Tofu, or bean curd, originated in China 2,000 years ago. It’s been a staple in Asian cultures ever since – along with other soy foods like tempeh, natto and miso.
Once emblematic of the hippie movement in the 1960s, this favorite of the counterculture has gone mainstream in U.S. food culture. Yet, even with the accelerated interest in plant-based eating, tofu and other soy foods are still burdened with baggage.
At a time when more Americans are trying to reduce meat consumption, the attributes of soy continue to be hotly debated.
Health Myths About Soy
The hesitancy for some people to fully embrace tofu is primarily focused on the isoflavones in soy, or the plant compounds that resemble the hormone estrogen. Others criticize the ultra-processing of soy-based meat and dairy products.
So, what’s the deal with soy?
The presence of isoflavones (also known as phytoestrogens) has led to concerns that soy may increase the risk of breast cancer in women or negatively impact fertility. Others are worried that the isoflavones in soy could lead to feminine characteristics in men.
Yet, it’s a mistake to equate estrogen and isoflavones, says Mark Messina, executive director of nutrition science and research at the Soy Nutrition Institute Global and one of the country’s leading experts on soy. This perceived equalization – combined with a series of rodent studies published 25 years ago – is what kicked off the controversy.
Since then there have been numerous meta-analyses of human intervention studies – considered the gold standard for scientific evidence -- that found no effect of soy on estrogen levels in women and no impact on hormone levels or fertility in men.
Multiple clinical trials have shown no adverse effect of soy intake on markers or indicators of breast cancer risk. Additionally, Messina says at least 10 independent health organizations, including the American Cancer Society, American Institute for Cancer Research and European Food Safety Authority, have concluded that either isoflavones do not adversely affect breast tissue or that breast cancer patients can safely consume soy foods.
Population studies conducted in China, Korea and the U.S. show that post-diagnosis soy intake may actually reduce recurrence and improve the survival of breast cancer patients.
While animal studies are poor predictors of the effects in humans, they damaged soy’s reputation, says Messina. “It took years for the human research – clinical and observational studies – to be conducted that could address these concerns,” he says. “To my knowledge, all of these concerns have been successfully refuted.
Health Benefits of Soy
Dr. Qi Sun, an associate professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, agrees that the claims against soy are unfounded.
Even stronger evidence has documented the health benefits of consuming soy, especially related to heart disease and metabolic health, he says.
Sun has conducted numerous studies on soy, including a 2020 study of 210,000 U.S. health care professionals. The study found that those who ate tofu at least once a week had an 18% lower risk of heart disease compared to their colleagues who rarely ate tofu.
Sun says other evidence shows that Asian populations with higher intakes of soy, such as in China and Japan, have lower heart disease risk compared to populations that follow a largely meat-rich and vegetable-poor diet.
A 2021 study that included about half a million people in China found that those without a history of cardiovascular disease who ate soy four or more days a week had lower odds of dying from a heart attack compared with people who never or rarely ate soy.
Other studies suggest soy may help reduce cancer risk, alleviate menopausal symptoms, reduce bone loss, promote gains in muscle mass and improve memory.
One of the latest areas currently being explored is skin health, says Messina. “This area has been researched for about a decade with quite promising results.”
Research suggests isoflavones in soy may help increase collagen and water content of skin, protect against oxidative stress, and reduce skin wrinkles.
Is Soy Too Processed?
Other complaints against soy involve processing. Soy products can range from unprocessed or minimally processed, like edamame and boiled soybeans to highly processed, including soy-based protein powders.
While there are several different systems that classify foods based on the level of processing, one commonly cited program is known as the NOVA food classification system developed by Brazilian researchers. NOVA classifies tofu as “processed” and soy-based meat alternatives and soymilk as “ultra-processed.”
Messina says it’s unfair to lump soy-based meat and dairy alternatives into the ultra-processed category along with sugary drinks and Twinkies. As he argues in Advances in Nutrition, it is important not to assume that ultra-processed equals poor nutritional quality since quality does not depend solely on the intensity or complexity of processing but on the final composition of the food itself.
Soy-based meats and soymilk compare favorably with their animal-based counterparts, he says. In fact, fortified soymilk is the only non-dairy milk that is considered a nutritionally comparable substitute for dairy milk in the federal government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
Classifying these products as ultra-processed may discourage people from switching to a more plant-forward diet, which is recommended for personal and planetary health, Messina says.
Tofu Nutrition Facts
Tofu is made using a process similar to cheese making. Ground soybeans are cooked in water and then strained to create soymilk. That liquid is combined with an acid or salt that creates the curds, which are pressed to create tofu.
When you look for tofu at your supermarket, you’ll see that it is typically labeled by how firm it is – from soft to super firm. Depending on the style of tofu, a 3-ounce serving of tofu contains between 4 and 14 grams of high-quality protein. Since firmer tofu contains less water, the nutrients will be more concentrated.
Tofu also provides B vitamins, healthy unsaturated fatty acids and minerals like calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Getting Started With Tofu
Sharon Palmer, the Plant-Powered Dietitian, is a big fan of tofu due to its versality and how it takes on the flavors of what you cook it with.
“I use tofu several times a week as the star of my meals,” she says. “I love to include tofu in stir-fries, grain bowls, curries, salads, pasta dishes and casseroles. If you think about all the recipes that call for cooked animal protein – such as chicken in a casserole, shrimp in a pasta dish or ham in a chef’s salad – you can just swap out tofu.”
A new generation is getting to know tofu because it’s become a big trend on TikTok, reaching 2 billion views. Chefs are also serving tofu in creative ways on restaurant menus – from appetizers to desserts. If you're new to tofu, here are some of the trending tofu recipes to get you started:
Tofu waffles. Add thin slices of tofu to a waffle iron and cook until crispy. Add sweet or savory toppings, including tofu pizza waffles.
Tofu scramble. For vegan scrambled eggs, crumble tofu in a saute pan and scramble with turmeric for creating a golden color. Add dairy-free milk, tahini and other seasonings.
Air-fried tofu. Use super firm tofu or press the water out of other versions; cut tofu into cubes, add seasonings and corn starch. Air-fry until crispy for tofu bites or toasts. Try Asian flavors like soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil, hoisin sauce and gochujang.
Shredded tofu. Shred tofu with a cheese grater and toss with a bit of oil and seasonings, including smoked paprika, cumin and garlic powder. Bake on a sheet pan and use for tacos, burritos and pulled tofu sandwiches.
Tofu pudding. Blend silken tofu with cacao powder, vanilla extract and maple syrup; process until smooth. Or use melted chocolate instead of the cacao powder. Pour into ramekin cups and chill before serving.
Blended tofu. Add silken or soft tofu to a blender and use in sauces, dressings and dips. Trying blending silken tofu with pesto or canned tomatoes for an easy, high-protein pasta sauce.