The popular plant-based protein tofu can get unfairly bad press. From benefits for people and planet to how to make the most of it, here’s everything you need to know.
Tofu, or bean curd, is made from the ubiquitous soybean. This naturally protein-rich legume is native to many Asian countries. In a process similar to making cheese, fresh soya milk is curdled. The whey is discarded and the curds are pressed into solid white blocks.
According to legend, a Chinese cook created tofu by mistake 2000 years ago when he added nigari seaweed to soy milk. Nigari – a mineral-rich coagulant that comes from seawater salt – catalyses the fermentation and solidification process. Now, a staple ingredient in many Asian cuisines, tofu has a versatile texture and can be cooked in multiple ways.
What are the Health Benefits of Tofu?
1. Nutrient Rich
Tofu is a powerhouse when it comes to delivering on vitamins and minerals. According to the USDA, a 100g serving of the soybean superfood can offer 31% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of manganese, 20% of the RDI of calcium, and 14% of the RDI of selenium. Additionally, it provides significant amounts of phosphorus, copper, magnesium, iron, and zinc, all essential for healthy body function.
2. Excellent Source of Plant Protein
Protein is the building block of our muscles, skin, and organs. It makes up approximately 17% of our total body weight and is essential to our regulate immune system, metabolism, and energy function. There has been much scientific research to support that diets high in protein from legumes have been linked to lower incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
In 2020, a British Medical Journal study stated that, “Diets high in protein, particularly plant protein, are associated with a lower risk of death from any cause.” The report’s findings “support current dietary recommendations to increase consumption of plant proteins in the general population.” With its high-quality protein content – 9g per 100g – just one serving of tofu delivers 20% of the RDI and all 9 essential amino acids.
3. Contains Beneficial Isoflavones
Isoflavones are naturally occurring plant compounds found in many plants. They are credited with numerous health benefits. Tofu contains a high isoflavone content, with 20.2–24.7 mg per 100g serving. Research has shown that 80 mg of soy isoflavones per day may reduce bone loss and that soy isoflavones may improve memory and brain function. It is also suggested that menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes can be reduced by soy isoflavones and skin elasticity improves after 8–12 weeks.
4. Heart Healthy
A high intake of legumes, including soy, may also be linked to lower rates of heart disease. Legumes such as soy are high in fibre. According to the USDA, 100g of tofu provides 2.4 g of dietary fibre, which, says the British Heart Foundation, reduces risks of stroke and heart disease.
Figures from a 2019 American Heart Association study showed increasing fibre intake reduced levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, or bad cholesterol. Plus, tofu is 100% cholesterol-free. Data suggest 80mg of isoflavones per day for 12 weeks improved blood flow by 68% in people who were at risk of stroke.
5. Reduces Cancer Risk
Once again, tofu’s abundant isoflavones are thought to have a protective effect against cancer risk. Women who eat soy products weekly have a 48–56% lower risk of breast cancer, research has indicated. Plus, isoflavones can positively influence the digestive system. Eating tofu regularly was linked to a 61% lower risk of stomach cancer in men. Another study highlighted a 59% lower risk in women. Prostate cancer is reduced by over half in men consuming higher amounts of soy, especially tofu according to a Chinese study.
What are the Benefits for the Planet?
1. Good for the Soil
According to the World Wildlife Fund, 123.6 million hectares of land were used to grow 352.6 million tonnes of soybeans in 2017. Whilst South American soy production is linked to deforestation, 75% of its production is for livestock feed. Equally, the other major soy grower – the US – grows on arable farmland in rotation with other crops, such as corn. Significantly, soy has nitrogen fixing properties – it adds nitrogen back to the soil for the next crop to utilise – and uses minimal fertilisers and pesticides.
2. Water Efficient
Legumes, on the whole, are drought-resistant. Soy requires 26 times less water than chicken, beef, and pork to produce equivalent amounts. According to a 2012 study, the water footprint of soymilk is only 28% of the water footprint of cow milk and the water footprint of a soy burger is only 7% of the water footprint of the average beef burger.
3. Fewer Carbon Emissions
The carbon footprint of 1 kg of tofu is 85% lower than that of 1 kg of beef. GHG emissions from soymilk are also lower than that of cow’s milk. Researchers have estimated that a meal based on beef and rice would produce 90% more GHG than a meal based on soybeans and wheat despite the similar protein and energy contents of these meals.
How to Use Tofu
Here’s what you need to know about how to purchase, and use this powerful plant-based protein source.
Buy in bulk or individually packed, there are multiple tofu delivery systems. Whether refrigerated, dehydrated, freeze-dried, jarred, or canned, try to go for brands with a short ingredient list. This means the tofu is unlikely to be heavily processed.
Do rinse prior to use and keep unused remnants covered by water in the fridge for up to 7 days. Remember to frequently freshen up the water though. Good to know: it is possible to freeze tofu, but keep it unopened in its original packaging.
You can eat rinsed tofu raw, but its many textures — silken, firm, and extra firm — make it a versatile addition to any meal. Just make sure you get the right texture for the job – soft silken tofu works best sliced in miso soup, but go extra-firm when baking, frying, or stewing.
Don’t forget to press it. Tofu contains a lot of water, and you need to squeeze most of it out. You can buy tofu presses, but hands work just as well. Finally, tofu’s flavor is very simple, so it lends itself well to seasoning.
When blended, its creamy texture works for vegan mousses or puddings, and it’s an excellent ricotta substitute for lasagne and pasta dishes. It can be baked to add “heartiness” factor to bowls, noodles and salads. Pan-fry with sesame and garlic for a quick supper, tofu and romaine heart tacos make a family friendly meal, or try slow cooked spicy tofu tikka masala for a hot and heavy dinner.