Tofu originated in China, just like a lot of soy foods. Legend has it that it was discovered over 2000 years ago by a chef in China who accidentally curdled soy milk when he added seaweed to it. It was brought into Japan in the Eighth century and went by the name ‘okabe’.
Tofu (sometimes called bean curd) is made by pressing coagulated soy milk into blocks and allowing it to cool. The longer it’s pressed the firmer it becomes. Tofu is available in a variety of textures and can be used in all sorts of dishes, even some desserts. It can be cooked to be crispy and crunchy or smooth and creamy and because of its neural taste, it takes on the flavor of anything it’s cooked with. This makes it the perfect ingredient to replace meats and compliment sauces.
Firm tofu is the most commonly used one and it can be fried, baked or as a topping on pizza. Extra firm is a grainier harder version and is best marinated and grilled as it has been pressed the longest and keeps it’s shape when heated. Silken is the third kind and it can be used in desserts, salad dressings or pie fillings.
Fermenting tofu is another way of preparing it for consumption. Similar to any fermented product, molds are introduced intentionally and are allowed to grow for a few days. Salt and seasonings are added along with some Chinese liquor. The tofu can be left to marinate for a week or a month or even for as long as one year. Once it is hard and has been infused with the spices and flavours, it can be eaten.
Tofu is not only versatile to cook with, it has a myriad of health benefits associated with it. For such an unassuming food it packs a lot of bang for its buck.
1. Tofu can prevent cancer
Tofu contains phytoestrogens, which are a type of estrogen that naturally occurs in plants, specifically soy.
Isoflavones are the class of phytoestrogens that occur in soy. In particular it contains an isoflavone called Genistein which has antioxidant properties that have been proven to stop cancer cells from growing. It has been proven to be beneficial in both preventing and slowing many types of cancer. (1)
There has been some debate over the last few years about whether soy consumption is good or bad for women who have already had breast cancer. In recent studies it has been concluded that regular soy intake may decrease a recurrence of breast cancer. (4)
Women are not the only people to benefit from eating soy (tofu) in their diet. Recently in Korea, a study was conducted that concluded that men with a higher intake of soy products had a decreased risk of gastric cancer. It was also concluded that patients with an early diagnosis of prostate cancer may be able to avoid and delay conventional treatment through diet and lifestyle. (5)
Eating foods made from soy has also been credited with preventing against urinary tract cancer. (6)
Another study done in Korea showed that soy can lower the risk of gastric cancer. (7)
Soy foods (and green tea) may prevent or delay prostate cancer due to their anti-inflammatory
Even further studies show that eating soy may reduce the risk of lung cancer in women, particularly for fast growing tumours. (9)
Bottom Line: Consumption of foods made with soy have significantly decreased or delayed the growth of many types of cancer. This is due to the presence of phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are an estrogen that occurs naturally in the soy plant.
2. Tofu lowers LDL cholesterol levels
LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is considered the bad cholesterol. It contributes to plaque. Plaque is a hard substance that builds up in the arteries, clogging them or making them less flexible. This can lead to a heart attack or stroke. (10)
Although there are many steps to preventing high cholesterol, studies have shown that eating 25 grams of soy food per day can assist in lowering LDL cholesterol by 5% to 6%. (11)
In one crossover study, the effect of animal based protein versus plant based protein was studied. The subjects of the study were given 20% of their protein as either casein (cheese and milk based protein) or as soy. Although both diets lowered LDL cholesterol, the people consuming the soy based diet had their LDL levels stabilize at 16% lower. (12)
Another study showed that a soybean diet is the most effective tool for managing hypercholesterolemia. Soy activates the LDL receptor pathway, which in turn lowers cholesterol. (13)
Bottom Line: Foods made from soy protein can lower LDL cholesterol. Having lower cholesterol lowers your chances of having a heart attack or a stroke.
3. Tofu has high levels of iron and can assist in reversing anemia
Anemia is a “condition marked by a deficiency of red blood cells or of hemoglobin in the blood, resulting in pallor and weariness.” There are several reasons for anemia, however the most common is low iron in the blood. An effective way to combat anemia is to improve the blood protein status by eating foods that are high in protein. Soy contains a high amount of protein. Since tofu is quite affordable, it makes it a realistic solution for anyone to use as a way to combat anemia.
A study in rural China has shown that adding more soy protein to the diet of middle aged women is a feasible solution to anemia.(14)
Bottom Line: Anemia is usually caused by an iron deficiency. It can be improved by consuming high protein foods. Soy is a high protein food that all demographics can eat.
