You might have seen the uncertainty in a consumer’s face when they hear the term “Tofu”.
Now, what is tofu?
Is it an alienated block of cheese that no one wants to take home? Perhaps a close relative of cottage cheese?
Maybe it’s an underrated segment of a vegan’s diet. Whatever comes to your mind when you hear the completely harmless four-letter word, we know how to help you establish a healthier relationship with tofu, a nutritious dairy alternative.
What is Tofu?
Originating from the mistake of a Chinese cook, tofu, also known as bean curd, is a dairy product that was unintentionally discovered over two thousand years ago when a cook accidentally mixed fresh soy milk with nigari.
Nigari is a mineral-rich coagulant that is used in the process of making tofu, along with the addition of water and condensed soy milk.
Specifically, tofu is made by curdling soy milk derived from soybeans and shaping those curds into soft, white blocks.
These blocks come in different textures including soft, firm and extra-firm. The formation process is similar to that of cheese-making, which is why many might mistake tofu for a type of cheese.
Though not used often by multiple cultures, tofu is famous in Thai and Chinese cuisine because of its many health benefits. It contains all 9 essential amino acids, making it an excellent source of protein.
Tofu contains a variety of minerals such as iron, copper, zinc, calcium, manganese, selenium and phosphorus.
Vitamin B1 is also abundant in this soft delight. In terms of overall health, tofu helps lower levels of bad cholesterol, also known as LDL (low-density lipoprotein), thus reducing the risk of heart diseases.
Only half-cup of tofu contains 10 grams of protein for only 88 calories!
For those unfamiliar with tofu, cooking and incorporating it in meals may require a guide.
In grocery stores, it can be found dehydrated, freeze-dried, jarred or canned, but it is better to buy tofu with a shortlist of ingredients, preferably containing soybeans, water, coagulants such as calcium sulfate and some seasoning.
The four major types are silken, medium, firm, and extra-firm. These all have different purposes and their distinct characteristics.
Silken tofu is suitable for creamy and blended foods like smoothies, salad dressings, and sauces. On the other hand, medium tofu is well adjusted with simmered soups such as miso because of its delicate texture, while firm tofu is good at absorbing flavor and can be pan-fried and stir-fried.
Finally, extra-firm tofu is the ideal and most versatile out of all of them as it can maintain its shape well to facilitate slicing and cubing. Pan-frying, stir-frying, grilling, baking, and scrambling can all work with this kind of tofu.
Is tofu Vegan?
If vegans are those who do not consume any dairy products derived from animals such as milk, cheese, and eggs, then tofu is vegan as it is a plant-based source of protein.
Soy milk that is a staple ingredient of tofu is famous for being an excellent alternative for vegans as it easily replaces meat rich in iron and is solely made from pressing ground, cooked soybeans.
Moreover, the Chinese population has been cultivating soybeans throughout generations in cafes and street vendors so much that they now have an international impact on the food industry.
Tofu made its way into Japan by the sixth century while Europe was introduced to soybean products by the seventeenth century.
Later on, American grocery stores started selling water-filled and heat-sealed tofu cakes in the late 1950s. Surprisingly, by 1986, tofu was known to be America’s most loathed food because of its bland taste.
Fortunately, it has finally gained more popularity across the globe as more and more vegetarians and vegans begin to accept it as a nutritious addition to their meal plans.
To be specific, the possibilities of tofu dishes are endless simply because of its neutral taste and versatile nature.
For example, instead of scrambled eggs, vegans eat scrambled tofu for breakfast which automatically replaces the normal morning egg intake.
While one large boiled egg has 6 grams of protein, a half-cup of raw firm tofu has 10 grams! Baked or fried tofu is commonly used in salads to boost protein levels and add that extra softness.
Not only that, tofu sandwiches, rolls, and stir-fries are also a thing, filled with crunchy greens and creamy sauces!
How Much Tofu is Safe for You?
Now, this is the point of interest for those that are normally against the daily intake of tofu.
Ideally, up to 1 to 2 servings of soy foods, a day is the moderate amount one should consume, according to a recent research review on the American Institute of Cancer Research.
One serving is approximately 150 grams and an example of two servings for a single day would be 120 grams of tofu and a cup of soy milk.
Just like any other food, too much of anything, including nutritious foods, can be dangerous.
While tofu has its pros, excessive eating can lead to hormonal imbalances, excess uric acid, difficulties with protein digestion, as well as some mineral deficiencies.
A Bangalore-based nutritionist, Dr. Anju Sood, advises against too much tofu as it can cause the accumulation of uric acid in the lower part of the abdomen, leading to gout.
Dr. Anju has also stated that tofu contains protein inhibitors which need to be destroyed for protein to be absorbed effectively.
Comparatively, macrobiotic nutritionist, Shilpa Arora, states that tofu contains phytates that interfere with the absorption of essential nutrients like iodine which is crucial for proper metabolism and thyroid function.
Furthermore, tofu also has a bad reputation due to the presence of isoflavones, a type of plant estrogen that is known to raise levels of estrogen in the blood, thus increasing the risk of breast cancer.
All in all, to implement a better lifestyle, any soy foods should be eaten in moderate quantities to lower risk factors associated with high soy consumption.
In conclusion, the production of tofu in the food industry has plummeted, proving itself to be an excellent complementary sidekick to various grains, vegetables, and meat, but it has also provoked controversy in some regions of the world, especially since 94% of soybeans in the US are genetically-modified.
Debates aside, the sky's the limit when it comes to cooking tofu as it can be paired with a scrumptious beef stir fry, added to a light meal of red lentil and tofu curry, or freshly baked and garnished with spices while rolling in a heap of leafy greens.
The opportunities for both non-vegetarians and vegetarians are plenty!