Tofu: Health Benefits, Uses, And Possible Risks

Written by Aparna Mallampalli , BEd (Biological Sciences), MSc (Microbiology), Diploma In Nutrition

Tofu is a nutrient-dense meat substitute with a mild flavor. It is derived from soybean curd, and it goes well with many dishes. Tofu benefits your health in many ways. It contains several vitamins and minerals, proteins, and amino acids. Tofu intake helps reduce the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. In addition, it is a great food source for vegans and those with lactose sensitivity. However, consuming too much tofu may be associated with some side effects.

This article explores the potential health benefits, nutrition profile, varieties, and possible side effects of tofu. We also discuss some easy and delicious tofu recipes. Keep reading.

What Is Tofu?

Tofu is the processed soybean curd that resembles cottage cheese. It can be sliced into different shapes and cooked differently. Tofu is available in silken, soft, firm, or extra-firm forms. The soft variety is usually seasoned and marinated to complement any dish. It can also be flavored with ginger, onion, or spices. Tofu is becoming an increasingly popular source of protein in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South East Asian cuisines. It is rumored that a Chinese cook had accidentally mixed fresh soy milk with nigari, which eventually led to the discovery of tofu.

Tofu has several anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytochemicals (plant compounds). It also contains all the nine essential amino acids, which your body cannot produce on its own.

What are the key nutrients that you can find in tofu? We have listed them in the following section. Keep reading.

Nutrition Facts Of Tofu

Calories94 kcal
Protein9.41g
Fat5.29g
Carbohydrate2.35g
Fiber2.4g
Calcium176 mg

These essential nutrients make tofu a healthy food. But what health benefits can you expect from tofu? Continue reading to know them.

Health Benefits Of Tofu

1. May Reduce The Risk Of Cardiovascular Disease

Tofu contains saponins (plant compounds) that may reduce blood cholesterol and increase bile acid disposal. Both these functions, in turn, help lower heart disease risk (2). Tofu’s isoflavone content may also help lower the markers of cardiovascular disease.

Research links a higher isoflavone and tofu intake with a moderately lower risk of coronary heart disease (3). This benefit of tofu is more pronounced in young women or postmenopausal women with no hormonal treatment.

2. May Reduce The Risk Of Prostate Cancer

Tofu isoflavones may help reduce the levels of prostate-specific antigens, thereby decreasing prostate cancer risk (4),(5). Researchers also linked the increased intake of soy foods with a reduced risk of breast cancer. Moreover, this effect was more marked in premenopausal women (6). Isoflavones, mainly found in soy, have also been shown to inhibit the proliferation of ovarian cancer cells (7).

3. May Promote Bone Health

Studies suggest that regular intake of soy foods may help improve bone mineral density. A woman’s bone mineral density decreases significantly after menopause. Tofu is a good source of plant estrogens that can make up for that loss. However, soy food intake did not have a similar effect in premenopausal women (4). More studies are warranted to understand this benefit of tofu.

4. May Reduce The Risk Of Age-Related Brain Diseases

Studies indicate that phytoestrogens in tofu may prevent cognitive decline and lower the risk of Alzheimer’s disease progression. Preclinical studies indicate that soy isoflavones (ISFs) play a significant role in the pathologies of Alzheimer’s. As a result, ISFs may help reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and alleviate cognitive impairment. Neuroprotective effects of phytoestrogens may also help protect the aging brain and improve cognitive function. However, further studies are warranted to understand this benefit of tofu intake (9),(10).

5. May Reduce Risk Of Diabetes

Tofu is low in fat and calories, and can be an ideal food choice for people with diabetes. Recent studies suggest that soy food intake may boost blood sugar control. Soy protein-containing isoflavones are linked with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes (11). People with type 2 diabetes and kidney disease excrete a large amount of protein through urine (12). Consuming tofu may help make up for the lost protein.

6. May Help Treat Menopausal Symptoms

Phytoestrogens like isoflavones and coumestans are plant substances that are structurally and functionally similar to estrogens. These plant compounds have gained popularity as an alternative to hormonal therapy in treating menopausal symptoms (13). Besides, studies suggest that isoflavones may reduce hot flashes and loss of lumbar spine BMD, and improve blood sugar control.

These compounds may also show beneficial effects on systolic blood pressure during early menopause (14).

Want to enhance the flavor of your dishes using tofu? Well, you need to follow a few simple tips while cooking it.

Tips To Follow While Using Tofu

  1. Choose the right type of tofu that suits your recipes.
  2. Remove the liquid completely after unpacking.
  3. Cut into small pieces for better cooking.
  4. Use lemon juice or vinegar while marinating.
  5. Cook for at least 10 minutes.
  6. Use flavorful oils like sesame or mustard to enhance the flavor.
  7. Use non-stick pans while cooking tofu.
  8. Refrigerate by placing tofu in a plastic or glass container filled with water. You can freeze it in its original packaging for about three months.

Tofu is available in different varieties, although soy is the only base ingredient. Continue reading to know the types of tofu and how they are distinguished.

