Even though most people have a love or hate relationship with tofu, it’s one of those plant-based ingredients that you’ll want to have in your kitchen. Not only is it super nutritious with a long list of health benefits, but there are tons of ways to cook this diverse food. With that said, there’s always that lingering fear about consuming soy products.
Yet, have you ever dug into why soy products are getting such a bad rap lately? Ever taken a look at the studies regarding the safety of soy? Turns out there’s a lot of confusion and a lot of misinformation, which has villainized this wonderful plant-based food. Luckily, I’ve broken the debate down for you!
What is Tofu?
What is that squiggly block of chalky white in your fridge?
Simply put, soybeans. Of course, there’s a whole lot more to it.
Tofu — oftentimes called “bean curd or soybean curd” — is generally made from “soybeans, water, and a coagulant or curdling agent.” While the process of creating tofu stays the same, the ingredients can be switched up a bit. For instance, certain tofu’s are made from “condensed soy milk that is pressed into [the] solid white blocks” you purchase at the grocery store.
This spongy, diverse ingredient “originated in China … [and] … rumor has it that a Chinese cook discovered tofu more than 2,000 years ago by accidentally mixing a batch of fresh soy milk with nigari” — the substance that “remains when salt is extracted from seawater.” Nigari is oftentimes a more natural “mineral-rich coagulant used to help tofu solidify and keep its form.”
Health Benefits of Tofu
Tofu is incredibly popular in the plant-based world due to its incredibly rich and diverse nutrient profile. It’s one of the best sources of plant-based protein, is rich in calcium, iron, manganese, and selenium, all while being low in fat. Yet, it’s not just the nutrients that will do your body good, tofu also contains many plant-based compounds that are linked to various health benefits such as increased bone health, better brain function, a boost in skin elasticity, and even weight loss. Here are a few more health benefits that you may not know about!
As mentioned, tofu is made from soybeans, which “contain natural plant compounds called isoflavones.”
Isoflavones are a “class of flavonoids that exhibit antioxidant, anticancer, antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory properties.” All wonderful things that your body needs! Recent studies have linked isoflavone consumption to the prevention of “chronic diseases in which inflammation plays a key role,” yet researchers aren’t quite sure what the mechanism for these benefits is.
Reduces the Risk of Heart Disease
Turns out that eating lots of legumes — lentils, beans, peas, and, you guessed it, soybeans — has been linked to a possible reduction in the risk of heart disease.
This may have a lot to do with a few factors, including tofu’s saponins content — made of “polycyclic aglycones attached to one or more sugar side chains,” which have been connected to increased heart health — as well as tofu’s effect on your blood.
Recent research has found that “soy isoflavones can reduce blood vessel inflammation and improve their elasticity,” while another smaller study found that “supplementing with 80 mg of isoflavones per day for 12 weeks improved blood flow by 68 [percent] in people who were at risk of stroke.” On top of that, it’s been discovered that soy protein may also improve “blood fats and an estimated 10 [percent] lower risk of heart disease.”
Lower Risk of Certain Cancers
While you may have heard that soy may cause or aggravate certain cancers, there’s actually a ton of research stating the opposite, that soy — including tofu — actually helps reduce the risk of certain cancers, specifically breast cancer and prostate cancer.
In regards to breast cancer, research has found “that women who eat soy products at least once a week have a 48–56 [percent] lower risk of breast cancer.” Once again, we have those isoflavones to thank, as they’ve been shown to “positively influence the menstrual cycle and blood estrogen levels.”
When it comes to digestive system cancers — such as stomach and prostate — a few studies have discovered a reduced risk of both.
One study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that “higher intakes of tofu were linked to a 61 [percent] lower risk of stomach cancer in men,” while a separate study found a 59 percent reduced risk in women.
For men, consuming more soy products, “especially tofu, had a 32 – 51 [percent] lower risk of prostate cancer.” With that said, there was a slight caveat as an additional review found that the “benefits of isoflavones may depend on the amount consumed and the type of gut bacteria present.”