4. Tofu is an excellent source of calcium
Numerous studies have shown that calcium consumption can prevent or slow the progression of osteoporosis by keeping bones hard and strong. Calcium is also needed for other bodily functions such as proper nerve and muscle function as well as blood clotting.
In a single half cup serving of firm tofu there is 253 mg of calcium which amounts to 25% of the recommended daily value.
Tofu is easily incorporated into everyday recipes which makes it even easier to eat at least 1 serving a day. It can be used as a pizza topping or as a creamy thickener to a protein shake. Both recipes are listed below.
Bottom Line: Our bodies need calcium for a variety of functions such as organ function and bone firmness. Tofu is high in calcium and is easily incorporated into an average diet.
5. Tofu helps with weight management
Bile acids are a crucial part of the digestive system and are used in the processing of dietary fat. Increased amounts can assist in the treatment of obesity. (15)
Eating soy raises the bile acids and can be beneficial in treating obesity. (16)
In one study, patients with alimentary (which means relating to nourishment or sustenance) obesity were given a diet with ⅓ of their dietary protein replaced with a soy protein. The results showed that bile acid, blood lipid and protein levels were improved. (17)
Bottom Line: Increasing bile acids will assist with treating obesity. Eating soy protein will increase bile acids. This makes it an important component in treating obesity and maintaining an optimal weight.
6. Tofu helps reduce the risk of heart disease
The term heart disease generally refers to the blood vessels getting narrowed or blocked which can lead to problems such as heart attack, angina or stroke. The blood vessels get narrowed or blocked by fat build up. Heart disease can also refer to problems that affect the heart's rhythm, valves or muscle. Many forms of heart disease can be prevented or managed with healthy lifestyle choices. The three top dietary risks for promoting the formation of fatty plaques in the arteries are: saturated fat, cholesterol and obesity. Tofu can help prevent and manage all three.
Tofu can help lower the blood lipids (cholesterol and fatty acids) in the human body which in turn lowers your chances of heart disease. (18)
Studies have been done on men and women and it has been concluded that soy food lowers the risk of coronary heart disease in both. It is suggested that 20 grams of soy protein and 80 grams of isoflavones per week is effective. (19) (20)
One of the easiest ways to incorporate more tofu and to reap these wonderful benefits in preventing heart disease is to replace animal protein with soy protein. (21) One way to do that is to replace ground beef with tofu mock beef. I have listed a recipe below that can be used in almost any recipe that called for ground beef.
Bottom Line: Heart disease can lead to heart attacks, angina and strokes and is caused (in part) by the blood vessels getting narrow and blocked due to fat build up. Consuming tofu can help reduce blood lipids (cholesterol and fatty acids) and prevent heart disease.
7. Tofu is an excellent source of protein for everyone, including gout sufferers and Vegans
Protein is an essential part of the human diet. It is a macronutrient, meaning the body needs a fairly large amount of it to function. It aids in the healthy production of bones, muscles, blood, cartilage and skin. The recommended amount for a sedentary person is 0.36 grams per pound. For example, someone who is 150 pounds would need 56 grams (150 x 0.36) It is substantially higher for physically active people.
Many people rely on animal protein (foods derived from an animal) to get an adequate amount of protein. However, there are some lifestyles as well as health issues that could prevent people from getting a sufficient amount.
Gout is a form of arthritis caused by an excess of uric acid in the body. One of the factors that contributes to this is eating too many purine rich foods. Meat is a purine rich food and must be limited by gout patients.
People with gout still require large amounts of protein though and tofu is an effective way to get at least some of that protein without the uric acid. (22)
Tofu is also a great source of protein for the vegan lifestyle. Soy protein is as nutritious as egg protein. (23) Because of this, tofu can be the only source of protein a person needs to stay healthy. (24)
Bottom Line: Protein is a macronutrient and our bodies need a lot of it to function properly. Soy is an excellent source of protein for all diets including ones that limit animal products such as gout sufferers and vegans.
8. Tofu can help prevent type 2 diabetes
Type 2 Diabetes is “ is a long term metabolic disorder that is characterized by high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and relative lack of insulin.” Studies have shown that the addition of soy will lower the blood cholesterol of people with Type 2 Diabetes. (25)
It is recommended that in order to prevent or manage Type 2 Diabetes, a low Glycemic (low GI) diet be consumed. At the heart of the problem is usually a situation called insulin resistance.
Insulin resistance happens when the body stops acknowledging insulin. Insulin acts as a security guard of sorts.A large amount of sugar is eaten and then normally it produces a reaction in the cell walls that allows glucose to travel through the walls. It is used to create energy or stored to be used later on.
