Is Tofu Healthy or Harmful?

A block of firm tofu -- can eating it hurt you?

April is national soyfoods month in America. Seriously. Every month of the year has been snapped up by at least one food group or industry. Why not soy in April?(!) Given that, I wanted to address a couple of common misperceptions about tofu.

First off, I’m an omnivore. My new book, Asian Tofu, isn’t a vegetarian cookbook or one that aims to preach and convert. It’s about showcasing tofu as a delicious food with borderless Asian roots.

Nevertheless, a handful of people have asked me about tofu’s impact on personal health. I’m not a health expert and often end up engaging people in conversations about what tofu is and what it’s not. Below are a couple of recurring topics and a recap of my responses. Feel free to weigh in.

Is tofu a processed food?

The answer depends on how you define a processed food. Most of us think of processed foods as something that’s been altered from its natural/original state, mostly for convenience or safety reasons. It’s been stripped of its essence. It’s a non-food or food-like substance. It’s packaged in cans, frozen, dehydrated, refrigerated and has gone through some kind of aseptic processing so that it can have a longer than freshly made shelf-life.

If you survey the various kinds of tofu sold at an Asian market, you’ll see it as a food that can be:

  • frozen (sponge-like for sucking up seasonings and broth)
  • dried (gossamer and great for dumpling wrappers, soup, sautes)
  • freeze dried (lightweight and terrific for long-term storage)
  • refrigerated (the ubiquitous blocks, fried pieces, noodle-like strips, pressed and baked, etc.)
  • jarred (fermented, preserved, and full of umami)
  • canned (pouches for inari zushi, a supermarket mainstay)
  • boxed (for travel or emergencies only, please!)

In terms of how tofu can be commercially sold, yeah, it’s technically a processed food. Here a few ways that tofu can be packaged:

Different kinds of purchased tofu

Aside from being a packaged product, tofu is also a processed food in the sense that it typically involves rendering soy milk from soybeans and water and then coagulating it to separate the curds and whey. Mold and press on the curds to make block tofu.

Indeed, there is a process involved, but the pertinent question is: How removed is tofu from the dried soybeans that it’s based upon?  

Non-GMO Laura soybeans from Iowa

Not much. The kinds of tofu described in the bulleted list above are minimally processed foods.

Next time you shop for tofu, check out the ingredient label. It’s probably not very complex. Common coagulants include: calcium sulfate (gypsum), magnesium chloride (nigari), and delta glucono lactone (GDL). In the case of tofu skin, there’s often a preservative involved. Then there are soybeans, water, and maybe seasonings depending on the type of tofu. There shouldn’t be too many strange sounding ingredients on the labels. If you’re really into exploring tofu, make some from scratch to understand how it comes together.

Another type of processing that Asian tofu goes through yields mock meats, though Tofurkey and Soyrizo are not among them. During my tofu research time in Taipei, I saw chicken molded from tofu and tasted this darn convincing tofu pork belly:

mock pork belly

Looks like pork belly but tofu is part of this mock meat.

Some people enjoy meat analogs fabricated from tofu but I see them as overly tricked out Franken-tofu that are a bit too far removed from tofu. They’re fun to sample but don’t seem like food I’d want to eat often.

On the other hand, Asian cooks do have straightforward ways to use tofu to create interesting mock meats. For example, below is unagi modoki (fake tofu eel) that I craft from mashed tofu:

Mock eel made from tofu

Unagi modoki — mock eel made from tofu. It’s really good. Trust me.

I start with tofu, mash it up, then sculpt it to look like eel. Finally, I cook and garnish it to replicate the real deal. You could make splendid sushi with this tofu eel. (For the recipe, see the Mock Meats chapter, page 157, of Asian Tofu.)

Can eating too much tofu be bad for you?

I ate a lot of tofu on a regular basis while writing the book. One discovery that I made was this: It’s really hard to eat a lot of tofu in one sitting. Tofu is a very filling, satisfying food. In fact, after we filmed’s tofu tasting bar video, the crew and I couldn’t finish all of the tofu, despite being famished at the outset. You can only eat so much tofu before you feel full.

Of course, people who suffer soy allergies should definitely stay away from tofu. If that’s not your problem, and you want to have soy in your diet, note that foods containing soy-derived ingredients are not the same as tofu.

For example, eating a soy-laden protein bar is not like eating a block of tofu. Check the protein count on the energy bar and compare that to how much tofu you have to eat to get the same amount of protein. It’s typically a sizable quantity of soy-derived protein that’s been added to the bar. On a tofu label such as this one, the serving size is generally 3 ounces:

Nutritional label from Nasoya's silken tofu

This is silken tofu, the softest kind. Super-firm typically has 14+ grams per 3 oz serving.

What’s more, if such kinds of soy-rich products are a major part of your diet, you may overload the body with soy. Extreme eating of anything may cause your body to negatively react.

In 2009, Men’s Health magazine ran a lengthy story on soy’s potentially negative effects. Among the cases featured, a man developed enlarged breasts (“man boobs”) as a result of drinking 3 quarts of soy milk a week. Erectile dysfunction, high estrogen levels, and dementia were also mentioned as perhaps resulting from over consumption of soy. The takeaway was this quote:

For his part, Dr. Lewi believes that soy products in moderation can still be a healthy part of a man’s diet. “The problem,” he says, “is when a thing like soy is touted as this wonderful panacea for health, and people end up going overboard on it.”

This past March, the Harvard study on eating red meat got a lot of people running for their vegetable and bulk bins. I poked around the Harvard School of Public Health website and found an article on smart approaches to choosing protein for your diet.

The bottom line is that there is no magic bullet, one-size-fits all approach to healthy eating. With regard to soy, all the claims about the health benefits of eating lots of soy – from lowering cholesterol and mitigating hot flashes to preventing breast and prostate cancer, helping weight loss, and preventing osteoporosis – are inconclusive. So are the claims against eating soy. What’s a health-conscious person to do?

This nugget of advice came at the bottom of the ”Straight Talk about Soy” section:

Eat soy in moderation. Soybeans, tofu, and other soy-based foods are an excellent alternative to red meat. In some cultures, tofu and soy foods are a protein staple, and we don’t suggest any change. But if you haven’t grown up eating lots of soy, there’s no reason to go overboard: Two to 4 servings a week is a good target; eating more than that likely won’t offer any health benefits and we can’t be sure that there is no harm.

So unless you have a bad reaction to soy, go ahead and enjoy tofu once or twice a week. Fry tofu, if you want; that’s what many Asian cooks do. Have it as a savory or sweet, with meat or without, as part of a varied diet with lots of vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruit.

Finally, if you’re eating tofu because it’s suppose to be healthy but you don’t really like its taste, maybe you should try new ways to prepare it. If that doesn’t work, tofu may not be for you.

Healthy eating should not be about deprivation. If tofu is part of your diet, it should be a delicious food to you, not a denial food. Life is too short.

Got a question about tofu or soy? Let me know and I’ll try to answer it. 

Related post: A video guide to tofu textures and sample tofu recipes from Asian Tofu.

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