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Health benefits of tofu: Nutritional value and beyond

Health benefits of tofu: Nutritional value and beyond Health benefits of tofu (Photo:

Tofu cheese is available in many stores. Nutritionist Oleh Shvets discusses the benefits of adding tofu to your diet.

What to know about tofu

Tofu originates from China and is made from condensed soy milk, which is pressed into solid white blocks using a process similar to cheese production. To firm up the product and maintain its shape, a mineral-rich coagulant called nigari (magnesium chloride) is typically used, which remains after extracting salt from seawater.

Tofu can be made from genetically modified soybeans. If you are concerned about GMOs, choose organic versions of the product, which are also available.

Nutrients in tofu

Tofu has a high protein content, essential amino acids, beneficial fats, carbohydrates, and a wide range of vitamins and minerals. 100 grams of firm tofu fortified with calcium contains 144 calories, 17 grams of protein, 3 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams of fiber, 9 grams of fat, 53% of the recommended daily intake of calcium, 51% of manganese, 42% of copper, 32% of selenium, 18% of vitamin A, 15% of phosphorus and iron, 14% of magnesium and zinc.

The nutrient content of tofu varies depending on the type of coagulant used in its production. For example, tofu made with nigari contains slightly more fat and potassium but less protein, fiber, and calcium compared to calcium-enriched tofu.

Like most plant-based foods, tofu contains antinutrients that reduce the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food.

Two types of antinutrients present in tofu are:

Phytates: These compounds can reduce the absorption of minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron.

Trypsin inhibitors: They block trypsin, an enzyme necessary for proper protein digestion. This can cause digestive upset and abdominal pain and reduce the absorption of certain minerals.

The impact of antinutrients is minimal in a varied and nutrient-rich diet. However, these compounds can complicate meeting nutritional needs in a monotonous and limited diet.

Soaking, boiling, or sprouting soybeans helps reduce the content of antinutrients. Specifically, sprouting soybeans before making tofu reduces phytate content by 56% and trypsin inhibitors by 81% while increasing protein content by 13%. Fermentation also reduces their content. For this reason, the nutrients contained in fermented probiotic soy products like miso, tempeh, tamari, and natto are easier to absorb.

In some cases, antinutrients may even have some health benefits. For example, phytates act as natural iron regulators, protecting against excessive iron absorption from animal-derived foods.

Why is tofu so beneficial?

Soybeans contain natural plant compounds called isoflavones. They function as phytoestrogens, meaning they can attach to estrogen receptors and activate them. In some cases, isoflavones behave like estrogen, although their action is somewhat weaker.

One gram of soy protein contains about 3.5 milligrams of isoflavones. A 100-gram serving of calcium-fortified firm tofu contains about 60 mg of soy isoflavones, and a glass (240 ml) of soy milk contains about 28 mg.

Many health benefits of tofu, including reduced risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease, are associated with high levels of isoflavones. However, there is widespread concern that isoflavones in tofu may increase the risk of cancer, especially in postmenopausal individuals. However, a review of relevant studies conducted in 2015 by the European Food Safety Authority showed that isoflavones do not increase the risk of breast, thyroid, or uterine cancer in this population group.

Soy products like tofu are known for lowering cholesterol levels. According to recent reviews, soy protein can reduce LDL (harmful) cholesterol levels by 3-4% and lower total cholesterol levels.

Experts believe that tofu's combination of fiber, protein, and isoflavones promotes heart health. This specific combination may also explain why whole soy products like tofu are more beneficial for lowering cholesterol levels than soy supplements. According to some studies, soy isoflavones also help reduce blood pressure.

Cancer prevention

A 2019 review shows that women who eat a rich soy diet have a 16% lower chance of dying after a cancer diagnosis than those who eat little soy. Furthermore, postmenopausal women who consume soy have a 28% lower risk of breast cancer recurrence after remission. Another study shows that women both before and after menopause who consume soy have a 27% lower risk of cancer (this applies to women from Asia).

The protective effects of tofu are not definitively confirmed, but the results of some studies indicate a protective effect of consuming the product. For example, according to a review, women who regularly eat tofu have a 32% lower chance of developing breast cancer. Additionally, consuming an extra 10 grams of tofu reduces the risk of breast cancer by 10%.

A diet rich in soy also reduces the risk of other types of cancer, including endometrial, colon, stomach, and prostate cancer. For example, a review of 23 studies linked soy-rich diets to a 10% lower risk of death from cancer, especially stomach, colon, and lung cancer. Another review of 13 studies associated high consumption of soy isoflavones with a 19% reduction in endometrial cancer risk. Studies also show that a soy-rich diet reduces the risk of colon cancer by 7% and colorectal or rectal cancer by 8-12%, especially in women. People who regularly eat soy-based foods like tofu have a significantly lower risk of bladder cancer. Experts believe it is best to consume small portions of soy-rich products but more frequently.

Other health benefits

Thanks to its high content of isoflavones, tofu has additional health benefits:

  • Stronger bones: recent reviews show that soy isoflavones help reduce bone loss or increase bone mineral density.
  • Improved brain function: soy isoflavones enhance memory, attention, processing speed, and overall brain function in some—but not all—adults.
  • Reduced menopausal symptoms: soy isoflavones decrease fatigue, disturbances, and mood changes.
  • Antidepressant effect: research conducted on pregnant women shows that consuming an average of 50 grams of tofu per day reduces the risk of developing depression during pregnancy by up to 28%.

Although these results are promising, additional research is needed.

Who Shouldn't Eat Tofu?

Consuming tofu and other soy products daily is considered safe. However, they are not recommended if you have:

  • Breast tumors: due to tofu's weak estrogen-stimulating effect, it is considered advisable for people with estrogen-sensitive breast tumors to limit soy intake.
  • Thyroid problems: some experts also advise individuals with thyroid dysfunction to avoid tofu due to its goitrogenic substances.

However, according to the European Food Safety Authority's conclusions, soy and the isoflavones it contains do not affect thyroid function or breast or uterine cancer. They also do not affect testosterone levels in men, regardless of the amount of soy they consume.

Several studies have examined the long-term impact of soy on children's health. According to available data, the amount of soy a child consumes does not negatively affect their hormones or impact puberty development. Instead, some studies indicate that consuming soy in childhood or adolescence may protect against breast cancer in adulthood.

Storage terms for tofu

Tofu comes in various consistencies (soft, silken, and firm), dried, smoked, and with spices. Additionally, you can make your own tofu using whole soybeans, lemon juice, and water.

Most tofu options available in stores contain relatively few ingredients—usually soybeans, water, additional seasonings, and coagulants like calcium sulfate, magnesium chloride, or delta-gluconolactone.

After unpacking, tofu can be stored in the refrigerator for up to one week. It can also be frozen in its original packaging for up to 5 months. Be sure to rinse tofu blocks before consumption.

Due to its neutral taste, tofu is a versatile addition to many dishes, including smoothies, soups, sauces, and even desserts. With its high protein content and isoflavones, it makes an excellent complement to a balanced diet.

Earlier, the nutritionist called the porridge of youth and longevity.

This material is for informational purposes only and should not be used for medical diagnosis or self-treatment. Our goal is to provide readers with accurate information about symptoms, causes, and methods of detecting diseases. RBС-Ukraine is not responsible for any diagnoses that readers may make based on materials from the resource. We do not recommend self-treatment and advise consulting a doctor in case of any health concerns.