In some people this natural response doesn’t occur which causes the pancreas to work overtime to create more insulin. Eventually it may fail to create enough insulin, resulting in Type 2 Diabetes.
One of the causes of this is eating the wrong carbohydrates or foods that are high GI. A high GI food is a food that your body converts very quickly into glucose (sugar). A low GI diet will release glucose slowly into the body which allows the body to slowly release insulin in response.
Studies do show however, that fermented soy is more effective than non fermented. (28)
Bottom Line: Eating a diet filled with high GI foods can cause and worsen Type 2 Diabetes. Tofu and fermented tofu have a low GI level and are excellent at managing and reversing Type 2 Diabetes.
9. Soy can help with kidney function
In the last decade. It was speculated that soy may have a negative effect on the kidneys. Recent studies show however, that soy is actually quite good for the kidneys. Soy balances elevated lipids and can slow the growth of cysts on the kidneys related to polycystic kidney disease. (29) (30)
There is even growing evidence that dietary phytoestrogens can slow the advancement of chronic renal disease. (31)
Bottom Line: Soy can help prevent or slow down the progression of kidney disease.
10. Soy can help prevent an ischemic stroke
A stroke is something that occurs when part of the oxygen is is cut off or severely reduce to the brain. The brain is deprived of oxygen and within minutes the cells begin to die. The most common form of a stroke, constituting about 87% of all cases, is an ischemic stroke. Ischemic strokes happen when there is a blockage within a blood vessel that is carrying oxygen to the brain. These obstructions are fatty deposits that form and line the walls of the blood vessel. The condition is called atherosclerosis.
A study in China has shown that eating tofu (soy) on a regular basis can reduce the risk of an ischemic stroke in adults. (31)
Bottom Line: Ischemic strokes occur when part of the brain’s oxygen is cut off by fatty deposits. Eating soy on a regular basis can reduce the risk of an ischemic stroke.
11. Tofu can help reduce some of the symptoms of menopause
Tofu has a chemical called phytoestrogen. Phytoestrogen is an isoflavone that is generally found in plant food that has a structure similar to that of the female hormone estrogen structure. Because of this similarity, it mimics the action of estrogen which is naturally produced by the body.
During menopause, the female body stops producing as much estrogen as it once did. This causes some of the menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.
Although it is a weaker version of the one our body naturally produces, several studies conclude that increasing consumption of phytoestrogen relieve some of the severity of the menopausal symptoms (32)
Bottom Line: Menopause symptoms happen due to a decline in estrogen in our bodies. Tofu acts as a natural estrogen because of the presence of phytoestrogen. Adding additional tofu to your diet can help with menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes.
12. Tofu can help prevent Osteoporosis
The definition of osteoporosis is “a medical condition in which the bones become brittle and fragile from loss of tissue, typically as a result of hormonal changes, or deficiency of calcium or vitamin D”
4 ounces (½ a cup) of firm tofu typically equals 86% of your daily recommended calcium intake. (33) A great way to get an added serving of calcium a day is by eating a tofu scramble for breakfast. I have included a recipe below.
Osteoporosis is also very common in postmenopausal women because of declining estrogen in a woman's body at that time. Bones become brittle and osteoporosis follows. Tofu can slow or prevent bones from becoming brittle because of the isoflavones and calcium it has in it.
Bottom Line: Both lack of calcium and estrogen can contribute to osteoporosis. Eating tofu products can help slow or prevent the progression of osteoporosis.
13. In some studies, soy protein had a positive effect on brain function
Estrogen is known to regulate some cognitive brain functions. The most prominent is that it improves working and verbal memory.
Because soy foods have isoflavones, which are a naturally occurring estrogen and similar to the one found in the human body, soy products have been shown to improve the working memory in young females. (36)
Bottom Line: Estrogen regulates some brain function. Since soy has isoflavones which act as an estrogen in the body, it has been shown to have a positive effect on brain function.
Tofu can be a challenging thing to incorporate into your diet if it is not something you are used to cooking with. The best way to gradually add more tofu is to swap it with foods that you eat that are made with animal fats.
Some suggestions are:
Instead of chicken and vegetables, try substituting BBQ Tofu or braised tofu with vegetables.
Instead of ground beef, try tofu tacos or tofu burgers
Instead of beef chili, cook chili with crumbled extra firm tofu
Instead of meat in your sandwich try using a grilled extra firm tofu as a filler instead
Instead of scrambled eggs, why not try a tofu scramble.
Here are 8 simple recipes using all 4 tofu varieties that can easily be incorporated into your diet.
Instead of eggs every day, why not try a spicy, savory tofu scramble? And the bonus? You can make it the night before and reheat it if you’re short on time.
