Stroll into any trendy, health-conscious eatery in any major city, and you’ll find an array of menu items using that classic meat-free staple: tofu. Many meat lovers fear it, many vegetarians swear by it, and still others—quite understandably—are confused by it. What exactly is tofu? Where does it come from, and how is it made? Most importantly, is it healthy?
The health question is where things get especially dicey, as tofu’s once-unimpeachable reputation has been shaken in recent years. Though it might seem like the perfect plant-based meat alternative for a healthy lifestyle, not everyone is singing its praises. Warnings of GMOs and phytoestrogens have prompted some soy lovers to seek out other meat substitutes like jackfruit and seitan. So what’s the real story?
Keep reading to get the details, and discover if tofu might be something you want to add to—or eliminate from—your kitchen.
First the obvious question: What is tofu? To put it simply, tofu is condensed soy milk that has been curdled and pressed into semisolid white blocks. The process is similar to how cheese is made, but it’s derived from soybeans rather than animal milk. Producing tofu is as simple as mixing water, soybeans, and a curdling agent or coagulant.
Tofu is believed to have been discovered about 2000 years ago in China, but the details surrounding its discovery aren’t known for sure. According to legend, a Chinese chef discovered it purely by accident when mixing soy milk with nigari, the remnants of salt extracted from seawater. Nigari is still one of the most popular curdling agents used today.
One 3.5-ounce serving of tofu boasts some impressive numbers. It contains just 70 calories, but it’s packed with eight grams of protein. There’s no cholesterol and less than one gram of saturated fat, and it’s also great for carb-conscious foodies because it contains only two grams of carbohydrates. It’s also a hefty source of iron, manganese, calcium, and selenium. So how come some are hesitant to eat it?
One of the biggest bones of contention among tofu critics is the presence of phytoestrogens, plant-derived compounds that may or may not behave like estrogen in the body. The research on this is mixed, however, a number of major studies suggest that the effects of eating tofu are primarily positive. For example, it has been linked to lower breast cancer risk and greater lung cancer survival rates.
Another controversy surrounds genetically modified foods. Because soybeans are vulnerable to certain herbicides, more than 90% of tofu products are made via bioengineering processes (i.e., GMO). Though researchers thus far have found GM foods to be safe for human consumption, this technology understandably remains a concern for many people. The good news for organic lovers is that non-GM tofu is available, but it will usually cost more. Just look for the “certified organic” logo on the packaging.
As with most things in life, moderation is key. It’s probably not a good idea to have soy products front-and-center at every meal, but tofu can serve as an excellent meat substitute when the occasion calls for it. Because it’s so versatile, it can work in almost any type of dish, including stir-fries, soup, salad, noodles, and even your favorite sandwich.