Ah, tofu—ridiculed by some, loved by others, scoffed at by many and scarfed down by hungry vegans and vegetarians, worldwide. It’s viewed both as a wholesome choice and an unappetizing foodstuff. Worse, many Americans eschew it as unhealthy. Why the dissension when tofu has been consumed for more than 2,000 years?
Also known as bean curd, tofu is made by simply coagulating soy milk and pressing the resulting curds into soft white blocks. The word tofu literally means “curdled or fermented bean.” As a frame of reference, the bean we are starting with is the soybean, otherwise known as edamame. In the first American mention of tofu, Benjamin Franklin compared it to Chinese cheese because of the similarity in process. Though the first American tofu company originated in San Francisco in 1878, it was not a well-known food in this country until the vegetarian movement began to grow in the mid-20th century.
Around the world, more people than before are eating a plant-based diet, both for health and ethical reasons. Indeed, the U.S. saw a 600-percent rise in vegans from 2014 to 2017. Tofu is an excellent source of protein, iron and calcium—making it a perfect food for vegans and omnivores, alike. It’s naturally gluten- and cholesterol-free, and a low-calorie, low-fat food, especially when compared to other protein sources. In fact, the FDA advises that 25 grams of soy protein a day—as part of a diet low in saturated fat and cholesterol—may reduce the risk of heart disease. Despite all this, people are still confused about whether or not tofu is healthy to eat. Why all the tofusion?
First, it’s important to understand and differentiate between tofu and highly processed soy foods and fillers. Consider the difference between organic cheese made from the milk of grassfed cows and a slice of processed American cheese. Tofu is made from only three ingredients: soybeans, water and a coagulant such as gypsum (a dietary source of calcium that’s also used in brewing beer) or nigari (seawater).
Also, it matters how your soybeans are grown. Ninety-four percent of the soybeans grown in the U.S. are now genetically engineered. According to the Non-GMO Project, a growing body of evidence connects GMOs with health problems and environmental damage. Also, because 83 percent of the worldwide soy crop is also GMO, be cautious when buying non-American soy, too. While some packages say they are organic or GMO-free, very few have a certification you can trust.
Yet, even if we’re positive our tofu is pure and certified non-GMO, some news reports warn us that tofu still isn’t safe to eat. For example, cancer patients and survivors have long been confused about eating tofu, and soy in general. Soy proteins are high in phytoestrogens called isoflavones, plant-based nutrients that exert a weak, estrogen-like effect on the body. Contrary to what many believe, these have actually been shown to have health-promoting properties, according to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and, in fact, protect against certain types of cancer.
Studies show that women who regularly eat soy tend to be healthier than those who don’t. And overall evidence suggests that one to two servings of soy per day is safe. It’s important to note that recommendations refer to whole-food sources of soy only, and not supplements, protein or protein powder. As always, if you have concerns, defer to your physician for dietary recommendations.
While there’s a good selection of tofu in most grocery stores, the profusion of choices at an Asian supermarket is quite overwhelming. Not only will you find the usual silken, soft, firm and extra-firm varieties, but there are also tofu skins and black tofu made from black soybeans; fermented, preserved and pickled tofu soaked in saltwater, wine vinegar, chiles or miso paste; and seasoned, smoked and pressed tofu. There are all different consistencies for a variety of dishes. You can also find an abundance of frozen tofu, Chou dofu—a “stinky” Taiwanese tofu that is fermented in vegetable matter and fish brine, and tofu shirataki—a traditional Japanese noodle that combines tofu with konnyaku (Asian yam) flour.
Tofu is like a blank palette—adapting well to virtually any spicy, sweet or savory seasoning or marinade, and absorbing the flavors beautifully. And its many textural varieties allow for a wide range of cooking methods. Any way you like, jump right in, give tofu a go and help dispel the tofusion!
By Michele Jacobson • Photography by Jenna Northcutt