The Rise (and Rise Again) of Tofu
If you’re new to tofu, you know that it has a decades-long history in the United States and an even longer history worldwide. The soy product is not only versatile, but also health-promoting. Tofu diet is no joke.
Tofu, also known as tofu, has been around for thousands of years. The earliest records of its consumption date back more than 2,000 years to China, and it became a staple of Chinese cuisine by the 10th century.
Other Asian countries adopted it over the following centuries, but tofu didn’t appear in many US grocery stores until the 1970s.
Since then, it has become an important source of protein for countless people who follow a vegetarian, vegan or plant-based diet. It’s so popular you’ll find it in most grocery stores and restaurants.
Here’s what you should know about tofu nutrition, including its calories, carbohydrates, and protein, as well as how to use it.
What is tofu?
Tofu is basically soybean curd made by curdling soymilk, explains Jackie Newgent, RDN, a plant-focused chef, nutritionist, and author of The Clean & Simple Diabetes Cookbook.
The first step in making tofu is making soy milk.
Dried soybeans are washed, soaked and ground. Water is added to the mixture, then the solution simmers for 15-30 minutes. It is drained through a piece of cloth in a strainer.
The soy milk left behind contains all the beneficial nutrients of soybeans.
The next step is curdling, in which the milk is heated to a low temperature along with a coagulant, most commonly nigari, a seawater extract.
The final step is to press the curdled soy milk into white edible blocks, Newgent says, which is how tofu is often packaged at the grocery store.
“In a packaged tofu, a standard ingredient list might include water, soybeans, nigari, and calcium sulfate,” she says.
What types of tofu are there?
There are different types of tofu that vary in texture and firmness.
The softer the tofu, the higher the water content. This makes it more likely to fall apart, but also means it’s more flavor-absorbing.
As firmness increases, so does density, shelf life, fat and protein content.
The most common forms of tofu are silky, soft, medium-firm, extra-firm, and super-firm, according to Newgent.
This form of tofu has the highest water content and is essentially undrained and unpressed.
“Silken is great for smoothies,” says Newgent. It also works well in sauces, dips, desserts, and salad dressings.
Soft tofu is a notch firmer than silken tofu and has a higher water content than the firmer varieties. It is generally used in a similar way to silk.
With slightly less water content than soft, medium-sized tofu, it’s still so tender it would fall apart in a pan. This is the kind of tofu that swims in miso soup.
Firm tofu is dense enough for cooking and a popular choice for everything from boiled curries to scrambled tofu.
Some people like to use it in stir-fries, but it can fall apart more than some of the firmer options.
Extra Hard Tofu
Newgent claims that extra firm is great in stir-fries because it holds its shape well when you slice it.
You can also use it when preparing grilled and baked tofu.
Super Firm Tofu
Super firm is the densest tofu and very high in protein.
Other types of tofu
Other types of tofu are also becoming increasingly popular.
Pre-cooked tofu is already flavored and baked and is available in the refrigerated section of grocery stores.
Also keep an eye out for black tofu, which is made from yellow and black soybeans, Newgent says.
And with the growing popularity of plant-based foods, new artificial tofus are popping up in natural markets “as an alternative to traditional soybean-based tofu,” she explains.
Pumfu, for example, is made from pumpkin seeds.
Because tofu is plant-based, it’s cholesterol-free and has minimal saturated fat, explains Ellen Liskov, a registered dietitian at Yale New Haven Hospital.
“The firmer the tofu, the higher the protein content and overall calories because there’s less moisture,” she points out.
While exact nutritional value varies by type of tofu and brand, the average three-ounce serving (a generous half-cup) of firm tofu contains the following nutrients.
A three-ounce serving of firm tofu has about 80 calories.
Saturated Fatty Acids
A serving also contains less than half a gram of saturated fat.
That’s “about 3 percent of the daily requirement, or 3 percent of our daily needs based on a 2,000-calorie daily diet, which is average for Americans,” Liskov explains. “For nutrients that we want to limit, like saturated fat, less than 5 percent of the daily value is good. So that counts as low in saturated fat.”
There are eight grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving of tofu, which is 15 percent of our daily needs.
The sodium content is “very low” at five milligrams, or less than 1 percent of the daily value.
“Again, this is important because the typical American eats too much sodium,” says Liskov.
Of course, when you buy pre-seasoned tofu, check the nutrition label to make sure there isn’t a lot of salt added.
Tofu is also low-carb at two grams per serving. That accounts for 1 percent of your daily requirement. Most of the carbohydrate content comes from fiber.
Fiber varies from one to three grams depending on the brand.
