Tofu is popular in our grocery stores, restaurants, and kitchens. It’s often touted as a fantastic health food for vegans, vegetarians, and the rest of us.
But scientists and health coaches advise people to steer clear of this versatile, protein-packed vegetarian option. According to research, these health benefits may also have some side effects. So, is tofu good for you? Let’s weigh tofu benefits and disadvantages.
What Is Tofu?
Even though it’s very popular, not everyone knows what tofu is.
Simply put, soy milk is coagulated, and the remaining curds are collected and pressed together to form what we know as tofu. It’s a similar process to making cheese from milk.
Unless you are purchasing the five percent of soy products made with organic soy, you’re most likely consuming tofu made with genetically modified soybeans. This is the first red flag when it comes to tofu.
Soy crops are genetically modified to resist a strong pesticide called Round-Up. So, when farmers spray their crops with Round-Up, it kills everything but soy plants.
While this guarantees a successful soy harvest, it doesn’t guarantee that the soybeans you eat will be safe for human consumption.
Benefits of Tofu
Tofu is low in fat and carbohydrates and packs a punch for protein. In fact, tofu contains all essential amino acids, so it’s often considered to be a good source of protein. You may also read that it’s a good source of zinc, magnesium, calcium, and iron.
Tofu nutrition facts (per 100 grams of raw, regular tofu):
As tofu contains only 76 calories per 100 grams, it’s a relatively low-calorie option. Even more can be said about its carbohydrate content: tofu does have some carbs, but only about 1.9 grams per 100 grams, so tofu could also be considered a low-carb option.
Per 100 grams, tofu contains a whopping 8 grams of protein, making it a rather protein-rich option for vegans. However, when comparing protein in tofu vs chicken, tofu is still beaten by chicken to a vast extent: 100 grams of chicken breast contains 31 grams of protein.
Tofu has phytoestrogens called isoflavones. Because they are similar to the hormone estrogen and act in similar ways within the body, some claim that soy-based products, including tofu, can help reduce breast cancer risk.
Thanks to the presence of soy’s phytoestrogens, many older women are encouraged to consume tofu. It’s a way for them to counteract the negative experiences of menopause.
Many vegans and vegetarians turn to tofu as their go-to source of protein. It’s entirely plant-based, highly versatile, easy to work with, and relatively inexpensive.
Plus, it keeps in the refrigerator or freezer for quite a while.
Soy is usually controversial when it comes to breast cancer discussion. But studies show that when women eat soy products regularly, including tofu, it can help to lower the risk of breast cancer. Some of the main tofu benefits are tied to this exact factor, which is mainly related to tofu’s isoflavone content.
Remember those phytoestrogens called isoflavones? They can support healthy bone growth and prevent bone loss.
This makes tofu a desirable food item for women going through menopause and other people who wish to maintain optimal bone health.
Tofu Health Risks
The benefits of tofu seem vast, but some side effects still may outweigh even the good.
Difficulty Absorbing Nutrients
It’s true that soy contains magnesium, iron, zinc, and copper.
But it also contains something called phytic acid and antinutrients. These make it very difficult for your body to absorb all the vitamins and minerals in tofu.
Asian societies know this and have created fermented soy products that are easier and safer for the body to digest.
The fermentation process breaks down soy’s natural but harmful characteristics before you eat them. Common fermented options include nato, miso, and tempeh. They might not be as convenient to locate as regular tofu, but they are much safer for your digestive system.
Isoflavone Is an Endocrine Disruptor
The presence of isoflavone in tofu makes it a potentially harmful food. This phytoestrogen can interfere with thyroid function. Therefore, those with a compromised thyroid should avoid tofu.
But it raises a question for the rest of us: can it complicate your endocrine system even if you’re healthy?
Goitrogens are substances that can lower thyroid function, too. This makes it harder for your body to react to hormones being produced in the body. And this will have an impact on your mood. So, if you’re prone to hypothyroidism, it’s probably best to rethink how much tofu you consume.
Tofu Is a Processed Food
Tofu is a relatively simple food with few ingredients. It’s made up of soybeans, water, acid, and salt. But it’s still processed food. In fact, the firmer your tofu, the more it’s processed. And the production process destroys many of the isoflavones that are good for you.
Vitamin B12 Deficiency
Tofu contains substances that look like Vitamin B12, but your body can’t utilize them the same way it uses real Vitamin B12. For this reason, tofu can actually lead to Vitamin B12 deficiencies in the body.
Too much soy has left rats sterile and infertile, and this can have heavy implications for us, too. In fact, the isoflavones present in tofu could lower a woman’s fertility, interfere with the development of babies and children, and even lead to premature puberty.
As you see, isoflavones may be responsible for some of the tofu’s benefits, but the same goes for its downsides.
Dr. Kaayla Daniel has highlighted that a growing number of people are allergic to soy, including tofu products. This is especially true for those made from genetically modified soybeans, which, unfortunately, are the majority.
Alternatives to Tofu
If you’re used to eating tofu in your diet, it might be frustrating to learn about some of the harmful qualities of this soy-based product. And while it’s best to avoid tofu whenever you can, that doesn’t mean you have to cut soy out of your life for good.
You can opt for fermented soy products like nato, miso, and tempeh. Nato (also referred to as Natto) is fermented soybeans and has a distinct cheese-like aroma. It’s loaded with Vitamin K2 and can lower blood pressure – a wonderful vitamin for a healthy diet.
Miso, on the other hand, is a paste made from soybeans and has a salty, buttery taste. Tempeh has a cake-like texture and an earthier aroma, almost like mushrooms. It’s packed with vitamins, minerals, and proteins, which are safe and easy for the body to digest.
Soy can harm the human body if eaten in the form of tofu and other soy-based products. However, when you eat fermented soy foods, you transform soy into a safer product and a nutritional powerhouse for your body.
At the same time, tofu can be bad for you, but soy can also be good for you, as long as you keep your consumption moderate. And in any case, it’s a fascinating protein source for vegans or anyone who’d just like to add a fun twist to their regular meals.