Tofu is a popular, 2,000-year-old vegetarian staple with a wide range of health benefits. But there are still some common myths and misconceptions about tofu production, consumption, and nutrition that need clarification. Here is everything you need to know about tofu nutrition, tofu production, and tofu’s impact on the environment.
Myth #1: Is Tofu Bad for the Environment?
Tofu is made from soybeans. Soy production causes a significant amount of deforestation, including ecologically diverse rainforest regions in South America. Amazon rainforest deforestation, in particular, negatively impacts indigenous people as their land is targeted—notably by Brazilian president Jair Bolsanaro, who transferred regulation and creation of new indigenous reserves in 2019 to the agriculture industry, effectively handing control over to the agribusiness lobby. Farming in the Amazon also destroys rare and unique flora and fauna and contributes to global warming through carbon emissions. But tofu is not the main perpetrator of Amazon deforestation.
Human food production uses six percent of globally produced soy, while 70 percent is fed to livestock in the meat and dairy industries. Beef production itself is a leading cause of Amazon deforestation. Cattle farming has even been linked to 2019’s devastating rainforest fires.
Studies show that adopting a vegan or plant-based diet drastically reduces an individual’s carbon footprint. Oxford University researchers found that cutting out meat and dairy could lead to a 73 percent reduction per person. While “vegan” doesn’t necessarily equate to “sustainable,” soy-related deforestation is overwhelmingly caused by the meat industry—whether you eat tofu or animals.
Myth #2: Does Tofu Have Enough Protein?
Tofu is low in fat and high in protein per calorie. A typical 100-calorie portion of unfermented tofu contains approximately 11 grams of protein, whereas a 100-calorie portion of conventional ground beef contains just 8.9 grams of protein.
This makes tofu a popular choice for people attempting to maximize their plant-based protein consumption or while monitoring their overall caloric intake. Extra-firm tofu is typically the highest in protein, while soft and silken tofu contain marginally less than the firmer options.
Soybeans themselves are a complete protein and contain all the essential amino acids required for a healthy diet. One-hundred grams of tofu also contains around 5.4 grams of iron, as well as 350 mg of calcium. It is also a good source of magnesium and phosphorus.
Myth #3: Is All Tofu Genetically Modified?
According to the FDA, 94 percent of all seeds planted in the U.S. in 2018 were GMO. While much of the global soy yield is GMO, there is little concrete evidence to suggest that genetically modified foods are harmful to humans who consume them. But the subject remains contentious, and some people opt out of consuming GMO products where possible.
Fortunately, non-GMO soy products are widely available, including many clearly labeled varieties of soya milk, tempeh, and tofu. Some of the most popular mainstream brands—such as Cauldron, Clearspot, and The Tofoo Co. in the UK—are certified Organic, and clearly labeled. So while a significant proportion of global soy production is GMO, there are plenty of tofu options for those that want to avoid modified foods.
Myth #4: Does Tofu Cause Hormonal Imbalances?
Soy contains a high concentration of isoflavones, which are a type of plant estrogen. While similar in function to human estrogen, isoflavone has much weaker effects. Because of this, there has been some concern that significant soy consumption may impact effective thyroid function. However, a growing body of research indicates that this is not the case.
According to a study published by the National Center for Biotechnology Information and Pub Med, even adults with compromised thyroid function need not avoid soy products. But it did find that soy-food consumers must “make sure their intake of iodine is adequate” to ensure effective absorption.
Tofu’s isoflavone content has also caused speculation about altered sex hormones, in particular, lowered testosterone. But research generally indicates that neither soy protein nor isoflavone supplements negatively impact people’s testosterone levels.
A recent study “found no difference” between those who ate meat and those who followed a plant-based diet, and indicated that soy consumption does not negatively impact either fertility or puberty.
However, isoflavones can be effectively used as an alternative treatment for menopausal symptoms. Some studies have shown that there is a correlation between countries that consume soy products regularly and reduced menopausal VMS symptoms such as hot flashes. Additional research indicates that soy isoflavones can also support improved heart and bone health in post-menopausal people.
Myth #5: Can Tofu Increase Cancer Risk?
Tofu’s isoflavone content has also prompted concern that excessive consumption may increase the risk of certain cancers, particularly breast cancer. However, studies show that a lifelong diet that includes plenty of soy-based foods may actually reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Several studies also indicate that soy products may also decrease the risk of prostate and ovarian cancers. The Japan Collaborative Cohort Study—which included 64,327 women—found that high levels of tofu consumption could help protect against ovarian cancer.
In Asian countries where soy consumption is particularly high, there are reportedly fewer cases of breast and bowel cancer, osteoporosis, and heart problems when compared to Western countries.
A 2012 study reported that higher consumption of soy may be linked with a 30 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer in Asian women. Another study, published in 2014, found that soy consumption did not impact breast cancer risk in western women either positively or negatively.
According to registered dietician Rachael Link, MS, RD, “the difference may be due to the different types of soy eaten in the Asian diet compared to the western diet. Soy is typically consumed whole or fermented in Asian diets, whereas in western countries, soy is mostly processed or in supplement form.”
Myth #6: Does Tofu Cause Bloating?
Soy products such as tofu can cause bloating in people who are sensitive or allergic to soybeans. In general, stomach pains following the consumption of tofu and soy products are most likely related to an allergy. According to the Mayo Clinic, a soy allergy is fairly common and can be extremely serious.
But for those without a sensitivity to soy, tofu is actually naturally low in FODMAPs, which can be useful in bloating-reduction for those on restricted diets for IBS. A low-FODMAP diet can significantly reduce the group of acceptable proteins, and tofu is a useful ingredient for low-FODMAP vegans.
In general, fermented soy products—such as Indonesian tempeh or Chinese fermented tofu—can be easier to digest than processed tofu. The enzymes created by fermentation make proteins and fat easier for your body to absorb. Tempeh is even higher in protein than classic tofu and is less processed overall due to the traditional fermentation processes.