The World's Healthiest Foods
Tofu

Although once only found in Asian food markets, this very bland food can miraculously take on the flavor of its surrounding ingredients making it a highly versatile as well as highly nutritious part of a healthy diet. Tofu can now be found in your local supermarkets throughout the year.

Discovered over 2000 years ago by the Chinese, tofu is sometimes called ‘the cheese of Asia’, because of its physical resemblance to a block of farmer’s cheese. Tofu is a highly nutritious, protein-rich food that is made from the curds of soybean milk. Off-white in color, it is usually sold in rectangular blocks. Tofu is a staple in the cuisines of many Asian countries. Tofu is its Japanese name, while in China, it is known as doufa.

 


Health Benefits

All the good news about tofu being a health-promoting food is true. Tofu is a very good source of protein, specifically soy protein, as well as numerous other nutrients necessary for good health.

Cardiovascular Benefits of Soy Protein

Research on soy protein in recent years has shown that regular intake of soy protein can help to lower total cholesterol levels by as much as 30%, lower LDL (bad cholesterol) levels by as much as 35-40%, lower triglyceride levels, reduce the tendency of platelets to form blood clots, and possibly even raise levels of HDL (good cholesterol).

All of this sounds very good to people trying to avoid atherosclerosis or diabetic heart disease. High LDL cholesterol levels can lead to a build up of cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels. If these deposits get too large or break, they can cause a heart attack or stroke. Triglycerides are a form in which fats are transported in the blood, so high triglyceride levels, which are often seen in diabetes, can also contribute to the development and growth of these dangerous cholesterol deposits and heart disease. And blood clots can be another major problem for people with heart disease, since they can precipitate a heart attack or stroke. Soy protein, however, can address all of these issues, leading to a greatly reduced risk of heart disease.

Soy for Smooth Sailing through Menopause

Soy has also been shown to be helpful in alleviating the symptoms associated with menopause. Soy foods, like tofu, contain phytoestrogens, specifically the isoflavones, genistein and diadzein. In a woman's body, these compounds can dock at estrogen receptors and act like very, very weak estrogens. During perimenopause, when a woman's estrogen fluctuates, rising to very high levels and then dropping below normal, soy's phytoestrogens can help her maintain balance, blocking out estrogen when levels rise excessively high, plus filling in for estrogen when levels are low. When women's production of natural estrogen drops at menopause, soy's isoflavones may provide just enough estrogenic activity to prevent or reduce uncomfortable symptoms, like hot flashes. The results of intervention trials suggest that soy isoflavones may also promote the resorption of bone and therefore inhibit postmenopausal osteoporosis.

Additionally, most types of tofu are enriched with calcium, which can help prevent the accelerated bone loss for which women are at risk during menopause. Calcium has also been found useful in rheumatoid arthritis, a condition in which calcium may help to reduce the bone loss that can occur as a result of this disease. Tofu is a good source of calcium. Four-ounces supply about 10% of the daily value for calcium and contain only 70-90 calories.

Rich in Minerals for Energy and Antioxidant Protection

Tofu is a very good source of iron, providing 33.8% of the DV for this important mineral in 4 ounces. Iron is primarily used as part of hemoglobin, a molecule essential to energy production since it is responsible for transporting and releasing oxygen throughout the body. But hemoglobin synthesis also relies on copper. Without copper, iron cannot be properly utilized in red blood cells. Fortunately, both minerals are supplied in tofu, which also contain 11.0% of the daily value for copper.

In addition to its role in hemoglobin synthesis, copper may be helpful in reducing the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. Copper, along with manganese (yet another trace mineral for which tofu is a very good source), is an essential cofactor of a key oxidative enzyme called superoxide dismutase. Superoxide dismutase disarms free radicals produced within the mitochondria (the energy production factories within our cells). Copper is also necessary for the activity of lysyl oxidase, an enzyme involved in cross-linking collagen and elastin, both of which provide the ground substance and flexibility in blood vessels, bones and joints. Four ounces of tofu supply 34.5% of the DV for manganese.