Demystifying the Concerns About Tofu
Soy products are highly controversial for a few reasons. Yet, lots of the confusion around the safety of tofu comes from a lack of research and knowledge about the appropriate types to consume. For instance, a majority of soybeans grown are actually genetically modified — also known as GMO — which many of us avoid due to health concerns. Soybeans also contain anti-nutrients — nutrients that can actually block the absorption of other nutrients. Let’s take a moment to explain and dispell these facts.
It’s true that tofu contains a few antinutrients including trypsin inhibitors — compounds that “block trypsin, an enzyme needed to properly digest protein” — and phytates — compounds that “can reduce the absorption of minerals, such as calcium, zinc, and iron.”
Fact … most plants contain some level of antinutrients. Also a fact … there are super easy ways to drastically reduce the amount of antinutrients in your plant-based products.
The simplest way to reduce those antinutrients is to simply soak or cook the soybeans which “can inactivate or eliminate some of these antinutrients.” Sprouted soybean products — such as sprouted tofu — “reduces phytates by up to 56 [percent] and trypsin inhibitors by up to 81 [percent] while also increasing protein content by up to 13 [percent].” Lastly, if you’re really worried about those antinutrients, opt for tempeh instead of tofu. Tempeh is the fermented version of tofu and the fermentation process actually reduces the antinutrient content.
On top of that, the antinutrient content found in tofu is small enough that, unless “you are following an imbalanced diet and [rely] on tofu as your main source of iron or zinc,” you really don’t have much to worry about.
Avoiding the GMOs
Per the Non-GMO Project, a “GMO, or genetically modified organism, is a plant, animal, microorganism or other organism whose genetic makeup has been modified in a laboratory using genetic engineering or transgenic technology.” Basically, a GMO food product is one that has undergone genetic changes combining “plant, animal, bacterial and virus genes that do not occur in nature or through traditional crossbreeding methods.”
While research is still underway regarding the health risks of GMOs on the human body, many people prefer to avoid these modified foods as they generally also include many verified unhealthy ingredients including any of the following:
“Amino acids, alcohol, aspartame, ascorbic acid, sodium ascorbate, citric acid, sodium citrate, ethanol, flavorings (“natural” and “artificial”), high-fructose corn syrup, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, lactic acid, maltodextrins, molasses, monosodium glutamate (MSG), sucrose, textured vegetable protein (TVP), xanthan gum, vitamins, vinegar, yeast products”
How do you avoid this possibly dangerous compound?
Simple as that!
Tofu and Estrogen
Alright, now we get to the biggie … the relationship between tofu and estrogen.
This is the most controversial and hotly debated topic when it comes to tofu. With that said, there’s quite a bit of misinformation and confusion around this convoluted relationship.
What’s the issue? Phytoestrogens.
Alright, what are phytoestrogens? Phytoestrogens “are compounds that naturally occur in plants” and are also found “in a wide range of plant foods” including “fruits, veggies, legumes, and some grains,” and especially soy products.
In fact, we’ve already talked about phytoestrogens. Remember those beneficial isoflavones? Yep! Isoflavones fall under the category of phytoestrogens.
Even though these plant-based compounds have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer there are also a few studies that stipulate that isoflavones may aggravate breast tumors and thyroid issues. It all comes down to the design of isoflavones and the fact that these plant-based compounds have “both estrogen-agonist or estrogen-antagonist properties.”
Yet, the research itself is incredibly contradicting.
For instance, “some researchers have suggested that a high soy intake could be related to higher rates of breast cancer,” but if you look at geographical studies, you’ll find that “in areas where women consume more soy, [the] rate of breast cancer are lower.” On top of that, the effect of isoflavones on breast cancer is relegated to a very “specific type [of] breast cancer, which is estrogen-receptor positive.”
On top of that, you’ve got to consider the type of tofu you’re consuming.