Tofu Scramble (1)
1/4 cup onion chopped
¼ cup green bell pepper chopped
¼ cup celery chopped
1 clove garlic, minced. (I prefer more garlic. If you are daring add 2 or 3)
One block of extra firm tofu
2 teaspoons EVOO or coconut oil
2 tablespoons nutritional yeast flakes (Available at most health food stores)
2 tablespoons of all purpose seasoning (My favorite is Flavor God Spicy Everything or Zesty Italian)
1/8 teaspoon turmeric
½ a jalapeno, seeded and chopped (optional)
salt to taste
Put half of the oil in a skillet set to medium and gently sauté the pepper, onion, celery, garlic and jalapeno for 3-4 minutes, until the onion becomes translucent. Remove from heat.
In a separate bowl, crumble the tofu and add the seasonings. Mix well.
Heat the remaining oil in a small skillet over medium heat. Add the tofu and cook, stirring, till it becomes firm and a bit crispy on the edges. Remove from heat.
Fold the vegetable mixture into the tofu mixture.
Serve on toast, on an english muffin or by itself
Optional bonus: For variety, I like to serve it on a tortilla with some cheese, avocado and salsa or salsa verde as a breakfast burrito.
Smoothies are a great breakfast, pre-workout or post-workout snack or just a quick, on the go lunch. This one is high in protein and packs an extra creamy, milkshake satisfying tofu punch. Try tofu in all of your favorite smoothie recipes.
Tofu Antioxidant Smoothie (2)
1 cup of almond milk (I make my own or buy unsweetened)
1 cup frozen blueberries
½ cup pomegranate seeds (If they aren’t in season, you can sub out any berry such as raspberries or cherries)
1 frozen sliced banana
½ cup of packed spinach
½ an avocado, diced
⅓ of a cup of silken tofu
1 teaspoon of hemp hearts
2 medjool dates, soaked (optional)
Put all ingredients in the blender and blend until smooth. Add more almond milk as needed for desired consistency. The dates will add more sweetness. If you prefer a sweeter, more dessert like drink add at least 2.
These delicious bite size tofu bites can be eaten as it or served with stir fried vegetables and rice. They could even be added to a soup or served with toast and avocado as a mid day snack.
Basic Baked Tofu (3)
I block of firm tofu, cut into ½ “ cubes
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped fine
2 tablespoons of soy sauce (I use the low sodium)
½-¾ tablespoon of cornstarch
1 1/4 tablespoons of brown sugar
1 teaspoon of sriracha or your favorite hot sauce (I’ve even used Red Hot in a pinch)
¼ cup of chopped green onion
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Arrange tofu in a single layer on a baking sheet and bake for 40 minutes or until crispy. Turn tofu mid way.
In a small saucepan, add the remaining ingredients, except the cornstarch. Bring to a slight boil.
Mix cornstarch with either 6 tablespoons of water or vegetable broth and stir in boiling pot.
Cook on medium for 2-3 minutes until sauce has thickened. You can adjust the thickness of the sauce by either adding another cornstarch slurry to make it thicker or more water or broth to make it thinner.
Check seasonings and add sauce to tofu. Gently stir to coat tofu thoroughly with sauce. Sprinkle onion over top.
This is a very versatile tofu dish that packs a lot of flavor. Serve it with whole grain rice, noodles or vegetables as a complete meal.
Thai Curry Tofu (4)
1 pack tofu, drained and chopped
2-3 tbsp oil (any high cooking temperature oil such as coconut or avocado)
1 can coconut milk
2 tbsp red curry paste
1 tbsp low sodium soy sauce
1 tbsp maple syrup or 1 tbsp of brown sugar (or even agave syrup works)
1 tablespoon of lime juice
½ cup cilantro, chopped
1. In a saucepan, on medium heat, add your curry paste and can of coconut milk and stir together. Increase heat slightly (medium high should do it) and allow to reduce and thicken while you cook your tofu. (Turn it down as needed. I find a good 2-3 minutes on high is great and then I lower it to medium again. )
2. In a 2nd large saucepan, heat your oil on medium high heat.
3. Heat a skillet on medium heat and add cubed tofu. Cook your tofu until golden brown on every side.
4. Turn it down to low and add the lime juice, soy sauce and syrup or brown sugar to your sauce and stir. Carefully add the tofu to the sauce. Stir gently (without breaking the tofu) to incorporate.
This next recipe is a great alternative to ground beef. It’s easy to incorporate it into your diet. Use it as a replacement to ground beef in any recipe. The spices can be changed to suite whatever dish you are using it in.
