Tofu, aka soybean or bean curd, is a great source of protein and is considered a staple in many vegan and vegetarian diets. However, soybeans (its main ingredient) can also be genetically modified, and is therefore ruled out of diets like paleo and whole30. So is tofu healthy, or does it pose a greater risk? Let’s explore.
What is tofu?
Established as a crop in the United States in the 1920s, soybeans weren’t truly grown and eaten until World War II when the usual fats and oils that were imported were no longer coming into the country. But tofu has been around in other countries for far longer, including Japan, where it’s a dietary staple on the island of Okinawa.
“The traditional Okinawan diet provided among the world’s largest intake of tofu, and Okinawans not only have lived the longest—with the least disability—but have had among the lowest heart disease, breast, prostate and colon cancer and dementia rates in the world,” Dr. Bradley Willcox, principal investigator with the Okinawa Centenarian Study, told TIME.
What are the benefits?
Made from the crushed curd of soybeans, tofu is a great source of protein, fiber, iron and calcium, as well as being low in fat and cholesterol free. Tofu easily absorbs marinades and spices and is available in two main types—soft or silken, and firm or regular. Soft tofu works well in smoothies and desserts, while firm is what you want for soups and stir-fries.
So, what’s bad about it?
Soy doesn’t have the greatest reputation, no matter how it’s being consumed, whether in milk, tempeh or tofu. That’s because it contains phytoestrogen plant compounds. These compounds can act like estrogen in the body and estrogen is strongly associated with breast cancer. That’s why many women opt out of eating a soy-heavy diet as they enter menopause, when the body’s estrogen levels drop. But, some studies show that a soy-rich diet can have protective effects against breast cancer, especially when it’s consumed in moderation starting at an early age.
Soy that is genetically modified is bred to resist herbicides (which is about 93% of all soy produced), and while there’s no real evidence yet that GMOs can cause you harm, organic soy that hasn’t been genetically altered is available on the market.
Soy is in a lot of processed foods, so like with any healthy diet, try to avoid anything that’s overly processed, and stick with whole food sources when incorporating tofu into your diet with recipes like asparagus stir-fry and vegetable pad thai, filled with veggies and whole grains.
What’s the verdict?
Well…there isn’t one. While studies have examined all of the above, a solid conclusion hasn’t been made yet. For most of us, eating tofu in moderation isn’t going to be harmful. If you have an increased risk for breast cancer, it would be a good idea to talk with your physician before making soy foods a big part of your diet. If GMOs aren’t your thing, you can absolutely get organic tofu to cook at home, but when dining out, ask before ordering.