Unveiling the Truth about Tofu’s Impact on Health

Image of soybeans and blocks of tofu for the is tofu healthy post by The Healthy RD
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Tofu is commonly thought of as a healthy food. But, is this true?

Let’s take a look at this very popular plant-based protein in depth to help you make an informed decision about this food that has evolved a lot over the years. 

Tofu Health Claims

If you look at most websites today, tofu and other plant-based proteins get applauded because they are supposedly good for heart health and lower the risk of many diseases. 

According to the American Heart Association, tofu is a heart-healthy food that is associated with slightly lower rates of cardiovascular disease.  Soy foods like tofu have been linked with a reduced risk of breast cancer too. 

Its heart health benefits are thought to be related to the soy isoflavones that are found in soy foods like tofu. 

But, if you take a look at the research data with a fine-toothed comb, the benefits aren’t all that clear.  Additionally, our food supply has changed since the cited research data has been collected. 

The benefits of tofu, at most, are modest when looking at the data with a best-case-scenario approach. A similar reduction in heart disease risk is seen for people eating fish regularly, with a 15% reduction in heart disease death risk. 

Most of the data on tofu is based on studies like the Nurses Health Study, where people were asked about the diets they ate in high school back in the 1980s or before.  

Can you remember what you ate in high school let alone last week? 

How can someone remember accurately what they ate in high school that far back?  

My point is, that these long-term studies are fraught with major errors. 

This is because soy-derived food has drastically changed in quality since these studies have been done.

We need to take a closer look at that next.

Chemicals Used to Make Tofu

In 1996, the first genetically modified soybean (GMO soybeans) hit the market and our plates. 

Regardless of what you think about GMO crops, the fact is that this modification created a huge increase in the amount of chemicals that are used on soybeans. 

In fact, the introduction of GMO soybeans has increased the amount of glyphosate (Roundup) by thousands of tons per year in our food supply. 

Tofu is no exception. If you eat conventional tofu today, you are guaranteed to be eating a mouthful of chemicals. Research shows that there is a shocking level of 9 mg per kilogram of glyphosate in soy products

This devastating chemical isn’t just bad for you. It is bad for the soil, for insects, and for the whole environment. 

The research indicating that tofu is healthy is based almost exclusively on research that collected data before GMO soybean crops were introduced to our food supply. 

Sadly, the long-term devastation of all of these chemicals put on foods like tofu may never be known. 

But, if you do want to eat tofu, the only way to avoid heavy chemical use is to choose USDA organically-grown tofu. 

Still, if an organic crop is near a conventional crop, it often gets crop drift from chemical spray. 

Is Tofu a Good Source of Protein?

Tofu is unquestionably an important source of protein for many people on a vegetarian or vegan diet. 

However, is this protein source a healthy protein or a complete protein? 

Tofu has a protein digestibility score of 0.64 compared to an egg, which is 1.0. This means that you digest about 64% of the protein in tofu compared to all of the protein in an egg. 

You would have to eat about 1.3 times the amount of tofu protein as you would an egg to get the equivalent amount of quality protein that an egg has despite what the protein content on the label says. 

The protein quality score of tofu (PDCAA) is at 0.79. While technically a complete protein with all 9 essential amino acids, tofu is low in lysine.  Lysine is an essential amino acid.  

Tofu is also low in other amino acids like methionine and taurine. 

To answer if soy is a good source of protein, it isn’t exactly the best.  All animal proteins like grass-fed beef, eggs, chicken, and others are higher-quality proteins. 

However, it beats other plant-based sources of protein, such as chia, grains, black beans, nuts, and seeds for protein quality. 

One more caveat: tofu contains trypsin inhibitors, which interfere with our ability to absorb the protein in soy products like tofu. 

Another issue with the absorption of protein from tofu is that the curd-making process of tofu causes more amino acids to be lost in the small intestine. For this reason, tofu is even absorbed more poorly than the protein in soy milk. 

What About Other Nutrients in Tofu?

Tofu contains moderate amounts of vitamins and minerals including zinc, iron, potassium, and magnesium.

Tofu per 100 grams contains:

  • 2.6 mg iron
  • 1.6 mg zinc
  • 58 mg magnesium
  • 237 mg potassium

However, the presence of anti-nutrients including lectins, phytates, and phytoestrogens significantly reduces the ability of the body to absorb these nutrients. 

There is some concern that tofu and other soy foods may also harm the thyroid. This may be true in iodine-deficient people.  

Sadly iodine deficiency is a silent epidemic and goes unnoticed by healthcare providers most of the time. 

Is Tofu Low-Calorie?

The best way to compare tofu in terms of its ability to cause weight loss or weight gain is to compare it to other protein foods. 

Per half cup:

Tofu

  • 181 calories
  • 22 grams protein (64% absorbable)
  • 11 grams fat

Shrimp

  • 104 calories
  • 20 grams protein (100% absorbable)
  • 1.7 grams fat

Eggs

  • 183 calories
  • 12 grams protein (100% absorbable)
  • 13 grams fat

Shrimp turns out to be a lower calorie option that also contains healthier fats like omega 3 fatty acids than tofu does. 

Eggs are also a similar choice but also provide brain-boosting nutrients like choline. 

Is Eating Tofu Better for the Environment than Other Protein?

It is hard to know the answer to this question because plant-based foods generally are greenwashed by the media and search engines. 

However, consider that thousands of tons of chemicals are added into the environment due to soy-based crops leading to the production of tofu. These chemicals greatly damage biodiversity, are likely to increase cancer risk and harm the soil while reducing soil water retention. 

Astonishingly, 98% of all soy crops use heavy chemicals in their production which harm the environment.

Remember, you also need to eat considerably more tofu to get the same amount of protein that you would get if you simply ate an egg. The increased agricultural inputs for all this extra soy eaten can’t be ignored. 

Tofu isn’t going to save the earth, in other words. 

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