plant-based foods like tofu, decreases the risk of obesity and overall mortality, diabetes, heart disease and promotes a healthy complexion and hair, increased energy, and overall lower weight.
Recent studies have shown that due to its large quantities of isoflavones, tofu consumption is associated with lower risk of several specific age and lifestyle-related diseases, such as:
Breast and prostate cancer: genistein, the predominant isoflavone in soy, contains antioxidant properties that inhibit the growth of cancer cells.3 Moderate amounts of soy foods do not affect tumor growth or a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, at least 10mg of soy per day can decrease breast cancer recurrence by 25%.
Type 2 diabetes: people who suffer from type 2 diabetes often experience kidney disease, causing the body to excrete an excessive amount of protein in the urine. Evidence from a recent study has indicated that those who consumed only soy protein in their diet excreted less protein than those that consumed only animal protein.5
Osteoporosis: soy isoflavones are known to decrease bone loss and increase bone mineral density during menopause, and have also been reported to reduce other menopausal symptoms.3
Liver damage: studies have shown that tofu of all types that have been curdled with various coagulants can be used to prevent liver damage caused by free radicals.4
Age-related brain diseases: based on geographic epidemiological findings, it has been observed that populations that consume greater amounts of soy have, in general, less incidence of age-related mental disorders.3
How to incorporate more tofu into your diet
Tofu is commonly found in Asian cuisine, particularly that of East and Southeast Asia.
Tofu comes in several different consistencies: extra firm, firm, soft, or silken.
- Firm and extra firm tofu is denser than soft or silken tofu, and retains more of its shape when cooked. This makes it suitable for grilling and stir-frying
- Soft tofu works well in casseroles and soups
- Silken tofu is best for puddings and dips, and can also be blended into smoothies for added protein.1
Tofu is commonly found in Asian cuisine, particularly that of East and Southeast Asia. Its neutral flavor allows it to be easily incorporated into any recipe, and many meat substitutes comprised of tofu are made to taste and feel like the meat they are imitating (i.e., tofu sausage and tofu burgers).
Try some of these healthy dishes that incorporate tofu:Powered Up Lasagna
Slow Cooker Thai Coconut Curry
Savory Stuffed Peppers and Potatoes
Potential health risks of consuming tofu
Possible risks in consuming soy foods have been heavily debated recently, especially those pertaining to the topic of breast cancer. There is not enough evidence from human clinical trials to substantiate the claim that the isoflavones in soy contribute to breast cancer risk.
The soy and cancer study that started the controversy concerned only those with a specific type breast cancer (estrogen receptor positive). Some early studies suggested possible increased tumor growth in rats with a high intake of soy. As more advanced research was done, scientists found that rats metabolize soy completely different from humans, making the earlier studies invalid.
Now we know that moderate amounts of soy foods do not affect tumor growth or a woman's risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, at least 10mg of soy per day can decrease breast cancer recurrence by 25%.
Findings from animal models have also suggested that there exists a positive correlation between tumor growth and the degree to which an isoflavone-containing product has been processed. Therefore, it is better to consume tofu and other soy foods that have undergone minimal amounts of processing.2
If you have a concern regarding consuming genetically modified soy, go organic. The USDA National Organic Standards prohibit the use of GMOs. You can also look for products with the Non-GMO Project Verified seal. Some brands with this seal include Silk, Amy's, Back to Nature and WestSoy. For a complete list of products with the verified seal, visit nongmoproject.org.
It is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention and achieving good health. It is better to eat a diet with a variety than to concentrate on individual foods as the key to good health.
Written by Megan Ware RDN LDand Helen Yuan