MOCK GROUND BEEF (5)
6 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1 teaspoons cumin
1 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon chili powder
1 teaspoon oregano
½ teaspoon of cayenne pepper (optional)
1 package of extra firm tofu
1 tablespoon olive oil
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Remove the excess liquid from the tofu by wrapping it in a clean tea towel (or paper towel) and pushing down on it for a few minutes from all sides.
3. Crumble tofu into a bowl and mix with all the ingredients except the oil.
4. Brush a cookie sheet with the olive oil and spread the tofu on it in a single layer.
5. Bake for 20 minutes and then gently flip/stir the tofu to get it brown on all sides.
6. Bake for an additional 10 minutes or so til it is slightly crispy and hard and resembles ground beef.
7. This “beef” can be used in tacos, sheppard’s pie, on pizza. Anywhere ground beef can be used!
This delicious and nutritious dessert is sure to wow even the pickiest of eaters. Smooth and creamy and decadent. Perfect for casual family dinners and parties alike.
CHOCOLATE PUDDING PIE(6)
1½ cups brazil nuts (These work best due to their hard texture)
8 soaked medjool dates, pitted
2-3 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp dark cocoa powder
One 12 oz package of silken tofu at room temperature
⅔ cup chocolate chips
⅓ cup cacao powder
⅓ cup maple syrup
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
Dash of salt
¼ tsp of instant espresso powder
1. Add all crust ingredients to a food processor and process until completely ground and smooth.
2. Press crust into a pie pan and put in the freezer for half an hour.
3. In a blender, mix the tofu and the remaining filling ingredients. Pour into frozen crust and smooth. Tap it on the counter a few times to remove any air bubbles.
4. Decorate with whipped cream, chocolate swirls or a simple dusting of cocoa and powdered sugar. Refrigerate until set. Serve chilled.
Here is a great BBQ pizza that can be made the night before and reheated at supper time. A great tasting, fast weekday meal that even the kids will enjoy!
BARBECUE TOFU PIZZA (7)
Your favorite store-bought or homemade pizza crust dough, enough for one pizza (You can use a ready made crust in a pinch or for a different pizza, use individual pita breads as the base)
1 ¼ cup of your favorite barbecue sauce
1 cup tofu pieces
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
3 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
pink Himalayan salt, ground very fine
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Olive oil for brushing
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Spread cubed tofu on a greased baking sheet. Season with salt and pepper (I also like to add a spicy steak rub to mine. Feel free to experiment)
3. Bake for 20 minutes and gently flip.
4. Bake for an additional 20 minutes or until the edges are crispy. Set aside to cool.
5. Brush your pizza baking sheet with some olive oil
6. Flatten the pizza crust dough till it fits your pizza baking sheet.
7. Carefully lay the pizza crust on the cookie sheet.
8. Spread 1/2 cup of the barbecue sauce onto the dough, leaving about a 1/4 inch crust
9. In a small bowl, mix tofu and remaining barbecue sauce. Carefully toss to coat and distribute evenly over pizza crust.
10. Sprinkle with shredded cheese.
11. Bake for about 10-15 minutes til cheese is melted and crust is golden brown.
12. Remove from the oven and sprinkle with salt and cilantro.
Fermented foods are an excellent way of improving digestive health. Using fermented tofu in this recipe adds a different taste and is also beneficial for the heart and digestive tract. This recipe can also be used with potatoes to replace the cauliflower.
Cauliflower and fermented Tofu (8)
2 tablespoons of coconut oil
1/2 head cauliflower, sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced or chopped fine
3 tablespoons vegetable stock (you can use water in a pinch)
3 cubes red or white fermented tofu, sometimes labelled bean curd and is available in ethnic supermarkets
1. Heat oil in a large wok or skillet until smoking. Stir fry cauliflower for 3-4 minutes. Push it to the side.
2. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute. Combine garlic and cauliflower.
3. Add the stock and cover til almost evaporated.
4. Add the cubes of bean curd, breaking them up slightly with a spatula. Mix thoroughly with the cauliflower and sauce.
5. Season with salt and pepper if desired.
Jen Miller is a former electrical engineer and product specialist with more than 20 years of product design and testing experience. She has designed more than 200 products for Fortune 500 companies, in fields ranging from home appliances to sports gear and outdoor equipment. She founded Jen Reviews to share her knowledge and critical eye for what makes consumers tick, and adopts a strict no-BS approach to help the reader filter through the maze of products and marketing hype out there. She writes regularly and has been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, The Muse, The Huffington Post, Tiny Buddha and MindBodyGreen.