Tofu is one of those controversial foods (like milk or wheat). Some people say it’s a health food, while others say to avoid it at all costs. Which attitude is correct? Should you eat it? Find out.
What is Tofu?
Tofu is a soybean product … it’s made from the curds of soymilk (so it’s kind of similar to cheese, just using soy milk as a base rather than milk). Those curds are pressed into blocks and can be made into different textures — soft, firm and extra-firm. It has a neutral flavor, making it a versatile ingredient in a variety of cuisines.
Tofu has a lot to recommend it. It’s a good source of lean plant-based protein. A half-cup of tofu delivers 10 grams of protein for only 88 calories (that’s about half as much protein, but 45 fewer calories than the same amount of roasted, skinless chicken). In addition to protein, tofu gives you iron (11% DV) and zinc (7%) — both needed for cell growth and immunity, bone-building calcium (25% DV — make sure you look for calcium-set tofu, the kind packed in liquid), selenium and potassium (5% DV), among other nutrients. Eating soy foods has also been linked to a lower risk of heart disease.
- Much of the controversy surrounding soy foods, including tofu, is the presence of isoflavones — a type of plant estrogen thought to disrupt hormonal function and possibly increase breast cancer risk by raising levels of estrogen in the blood. However, a recent research review on the American Institute of Cancer Research site noted that moderate amounts of soy foods (up to 1 – 2 servings a day) do not increase breast cancer risk or risk of recurrence in breast cancer survivors.
- Most of the soybean crops in the US are genetically-modified (GM). If that’s a concern for you, look for organic tofu, which is made from non-GM soybeans.
- Tofu contains “antinutrients” — substances in some plant foods that actually keep other nutrients from being absorbed. However, according to Sharon Palmer, RD, dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet, “Low levels of “anti-nutrients” may even contain beneficial properties to the body. For example, scientists once considered fiber to be an “anti-nutrient” and now we know it’s vital to health.” Phytates are one compound in tofu that limit some of your body’s ability to absorb calcium, yet phytic acid (a form of phytates in soy) is an antioxidant.
Tofu is a good vegetarian protein source and one that can be a part of a healthful diet. Just mix it up with other proteins — eggs, lean meat and poultry, fish, beans, dairy, etc. — so you’re not getting an overload of any one thing. Since soy is found in so many processed foods, limit the amount of processed foods in your diet to avoid an overdose of isolated soy compounds.