Types Of Tofu

  • Silken Tofu

Silken tofu is usually packaged in aseptic containers and does not need refrigeration. It is made by pureeing the soy curd to a smooth paste. It adds texture and improves consistency in smoothies, salad dressings, desserts, and sauces. You can also use silken tofu to substitute eggs.

  • Regular Tofu

It is significantly more popular and also known as bean curd or Chinese-style tofu. The kind of tofu you will find in the refrigerated section of the supermarket is in the containers. There are three types:

  1. Soft Tofu

Soft tofu has a custard-like texture and can retain its shape when cooked delicately. It can serve as an egg substitute and can be added to soups like miso soup, or baked as a breakfast scramble.

  1. Medium-Firm Tofu

Medium-firm tofu is suitable for soups, stews, curries, searing, and baking.

  1. Extra-Firm Tofu

Extra-firm tofu can be an amazing substitute for meat.

Though tofu is highly nutritious and can be a healthy alternative to meat, it may have some potential risks. Continue reading to know them.

Possible Risks Of Tofu Intake

1. May Interact With Medications

Anecdotally, tofu intake is linked with a few drug interactions. Avoid eating tofu if you take medicines called MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors), which are antidepressants. This soy milk product contains tyramine amino acid that helps balance blood sugar levels. However, MAOIs block the enzymes that break tyramine down (15). Tofu and some antibiotics may also interact and affect beneficial bacteria.

2. Effects Of Processing

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there may be a tumor-growth risk depending on how an isoflavone-containing product is processed. The products made from tofu-like sausages may contain additives like sodium and flavorings that counteract their health benefits.

Tofu is majorly popularized for its protein content. How much protein does it contain? What is the recommended intake? We answer these questions in the next section.

How Much Protein Does Tofu Contain?

Tofu contains nine amino acids, forming a complete protein. Half a cup serving of tofu (80 grams) contains 8 grams of protein (1). Generally, men and women should consume 55 to 57 grams and 47 to 48 grams of protein per day, respectively (16).

Consuming tofu is believed to induce weight loss. But what does science say?

Is Tofu Healthy For Weight Loss?

Consumption of tofu is generally associated with a lower body mass index and a reduced risk of obesity (17). Being low in calories and high in dietary fiber, tofu makes you feel full for longer. As a result, you eat less and may lose weight over time. Besides, tofu contains isoflavones that contribute to a lower body mass index. However, more research is warranted to understand this benefit of tofu.

Both tofu and meat are rich sources of protein. But there is always a debate over which of the two is healthier.

Is Tofu Healthier Than Meat?

The only difference between tofu and meat protein is that you need to consume more tofu to meet the recommended dietary protein levels. If you consume 150 grams of lean meat, you need 290 grams of tofu to obtain the same amount of protein. Moreover, tofu provides an equal quantity of protein, carbohydrates, fat, and fiber, which is not the case with meat. Hence, tofu can be considered healthier than meat.

Conclusion

Protein is a significant nutritional component of tofu while most of its mass is water. Tofu is derived from soy milk and is prepared much like other cheese. It blends easily into any recipe due to its neutral flavor and enriches the taste of the dish. What makes it more attractive is its low-calorie content, which is ideal for those watching their weight. Besides, it helps reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer, manage diabetes, relieve menopausal symptoms, and strengthen bones. However, some individuals may experience certain adverse reactions due to its soy content. Tofu may also interact with certain medicines, so practice caution.

References:

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  1. Tofu Facts
    https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/411177/nutrients
  2. Acceptability and consumption of tofu as a meat alternative among secondary school boarders in Enugu State Nigeria
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6250531/
  3. Isoflavone Intake and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease in US Men and Women: Results From 3 Prospective Cohort Studies
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32200662/
  4. Dietary intake of soy protein and tofu in association with breast cancer risk based on a case-control study
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18791919/
  5. Soy and isoflavone consumption in relation to prostate cancer risk in China
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12869409/
  6. Soy food consumption and risk of prostate cancer: a meta-analysis of observational studies
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19838933/
  7. Soy and isoflavone intake associated with reduced risk of ovarian cancer in southern Chinese women
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24774066/
  8. Soy foods: are they useful for optimal bone health?
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3383497/
  9. Effects of soy isoflavones on cognitive function: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7808187/
  10. Phytoestrogens and cognitive function: a review
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24486046/
  11. Consumption of soy foods and isoflavones and risk of type 2 diabetes: a pooled analysis of three US cohorts
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5143190/
  12. Incidence of proteinuria in type 2 diabetes mellitus in the Pima Indians
    https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2785225/
  13. Soy and phytoestrogens: possible side effects
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4270274/
  14. Isoflavone Supplements for Menopausal Women: A Systematic Review
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6893524/
  15. Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors (MAOI)
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK539848/
  16. Revised Reference Values for the Intake of Protein
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6492513/
  17. Role of Dietary Soy Protein in Obesity
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1838825/
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