“Foods with at least three grams of fiber are a good source of fiber,” Liskov points out.
Tofu is a good source of calcium, Liskov says. It provides 10 percent of the recommended daily value for calcium based on the average requirement of 1,300 milligrams of calcium per day.
“Foods with a daily value of 10 percent or more for a nutrient are considered good sources of that nutrient,” she says.
If you don’t consume animal products (and therefore avoid cow’s milk), you may be able to get more calcium from eating tofu.
Tofu is also a great source of iron, providing 6 percent of the Daily Value based on the average requirement of 18 milligrams per day.
Benefits of Tofu
Adding tofu to your diet has many benefits.
It is a plant-based food that is high in protein
Tofu is a great alternative for anyone on a meatless diet.
“Tofu is high in plant-based protein and is nutritionally an excellent substitute for meat,” says Newgent.
Liskov agrees. “It’s a good substitute for meat, poultry, and even fish,” she says.
It’s good for the environment
Tofu is not only good for your body, but also for the natural environment we all depend on.
That’s because it’s a less carbon-intensive source of protein than meat. Eating tofu therefore contributes less to climate change.
“As a plant-based protein food, tofu is a much greener source of protein than meats like beef and lamb, which contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Newgent.
It might help lower cholesterol levels
Newgent points to research showing that tofu’s soy isoflavones (helpful antioxidants) may help lower LDL cholesterol levels.
“It’s the ‘bad’ cholesterol,” she says. When LDL cholesterol gets too high, it can increase your risk of heart problems.
It can help improve heart health
Tofu may have cardiovascular benefits.
“Numerous studies point to the benefits of a plant-based diet in relation to reducing the risk of heart disease and also diabetes,” says Liskov.
It can reduce your risk of breast cancer
There is some research that suggests soy may be effective in keeping breast cancer at bay.
A much-cited 2020 study published in cancer researchfound that women who consumed soy products at least once a week reduced their risk of developing breast cancer by 48 to 56 percent, likely due to the isoflavones they contain.
It can help with menopausal symptoms
Newgent explains that foods made from soybeans, including tofu, contain phytoestrogens, which may play a role in curbing hot flashes and other menopause symptoms.
An analysis of 19 studies published in menopausefound that soy isoflavone supplements effectively reduced the severity of hot flashes caused by menopause by more than 26 percent.
Is there a risk in eating tofu?
While there is some confusion about the health effects of soy, the general consensus is that most people can safely consume it without any problems.
Some research has linked high soy consumption to breast cancer, but this theory is not universally accepted. And more recent studies, like one published in 2020 Plus onefound the opposite.
In fact, studies have found that breast cancer rates are lower in geographic regions where soy is a major dietary source.
Of course, if you are allergic to soy, you should avoid tofu.
through [D.Jiang]/ Getty Images
How to cook tofu
Tofu is a lot more adaptable than many people realize. “You can bake, stir fry, pan fry, air fry, simmer, sauté, broil, grill and blend,” says Newgent.
Another great thing about tofu? It’s super versatile.
“It’s a bit chameleon-like, so it takes on the flavor of what you add to it,” she says. “So don’t be shy with spices.”
Before cooking, spend some time squeezing the excess water out of the tofu. You can do this by sandwiching the tofu between layers of paper towels and placing a small weight — like a can of beans — on top. The paper towels will absorb the excess liquid in about 30 minutes.
“This will help him brown while cooking,” says Newgent.
Alternatively, if you use tofu often, you should probably get a tofu press. The device makes pressing tofu child’s play and faster.
If you want to add some crunch to your tofu, try tossing cubes of it lightly in cornstarch before cooking.
Recipes to try
There are tons of tofu recipes online, ranging from delicious puddings and blended smoothies to stir-fries, tofu tacos, and veggie burgers.
Newgent suggests starting your tofu journey with two recipes from her own cookbook:
Peanut Sprouted Tofu “Stir-Fry” Sheet Pan Dinner
This healthier take on a skillet is a once-in-a-lifetime meal that includes just a single sheet pan.
Ingredients include creamy peanut butter, tamari sauce, ginger, garlic, broccoli, red peppers, sesame oil, and super firm tofu.
Vegan hollandaise sauce
If you like Eggs Benedict but want to avoid animal products altogether, this vegan alternative with silken tofu will make you fall in love with the traditional breakfast dish all over again.
Grilled tofu steaks with a spicy strawberry ginger glaze
Swap a steak for extra firm tofu with this sweet and savory dish, perfect for summer. This recipe will show you how to grill tofu like a pro.
Next, learn about the best vegan protein sources for plant-based eaters.