Tofu: What is it and is it good for you?
Maybe you’ve heard that tofu is healthy, but you don’t have the first idea what to do with it. Or maybe you crave chicken and steak on the regular and think tofu is for people who’ve totally eschewed animal foods. No matter why you’ve shied away from tofu in the past, there are lots of reasons to put it on the menu.
Tofu, a traditional Asian food made from coagulated soybeans, is a major protein source for many vegetarians and vegans. But people who eat animal foods also use it as a healthier replacement for meat or dairy. And since it’s quite inexpensive, easy to cook with, and packs a ton of health benefits, it’s an excellent addition to your meal plans.
If you’re new to tofu, it’s normal to find its texture and flavor intimidating. Give it a shot anyway: Nutritionists say tofu is extremely versatile, since it can be used in sweet and salty dishes and soaks up any flavor you add to it.
When plant-based nutritionist Alexandra Caspero, R.D., first started cooking with tofu, she didn't know what to do with it. But now? “It’s almost foolproof. It’s an inexpensive way to stretch your dishes and add healthy, lower-fat protein for few calories.”
Beyond being good for weight management, tofu may confer a few other health benefits. All soy foods, including tofu, contain isoflavones, which act like weak estrogens in the body. Since high levels of estrogens are linked to some hormonal cancers, this raised concerns in the past that soy might increase the risk of certain cancers, especially breast cancer. However, the research to-date suggests that tofu and other whole soy foods may actually have the opposite effect and offer other health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease.
Read on to learn more on what tofu is, how it’s made, and what science has to say about the health benefits of eating tofu.
What is tofu and how is it made?
Tofu is a protein-rich food made by coagulating soy milk from liquid to solid and pressing it into blocks. It’s thought to have been invented in China some 2,000 years ago, when fresh soy milk was accidentally mixed with nigari salt—a bitter salt extracted from seawater.
Production is similar to homemade cottage cheese or paneer, Caspero says: Soybeans are soaked in water, ground, boiled, and strained to make soy milk. Calcium or magnesium salt is added to coagulate the milk; then it’s pressed and set into blocks, explains Vandanda Sheth, R.D., a dietitian who specializes in vegetarian nutrition. Tofu can be silken or soft, firm, or extra firm—each of which is used differently in cooking.
Some people are concerned that the soybeans used to make tofu are genetically modified organisms (GMOs), or foods with DNA that’s been altered by humans. While nutritionists say GMOs are safe to eat, they’re hesitant to weigh in on any health claims about GMOs. If you’re concerned, simply opt for organic.
“You’ll hear that most soy in America is genetically modified, but most of that goes to animal feed,” Caspero says. “Most of the soy used for soy milk and tofu is organic, and if it’s organic, it can’t be genetically modified. You’d actually be hard pressed to find tofu that’s not organic.”
Tofu nutrition facts
Soy is a rich source of minerals like calcium (or magnesium, depending on which salt is used as a coagulant), selenium, and iron. Ounce for ounce, tofu has a little more calcium than milk: 300 mg of calcium per 8-ounce glass of low-fat milk, compared to 150 mg in 3.5 ounces of tofu.
In one 3.5-ounce serving of tofu, you get about 70 to 80 calories along with:
- Protein: 8 to 9 grams
- Carbs: 2 grams
- Calcium: about 20 percent of your daily recommended intake (DRI)
- Manganese: about 30 percent DRI
- Selenium: about 14 percent DRI
- Iron: 9 percent DRI
- Small amounts of zinc, copper, and phosphorus
Tofu is an ideal food if you’re trying to keep your calories in check, since one 3.5-ounce serving has about 70 to 80 calories. That’s less than a third of the approximately 270 calories in a 4-ounce serving of tenderloin steak—and most of us tend to eat 6 ounces (or more) of steak per sitting, which adds up to over 400 calories.
If you’ve always associated tofu with vegetarianism, it’s for good reason: Soy is one of very few plant foods that’s a complete protein. In other words, unlike most other plant foods, tofu contains all nine essential amino acids that your body needs. Even if you’re not a full-on vegetarian, you can still benefit from adding tofu to your diet—especially if you trade it for red meat, which is significantly higher in calories and saturated fat.
While the benefits and risks of saturated fat have been debated in nutrition circles in recent years, the American Heart Association still recommends aiming for just 5 to 6 percent of your daily calories to come from saturated fats (about 13 grams per day if you’re on a 2,000-calorie diet) to reduce the risk of heart disease. One 3.5-ounce serving of firm tofu provides about 9 grams of protein and just 0.5 grams of saturated fat, compared to 22 grams of protein and 8 grams of saturated fat in a standard 4-ounce serving of tenderloin steak.
Is tofu “healthy”?
Like all plant proteins, tofu is cholesterol-free and low in fat. Tofu is a source of calcium, manganese, iron, selenium, copper, zinc, and phosphorous. Soy also stands out from other legumes because it has more heart-healthy unsaturated fat and more high-quality protein. As part of a plant-based diet, tofu may lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of coronary heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Like all soy foods, tofu also contains isoflavones—which have a similar but weaker effect than the hormone estrogen. Researchers have looked into many different potential health benefits of isoflavones, including soy’s impact on breast and prostate cancer risk and menopausal symptoms, such as hot flashes.
