According to a 2022 retailer study, the number of self-identified vegans in the United States jumped from 290,000 in 2004 to nearly 10 million in 2010 — a 30-fold increase.
Now consider that, per a Bloomberg Intelligence report, plant-based food sales are expected to increase fivefold by 2030, and a picture becomes clear: Veganism and vegetarianism aren’t passing fads in the U.S., but lifestyles that actually shape the economy and influence a number of different industries.
Soy food products in particular have proven popular among folks looking for meat alternatives, and within that category, tofu certainly reigns supreme. (Mordor Intelligence reports that the overall U.S. tofu market increased at a rate of 38.05% by value and 30.8% by volume from 2016 to 2021.)
But tofu can be a tough food to like, and there have been rumours that it can increase your risk of breast cancer. We spoke with experts who set the record straight, shedding light on everything you need to know about the nutritional benefits of tofu.
What is tofu, anyway?
“Tofu is a plant-based protein made from soybeans,” explained Sapna Bhalsod, a registered dietitian. “It’s a complete protein, which means it boasts all the essential amino acids that our body needs to build and heal. It’s also rich in minerals like calcium, and has a bit of fibre in it.”
Generally speaking, animal proteins (think meat, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy) are considered complete — a fact that makes tofu, a plant-based food, that much more desirable. Other plant-based sources of complete proteins include blue-green algae, quinoa, buckwheat and hemp seeds — popular foods, but not as widely consumed as tofu.
In terms of composition, tofu, also known as bean curd, is pretty simple. It doesn’t quite occur in nature in the form we know, but it doesn’t require too much work, either: It’s mostly made of soybeans, water and a coagulant that allows it to be pressed into a block.
As explained by Bhalsod, the firmness of the food ― one of the main product differentiators for people deciding which tofu to buy ― depends on the amount of water used to treat it.
What are the nutritional benefits of tofu?
Before diving into specifics, it’s important to note that all findings and studies regarding bean curd are based on generally accepted measurements.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average type of tofu contains between 10 and 17 grams of protein, 70 to 120 calories, 2 to 6 grams of fat and 200 to 600 micrograms of calcium in one 3.5-ounce serving (that translates to about 99 grams).
Both the American Heart Association and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration note that daily consumption of 25 grams of soy protein may be beneficial to your health. Keep in mind that an average tofu block consists of about 340 grams, so you’ll want to have about half a block per week to fall within approved standards.
The main draw to consuming bean curd is that it’s a complete protein ― which is no small thing. A diet solely consisting of vegetables, for example, might fall within the scope of a desired vegetarian lifestyle, but it certainly won’t meet every nutritional need associated with a healthy life.
“Legumes, for example, are not complete proteins,” explained registered nutritionist Beata Rydyger. “So if you’re going to eat only legumes, you’d have to combine them with other things like brown rice and lentils to get a complete nutritional benefit. When you’re eating tofu, you’re already getting it all.”
But there are other benefits to the food.
“Tofu is full of antioxidants,” Rydyger said. “One particular type, to be specific: isoflavones.” According to Rydyger, the natural compounds help lower the levels of oxidative stress that affects your body while also influencing a variety of other health-related systems.
Isoflavones are also considered phytoestrogens, which are basically plant nutrients that mimic what estrogen does to the body. As a result, when consumed in moderation, they have been found to help alleviate symptoms of menopause.
Likewise, according to some studies, regular consumption of foods that are rich in isoflavones might help lower cholesterol levels.
Tofu is also relatively cheap, making it that much more appealing for folks looking for a healthy culinary option that doesn’t break the bank. However, its cheap price, due mostly to its status as a genetically engineered food, leads us directly to the drawbacks of tofu consumption.
Are there any drawbacks to eating tofu?
“Soy is one of the most common genetically modified (GMO) foods on the market and it’s what makes them cheap,” Rydyger explained, noting that GMO products may cause toxic effects when consumed in high quantities. “As a general statement, from a nutritionist’s point of view, you should try to stay away from genetically modified foods — but that’s why you should invest in organic tofu.”