Want to Be "Buff"? Eat Tofu

Think a meal without meat equals a meal without protein? Think again. Four ounces of tofu provides 9.2 grams of protein, that's 18.3% of the daily value for protein, and it comes virtually free of saturated fat (less than 1 gram), and at a cost of only 86 calories.

Cardiovascular Protection from Omega-3 Fats

Fish aren't the only good source of omega-3 fatty acids. Tofu provides 14.4% of the daily value for these especially beneficial fats in just 4 ounces. Omega-3 fats have been the subject of intensive study by researchers. Omega-3 fatty acids have a broad array of health benefits. Omega-3s help prevent erratic heart rhythms, make blood less likely to clot inside arteries (which is the ultimate cause of most heart attacks), improve the ratio of good HDL to bad LDL cholesterol. And finally, by reducing inflammation, these essential fats play a role in preventing cholesterol from clogging arteries.

Selenium - An Antioxidant, Anti-Cancer, Anti-Inflammatory Trace Mineral

Several other nutrients in tofu are helpful for other conditions. For example, tofu is a good source of selenium; 4 ounces provide 14.4% of the daily value for this trace mineral. Selenium is needed for the proper function of the antioxidant system, which works to reduce the levels of damaging free radicals in the body. Selenium is a necessary cofactor of one of the body's most important internally produced antioxidants, glutathione peroxidase, and also works with vitamin E in numerous vital antioxidant systems throughout the body. These powerful antioxidant actions make selenium helpful not only against colon cancer by protecting colon cells from cancer-causing toxins, but in decreasing asthma and arthritis symptoms and in the prevention of heart disease. In addition, selenium is involved in DNA repair, yet another way in which adequate intake of this mineral is associated with a reduced risk for cancer.

Description

Tofu is a highly nutritious, protein-rich, delicious food that is made from the curds of soybean milk. Off-white in color, it is usually sold in rectangular blocks. Tofu is a staple in the cuisines of many Asian countries. Tofu is its Japanese name, while in China, it is known as doufa.

Tofu is one of the most versatile foods, serving a host of different purposes ranging from salad dressing to dessert to entrée and more. Some of its versatility is owed to its neutral taste, which gives tofu the ability to absorb the flavors of surrounding ingredients. Additionally, tofu comes in a range of consistencies that can suit a variety of different recipes. Tofu is available in either the traditional Chinese form or the silken Japanese form, with the latter having a smoother, custard-like texture. Both forms can be found in soft, firm or extra-firm textures.

The scientific name for soybean, from which tofu is made, is Glycine max.

History

Tofu originated in China about two thousand years ago. While the details of its discovery are uncertain, legend has it that it was discovered by accident when a Chinese cook added the seaweed nigari to a pot of soybean milk, causing it to curdle and producing tofu.

Tofu was introduced into Japan in the 8th century, where it was originally known as “okabe,” but was not called “tofu” until the 15th century. While serving as a traditionally made dish, tofu did not gain its great widespread popularity in Japan until the 17th century.

Tofu’s popularity in the West has mirrored the increasing interest in healthier foods. First gaining more widespread attention during the 1960s, tofu has been skyrocketing in popularity ever since research has begun to reveal the many, significant benefits this nutrient-dense, plant-based food can provide.

How to Select and Store

How to Enjoy

For some of our favorite recipes, click Recipes.

A Few Quick Serving Ideas:

Blend together soft tofu, olive oil, garlic and lemon juice to make a tofu aoli dip.

Scramble soft tofu together with your favorite vegetables and turmeric to give it a yellow "egg-like" coloring. This delicious dish can be served as is or can be used as the basis for "tofu rancheros" by being wrapped in a tortilla and served with black beans and salsa.

Healthy Stir-Fry firm tofu with your favorite vegetables and seasonings.

Blend soft tofu with your favorite fruits (and cane sugar or honey to taste) in a blender or food processor and serve for breakfast or dessert.

Add cubes of tofu to miso soup.

Safety

Tofu and Goitrogens

Tofu contains goitrogens, naturally-occurring substances in certain foods that can interfere with the functioning of the thyroid gland. Individuals with already existing and untreated thyroid problems may want to avoid tofu for this reason. Cooking may help to inactivate the goitrogenic compounds found in tofu.

