This post is part of a series meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.
Have you met… tofu?
Tofu receives an unfair share of bad press — from the dismal beliefs that it’s bland and rubbery, to the damning fears that soy foods are detrimental to health.
Fortunately, these claims are mostly misguided. Tofu is a true chameleon ingredient, and a little creativity goes a long way + the current body of research indicates that the average amount of soy foods, including tofu, consumed in a typical Western diet is entirely safe, even health-promoting, for the majority of people.
In this edition of HYM I will present you with more of these facts, and help set the record straight!
What is it?
Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, with some records suggesting its first appearance c. AD 965, tofu has been a dietary staple of Chinese, Japanese and other southeast Asian cultures. Often thought of as a meat alternative for vegetarians, vegans and omnivores alike, this is actually not the case in Asia, where it is quite often served alongside or incorporated into meat dishes.
Also known as bean curd, tofu is a product of soy(bean)milk. The milk is heated and inoculated with natural acids, enzymes or salts promote coagulation, forming curds. Much like cheesemaking, the curds are separated from the liquid, then pressed and cut into blocks. The duration of pressing the soybean curd is what determines the ultimate consistency.
What’s so great about it?
For less than 100 calories and no cholesterol per 3-ounce serving, tofu is rich in antioxidant selenium and the trace mineral manganese, and is a good source of iron, magnesium, and immune-boosting zinc, plus mono- and poly-unsaturated fats for heart and brain health. Tofu is an excellent source of calcium, and becomes even more so when manufactured with a natural calcium compound. It is also a source of the B-vitamin folate and choline — two nutrients that offer some protection from development of birth defects of in a developing fetus.
This plant-based protein ranges from roughly 6 to 10 grams per serving, depending on the method of processing and style, and is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains the full complement of essential amino acids. Tofu is naturally gluten-free, but if you are following a low FODMAP (“fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols”) eating plan, note that silken tofu is considered high FODMAP, while firm tofu is considered low FODMAP.
New research also links regular intake of soy foods, including tofu, to significantly improved insulin resistance and blood pressure, increased antioxidant activity, and lower levels of triglyceride and cholesterol. Soybeans and soy foods, including tofu, are the most concentrated sources of isoflavones currently known in the human diet. Isoflavones are bio-active chemicals called phytoestrogens — plant-based compounds that very weakly mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.
Based on current research, moderate consumption of whole, unprocessed soy foods — tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, soy nuts, soy sauce — is considered safe* for menopausal and postmenopausal women (reduces symptoms), and individuals with cancer (may even help prevent breast and prostate cancers). Soy is also associated in some instances with increased fertility, and may protect against oxidative damage in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Additionally, recent studies suggests that moderate intake should have no significant effect on sperm count, sperm motility, or male reproductive hormone levels, including testosterone.
Two groups that should exercise some caution with tofu and other whole soy foods, are those with thyroid issues and history of breast cancer. Consuming smaller amounts on occasion should be fine, and the impressive anti-cancer and other health benefits of soy foods likely outweigh potential concerns. However, it is, and will always be, my professional advice to talk first with your physician about recommendations based on your personal medical history and treatment plan. And when conducting your own research, always check the sources!