It’s very difficult to prove that a specific food is responsible for a particular health benefit in the long-term–randomized controlled nutrition studies are typically short (often a few months). Longer-term studies over many years don’t have a control group of people (those receiving a placebo), but they help scientists identify links between what people eat and their longer-term health. “The Asian diet is very high in soy foods, and across the board there’s a lower incidence of hormonal cancers, like breast and prostate cancer, and heart disease,” Caspero says. This, however, doesn’t prove that soy alone is the factor responsible for this protection–other things that scientists didn’t measure may also be contributing. What scientists do agree on? “Eating more plant-based protein is better for overall health, and the data seem to bear that out over and over again,” Caspero says.
Best of all? You don’t have to go vegan or vegetarian to reap the benefits of tofu, Caspero says. Swapping in more plant protein, such as tofu, for animal protein like beef, pork, and chicken is beneficial to health.
Regularly eating tofu may:
Boost heart health
Adding more tofu to your daily meal plans is an easy way to take care of your heart. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that eating 25 grams of soy protein a day (about two 100-gram servings of tofu) is linked to a lower heart disease risk.
This heart-protective benefit might be because soy foods like tofu are also a great source of polyunsaturated fats and fiber, and may be replacing the saturated fat in red or processed meats, which improves overall diet quality. What’s more, a number of studies have found that eating soy protein may help lower levels of “bad” (LDL) cholesterol in your blood, which lowers your heart disease risk.
Protect breast health
Increased estrogen levels have been linked to breast cancer, and the isoflavones in soy have an estrogen-like effect in the body. That led to some concerns that soy could increase the risk of breast cancer. The isoflavones in whole soy foods, however, are much weaker than the estrogen made by our bodies. In fact, soy is linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer, particularly in Asian women, according to the American Cancer Society.
“You hear the word estrogen and get nervous, because you know too much can fuel cancer cells. But phytoestrogens can have the opposite effect,” Caspero says. “The vast majority of research shows it’s not only safe but probably protective.”
That said, experts at the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) suggest that women with a family or personal history of cancer opt for whole soy foods like tofu (along with tempeh, edamame, miso, and soy milk) over soy supplements. Animal studies indicate that the higher concentration of isoflavones in supplements might trigger breast tumor growth, particularly in higher-risk women.
Reduce prostate cancer risk
Prostate cancer is the second most-diagnosed type of cancer in men in the U.S. Men in Asian countries have a significantly lower risk of prostate cancer, possibly because they eat a lot more soy foods like tofu.
One 2018 review of 30 studies found that men who ate more soy foods had a reduced risk of developing prostate cancer. The isoflavones in soy collect in the prostate, where their weak estrogen-like effect may protect against cancer. A number of studies continue to look into the potential effects of isoflavones on prostate cancer risk.
Support bone health
Estrogen helps keep women’s bones strong, and estrogen levels decrease during menopause—which is why women’s osteoporosis risk increases later in life. Since isoflavones act like estrogen in the body, some women eat more soy foods or take supplements hoping to make their bones stronger.
So far, the research hasn’t backed the theory that soy isoflavones slow bone loss after menopause. But since soy is also a good source of calcium and protein, both of which are important for strong bones, regularly eating tofu can help support bone health.
Reduce diabetes risk
Lower estrogen levels during menopause affect blood sugar control. A six-month study in post-menopausal Taiwanese women found that soy isoflavones lowered fasting blood sugar and insulin. Other research found neither soy protein nor soy isoflavone supplementation had a favorable effect on blood sugar control or insulin sensitivity in post-menopausal Chinese women.
A large study of more than 60,000 American men and women did not find a link between eating soy foods and a reduced type 2 diabetes risk–this same study found that intake of isoflavones from a range of foods and drinks was associated with a "modestly” lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Protect kidney function
People with diabetes are more likely to eventually develop kidney disease, Sheth says; one 2014 review of nine studies suggested that people with kidney disease who consumed soy protein had lower serum creatinine (an indication of better kidney function) than people with kidney disease who ate more animal protein.
Ease hot flashes during menopause
Hot flashes are perhaps the most well-known symptom of menopause, and they’re also linked to dropping estrogen levels. There is actually some evidence that the estrogen-like isoflavones in soy foods like tofu may slightly help reduce the severity and frequency of hot flashes—although the effect is small in comparison to hormone replacement therapy, and it may take up to a year to achieve maximum benefit.
Tofu and weight loss
It’s hard to stick to a healthy eating plan if you’re always hungry—which is why nutritionists love tofu for weight loss: It’s low in calories and high in protein, which helps prolong satisfaction after eating.
One 2015 study looked at the diets of more than 130,000 American men and women and estimated that 2.5 pounds of their weight loss over a four-year period was attributable to eating tofu and soy. While Sheth notes that’s not a huge change, it was statistically significant, and in combination with weight loss from other dietary changes it can make a difference to health if sustained.
