Is Tofu Good for You?

    Some are concerned that its plant-based estrogens may cause problems. Here’s what the science says.

    overhead view of white bowl with tofu, snap peas, and eggplant Photo: Brett Stevens/Getty Images

    Tofu, a staple in most Asian cultures, is a plant protein made from soybeans. The average American has one serving of soy foods a week (or less), but with increasing interest in eating less meat, people are taking another look at tofu options.

    Nutritionally, it has a lot going for it, starting with protein: 6 to 22 grams per half cup depending on the type; see below. (A half-cup of chopped chicken breast has 22 grams.) Tofu has very little saturated fat and is rich in calcium and iron. And studies show that replacing some or all of the red meat you eat with plant-based proteins has benefits. For example, a 2019 review in the journal Circulation found that doing that cut total cholesterol by 10.2 mg/dL and LDL (bad) cholesterol by 7.65 mg/dL.

    Still, some people are wary. Like all soy products, tofu contains plant estrogens (phytoestrogens), and there’s been conflicting information on whether they’re helpful or harmful.

    Healthy Compounds in Tofu

    The phytoestrogens in tofu are called isoflavones. “Isoflavones and human estrogens have a very similar chemical structure, and both can bind to estrogen receptors in the body,” says Fang Fang Zhang, PhD, an associate professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Food Policy at Tufts University in Boston. That means isoflavones can act as a weaker form of human estrogen or block it, depending on where the receptors they attach to are located in the body.

    Disease Prevention

    When phytoestrogens act like estrogen, they may help protect against some conditions, including osteoporosis. But many women worry that phytoestrogens could also fuel breast cancer, especially estrogen-driven tumors. That doesn’t seem to be the case. Most studies have found that soy isoflavones may protect against cancer.

    More on Plant-Based Diets

    “In addition to having the potential to block estrogen, isoflavones can also directly inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells,” Zhang says. A recent study that looked at data from more than 6,000 women with breast cancer found that those who ate the most soy (still less than a serving a day) had a 21 percent lower risk of early death. In men, an analysis of 24 studies suggested that soy may reduce prostate cancer risk by more than half.

    And people who ate tofu more than once a week had an 18 percent lower risk of heart disease, a 2020 study published in Circulation found. Other research points toward soy having the potential to keep your brain sharp.

    The Right Types

    There are several varieties of tofu. Silken (the lowest in protein) blends easily, making it a great dairy-free base for smoothies or creamy salad dressing. Soft tofu gives you melt-in-your mouth cubes, perfect for a brothy soup. And firm or extra-firm tofu (the highest in protein) works well for grilling, baking, or stir-fries. Press firm tofu before cooking to release moisture so it holds together better. Cut it into inch-thick slabs, place it between two clean kitchen towels, and put something heavy on top. Let it sit until the towels are soaked through.

    Then you’re ready to cook. “Tofu is a blank canvas that takes on whatever flavor you give it,” says Olivia Roszkowski, a plant-centric chef at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. Try her marinated tofu: Sprinkle cubes of firm tofu with a little cornstarch (to help them crisp up). Place in a single layer on a baking sheet and pour your favorite marinade over the cubes. Bake at 400° F for 20 minutes, or until the marinade evaporates and the tofu is crisp.

    Or crumble firm tofu by hand, then sauté it as you would ground beef. Mix with spices like chili pepper and cumin for chili or tacos, add to tomato sauce for meatless Bolognese, or sauté with onion for an egg-free breakfast scramble.

    Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the June 2022 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

    Sally Wadyka

    Sally Wadyka is a freelance writer who contributes to Consumer Reports, Real Simple, Martha Stewart Living, Yoga Journal, and the Food Network on topics such as health, nutrition, and wellness.