For instance, minimally processed tofu products such as “soybeans or edamame, tofu, tempeh, and soymilk” don’t have the same level of harmful additives “such as sodium and flavorings,” which are linked to higher rates of inflammation and other health issues and are oftentimes advised against for those with cancer.
With that said, when all of the studies are analyzed, the conclusion is that “moderate amounts of whole soy foods are currently not thought to affect tumor growth or the risk of developing breast cancer.”
In fact, one two-year study in “postmenopausal women who consumed two servings of soy per day failed to find any increased risk,” and another review of 174 studies found “no link between soy isoflavones and increased breast cancer risk.”
Best Ways to Cook with Tofu
Alright, you want to get your hands on some of that wonderful, healthy, protein-rich tofu! If you’re a beginner, this gelatin-like block of white stuff may be somewhat intimidating. No fear! Tofu is super easy to cook and can be modulated to your taste profile as it easily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients including sauces, dips, and dressings.
If you’re looking to create a crispy tofu dish — one of my favorite forms of tofu — make sure to go for the firm or extra-firm varieties. These will hold up much better in the frying pan, wok, or on the baking sheet. Make sure you give your tofu a little bath in those flavors — let your tofu marinate — and for that crispy shell you’ll want to choose a high-heat safe oil such as unrefined avocado or coconut oil.
Here are a few crispy tofu recipes to get you going! Crispy Air Fryer Tofu, Crispy Turmeric Tofu Nuggets, Crunchy Tofu Popcorn Bites With Sweet Mustard Sauce, Crispy Chipotle Tofu Bites, or this Crispy Baked Tofu With Shredded Veggie Quinoa.
Ever wonder how plant-based smoothies and shakes get that protein boost? It’s all about that tofu! If you’re looking to try a tofu-based smoothie or shake, make sure to choose silken tofu, which will emulsify much easier and become liquidy without losing its meatiness. Silken tofu is created with “minimal curdling and processing, resulting in a product that is delicate in both texture and flavor.”
Give this Silken Tofu Chocolate Smoothie Bowl a try!
Maybe you don’t necessarily want crispy, but you’re looking for a bit firmer on the outside and a bit softer on the inside. Going the sautee or pan-friend route is the best way to achieve this delicious outcome! Make sure to choose one of those hardier varieties — such as a firm or extra-firm tofu — and if you want a fierce splash of flavor, marinate beforehand.
Here are a few pan-friend and sautee recipes to try out: Pan-Fried Tofu with Ginger Spinach and Mushrooms, Pan-Fried Tofu Steaks with Coriander Cream and Asparagus, Tofu Green Been Stir Fry, or this Peanut Tofu Stir Fry.
If you’re a plant-based convert and you’re feeling a longing to get to grilling, try out some of that extra-firm tofu on your grill! The beauty of grilled tofu is the amazing amount of control over the texture. If you’re seeking that crispier outside without the mushy inside, grilling is a great way to slowly cook in the inside to firm, while avoiding the burn on the outside that sauteing and baking oftentimes achieves.
Try out a few of these barbeque or grilled tofu recipes: Marinated Tofu Veggie Kebabs, Tofu Steaks, Korean BBQ Tofu, Grilled Marinated Tofu Sandwich, or these Grilled Tofu Steaks with Orange Ginger Glaze.
Last, but definitely not, least … give your soup a kick of protein and hardiness with a dollop of silken tofu! While silken is the best — smoother, richer, and more likely to absorb the flavors of that soup — you can also go with medium tofu if silken is a bit too mushy.
Make your favorite soup with a few squares of tofu or try a new recipe such as this Shiitake, Tofu, and Mustard Greens Soup, this Korean Style Tofu Stew, this Soothing Miso soup, or this Plant-Based Hot and Sour Soup.
We also highly recommend downloading our Food Monster App, which is available for iPhone, and can also be found on Instagram and Facebook. The app has more than 15,000 plant-based, allergy-friendly recipes, and subscribers gain access to new recipes every day. Check it out!
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