Tofu can be an effective weight-loss tool because it:
- Curbs appetite. Tofu is a low-calorie food that’s high in protein, which may help you to feel fuller for longer so you eat less of your meals over time.
- May improve the metabolic profile of women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). PCOS is a hormonal imbalance in women that can lead to weight gain and increased diabetes risk. One small study in 70 women with PCOS found that taking 50 mg of soy isoflavone supplements daily—which you can get in about 2.5 servings of tofu—for 12 weeks improved hormone levels and insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes.
- May help with glucose control. Sheth adds that because women with PCOS are more likely to have issues with insulin resistance, they’re often trying to cut back on carbs. At 2 grams of carbs and 9 grams of protein per serving, tofu has a high protein-to-carb ratio, making it a good alternative to meat.
- May reduce weight gain in older women. Weight gain—especially around the midsection—is a common complaint among post-menopausal women, partly caused by changing levels of hormones, including estrogen. The estrogen-like compounds in soy foods like tofu might help: One 2017 review of studies on soy and isoflavones found that regularly eating moderate amounts of soy (less than 40 g of soy protein per day) was associated with a slightly smaller waist circumference and lower body mass index in older women, although more research is needed.
How to cook tofu
Tofu works well in many recipes—both sweet and salty—where you’d use dairy or animal protein. While it might seem intimidating to cook at first, tofu is actually easier to prep than many meat products, since you can eat it raw without worrying about food safety issues. The main hurdle is simply learning where to use soft/silken, firm, and extra-firm tofu, then following a few tricks to achieve the right texture. “The benefit of tofu is that it really doesn’t have flavor, so it adapts to whatever type of cuisine you’re trying to make it with,” Caspero says. “Even if you don’t get the texture you want the first time, keep trying.”
Each of the three main tofu textures has a unique cooking application:
Soft or silken tofu
Silken tofu is the softest of the bunch, which is why it’s often used as an alternative to dairy in giving foods a creamy texture and a protein boost. “You’d use it in anything that doesn’t require structure,” Sheth says.
Caspero recommends using silken tofu as a base for baked goods like pies or cheesecake. Mix with olive oil, apple cider vinegar, and herbs like dill, oregano, and thyme to make a lighter version of ranch dressing. Soft tofu is also great blended into smoothies, soups, puddings, and sauces.
If you’re brand new to tofu, Caspero says firm tofu is your best bet. “It tends to be the most diverse in terms of what you can use it for,” she says. Both firm and extra firm tofu retain their shape when cooked and work just about anywhere you’re looking for a plant-based alternative to meat or poultry.
The key to a good firm tofu: Always press out the water first by wrapping it in paper towels, then placing a heavy pot or pan on top of it for 10 minutes. “The moisture seeps out, which means your tofu will be crisp when seared and can infuse with marinade,” Caspero says.
Sheth says firm tofu is an excellent replacement for eggs in tofu “scrambles” or animal protein in egg or chicken salad. You can also throw firm tofu cubes into a curry or stir fry, bake it in the oven, or skewer it with vegetables on a kebab.
For a heartier, spongy fried tofu taste without the frying, Caspero suggests freezing tofu in its package, then thawing and cooking in a wok to make tofu nuggets.
Extra firm tofu
“Extra firm means it’s really hard, so it will hold its shape best when it’s baked or stir-fried,” Caspero says.
Treat firm or extra-firm tofu like chicken breast in just about any recipe. In a stir fry, sear tofu in a wok to create a crust, then remove and add veggies. When the veggies are cooked, add the tofu back in with your sauce and mix. You can also cover tofu in sauce and bake it in the oven with veggies, or cube it and air-fry it with seasoning or marinade. “Once it’s in the skillet, it’s ready in 5 to 6 minutes,” Caspero says.
The upshot: Is tofu healthy?
Tofu is a cholesterol-free, low-calorie, high-protein food that’s also rich in bone-boosting calcium and manganese. Tofu may help you to lose weight by keeping you fuller for longer on fewer calories than meat. It may reduce the risk of heart disease, especially when swapped for saturated fat-heavy animal proteins. Soy foods like tofu also contain isoflavones, which act similarly in the body to estrogen. This means regularly eating tofu may lower the risk of certain hormonal cancers, including breast and prostate cancer, and diabetes, as well as possibly reduce the symptoms of menopause.
Not a vegetarian or vegan? Don’t worry! You don’t have to abstain from meat to enjoy the health benefits of tofu. Swap firm or extra-firm tofu 50/50 or 100 percent in recipes calling for chicken, beef, or pork; soft or silken tofu is an excellent dairy replacement in smoothies, soups, and sauces. Since tofu is super-versatile and takes on whatever flavor it’s cooked with, it’s a simple and tasty way to lose weight and support your overall health.
Colleen de Bellefonds has been covering health and wellness for over a decade for publications including U.S. News & World Report, Women's Health, Vice, Prevention, Healthline, and more. She lives in Paris, where she shares her croissants with her dog and plans her weekends around runs by the Seine.