She explained that non-organic tofu is usually sprayed with chemicals, while its organic counterpart is made with soybeans that are grown sustainably, without the use of artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides.
“The quality of the soil in organic forms is also more nutrient-dense, and there are certain regulations that prevent farmers from using certain pesticides,” Rydyger said.
Bhalsod also cited digestive issues as “one of the main disadvantages associated with tofu consumption.”
“Sometimes, soybeans can be problematic for digestion if you have a weakened digestive process, because your body isn’t producing enough enzymes to help break down the fibres,” she said.
Factoring in all of the above ― suggested serving amounts, dietary benefits and drawbacks ― it seems perfectly acceptable to eat tofu fairly regularly, especially if you’re pursuing a lifestyle free of animal proteins. However, as noted by nutritionists, a balanced and varied diet is best when you’re trying to be at your healthiest ― and that can mean a diet that’s not necessarily vegetarian.
What about a risk of breast cancer associated with tofu consumption? Here, unfortunately, the answer is not so clear.
The American Cancer Society reports that “in some animal studies, rodents that were exposed to high doses of ... isoflavones showed an increased risk of breast cancer,” and “this is thought to be because the isoflavones in soy can act like estrogen in the body, and increased estrogen has been linked to certain types of breast cancer.”
Rydyger contends that the compounds “can become endocrine disruptors, which have also been linked to breast cancer.” But Bhalsod notes “a lack of scientific research [connected with the concerns with] processed soy.”
For what it’s worth, the American Cancer Society leans toward the latter view. “Rodents process soy different from people and the same results have not been seen in people,” the organisation reports. “Also, doses of isoflavones in the animal studies are much higher than in humans. In fact, in human studies, the estrogen effects of soy seem to either have no effect at all, or to reduce breast cancer risk (especially in Asian countries, where lifelong intake is higher than the US). This may be because the isoflavones can actually block the more potent natural estrogens in the blood.”
To put it simply, according to the agency: “So far, the evidence does not point to any dangers from eating soy in people and the health benefits appear to outweigh any potential risk.”
Tofu vs. meat, chicken and dairy
“Just like everything we do, too much of one thing is not a good idea,” Bhalsod said. “A healthy body is made through a varied diet, a balance. With tofu in particular, I would suggest to add it to your weekly rotation even if you eat animal products, because it offers some microbes and proteins that you don’t find elsewhere.” However, she said, the likes of chicken, fish and red meat should also be consumed on a weekly basis for a number of reasons.
“If you are someone struggling with an autoimmune condition or dealing with a leaky gut and you want to heal it, for example, you should eat animal-based proteins, because they’re easier for your body to absorb,” Bhalsod said. “That’s when I would limit tofu intake, actually.”
Rydyger agrees. “I suggest people opt towards including some animal protein in their diet as well: clean, organic and pasture-raised options,” she said. She noted that chicken and meat boast levels of B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids, calcium, iron and vitamin B12 that are not found in soy products.
So, you can indulge in a dish of tofu scramble once or twice a week, but if you’re not opposed to eating animal protein, you should also switch it up and prepare yourself some grilled chicken or even a burger every once in a while.
Tofu vs. other types of plant-based proteins
Interestingly, although most folks are drawn to tofu when looking for plant-based proteins, there are alternatives that might better cater to certain palates.
“I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but they offer different things,” she said. “For example: Tempeh has more protein in it and it’s fermented, which may make it easier for people to digest it properly, and it also means it is rich in natural ingredients.” Tofu, on the other hand, boasts fewer calories but more than double the calcium found in tempeh.
Once again, balance is the key to the healthiest lifestyle.
What’s the healthiest way to cook tofu?
Tofu is versatile, and one of its major benefits is the many ways you can prepare it.
“It doesn’t make a difference how you cook tofu from a nutritional standpoint because there are no living enzymes in it, since it’s already been cooked down in the process of making it,” Rydyger said. “So whether you’re baking it, sautéing it or cooking it however you want, it makes no difference. It really depends on the flavour you’re looking for.”
Although you can eat bean curd raw, this particular tofu lover is partial to adding it to a stir-fry filled with colourful vegetables.