Tofu and Oxalates

Tofu is among a small number of foods that contain any measurable amount of oxalates, naturally-occurring substances found in plants, animals, and human beings. When oxalates become too concentrated in body fluids, they can crystallize and cause health problems. For this reason, individuals with already existing and untreated kidney or gallbladder problems may want to avoid eating tofu. Oxalates may also interfere with absorption of calcium from the body. For this reason, individuals trying to increase their calcium stores may want to avoid tofu, or if taking calcium supplements, may want to eat tofu 2-3 hours before or after taking their supplements.

Tofu and Food Allergy

Although allergic reactions can occur to virtually any food, research studies on food allergy consistently report more problems with some foods than with others. Common symptoms associated with an allergic reaction to food include: chronic gastrointestinal disturbances; frequent infections, e.g. ear infections, bladder infections, bed-wetting; asthma, sinusitis; eczema, skin rash, acne, hives; bursitis, joint pain; fatigue, headache, migraine; hyperactivity, depression, insomnia.

Individuals who suspect food allergy to be an underlying factor in their health problems may want to avoid commonly allergenic foods. Soybeans and products like tofu that are made from them are among the foods most commonly associated with allergic reactions. Other foods commonly associated with allergic reactions include: cow’s milk, wheat, eggs, beef, oranges, corn, pork, chicken, peanuts, yeast, strawberry, tomato, and spinach. These foods do not need to be eaten in their pure, isolated form in order to trigger an adverse reaction. For example, yogurt made from cow’s milk is also a common allergenic food, even though the cow’s milk has been processed and fermented in order to make the yogurt. Ice cream made from cow’s milk would be an equally good example.

Nutritional Profile

Introduction to Food Rating System Chart

The following chart shows the nutrients for which this food is either an excellent, very good or good source. Next to the nutrient name you will find the following information: the amount of the nutrient that is included in the noted serving of this food; the %Daily Value (DV) that that amount represents (similar to other information presented in the website, this DV is calculated for 25-50 year old healthy woman); the nutrient density rating; and, the food's World's Healthiest Foods Rating. Underneath the chart is a table that summarizes how the ratings were devised. For more detailed information on our Food and Recipe Rating System, please click here.

 

Tofu, Raw
4.00 oz-wt
86.18 calories
Nutrient Amount DV
(%)
Nutrient
Density
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
tryptophan 0.14 g 43.8 9.1 excellent
manganese 0.69 mg 34.5 7.2 very good
iron 6.08 mg 33.8 7.1 very good
protein 9.16 g 18.3 3.8 very good
selenium 10.09 mcg 14.4 3.0 good
omega 3 fatty acids 0.36 g 14.4 3.0 good
phosphorus 110.00 mg 11.0 2.3 good
copper 0.22 mg 11.0 2.3 good
calcium 100.00 mg 10.0 2.1 good
magnesium 34.02 mg 8.5 1.8 good
World's Healthiest
Foods Rating
Rule
excellent DV>=75% OR Density>=7.6 AND DV>=10%
very good DV>=50% OR Density>=3.4 AND DV>=5%
good DV>=25% OR Density>=1.5 AND DV>=2.5%

References

  • Ensminger AH, Esminger M. K. J. e. al. Food for Health: A Nutrition Encyclopedia. Clovis, California: Pegus Press; 1986.
  • Fortin, Francois, Editorial Director. The Visual Foods Encyclopedia. Macmillan, New York.
  • Kritz-Silverstein D, Goodman-Gruen DL. Usual dietary isoflavone intake, bone mineral density, and bone metabolism in postmenopausal women. J Womens Health Gend Based Med 2002 Jan-Feb;11(1):69-78.
  • Wood, Rebecca. The Whole Foods Encyclopedia. New York, NY: Prentice-Hall Press; 1988.
  • Yamori Y, Moriguchi EH, Teramoto T et al. Soybean isoflavones reduce postmenopausal bone resorption in female Japanese immigrants in Brazil: a ten-week study. J Am Coll Nutr 2002 Dec;21(6):560-3.

This page was updated on: 2004-11-20 20:27:04
© 2002 The George Mateljan Foundation