If you are trying out a vegan, plant-based diet you may be wondering… is tofu vegan? Well, lucky for you, tofu is a delicious and vegan source of protein. It’s a common food in the diet of many Asian countries and is very nutritious as well.
What makes a food vegan?
Firstly, it’s important to note that the term “vegan” accompasses a whole lifestyle as opposed to just a vegan diet. A vegan is someone who consumes no animal products (like meat, dairy, eggs or seafood) and also someone who abstains from using animal products (like leather, pearls).
If you are vegan, you follow a plant-based diet that includes absolutely no animal products. This would even include foods like honey which come from honeybees.
In order for a food to be vegan, it needs to be derived from only plant-based ingredients. This includes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, grains and herbs and spices.
Examples of vegan or plant-based foods include tofu, agave nectar, olive oil, whole wheat bread, almond milk, soy sauce, ketchup, corn tortillas and peanut butter.
What is tofu made of?
The ingredients in tofu may vary slightly depending on the cooking method. But regardless of the method, the base of tofu will always be soybeans.
To make tofu, the soybeans are boiled and blended. Then, the soy milk and solid pulp are separated. Coagulants are added to the soy milk (usually calcium sulfate and/or magnesium chloride), to separate the whey from the curds.
Then, the soy milk is poured into molds and pressed to release the whey. The resulting mass of curds is the tofu. This vegan food can be cooked in various ways or eaten raw. You can also store it in water to use for later.
Types of tofu
There are a variety of tofu products you can purchase, typically categorized based on firmness. These varieties include: silken tofu (soft tofu), regular tofu, firm tofu, extra-firm tofu and super-firm tofu.
Each type of tofu has different textures and are used in different dishes. For example, silken tofu is great to consume raw or in kimchi jjigae. Extra-firm tofu or super-firm tofu work well as meat substitutes in a variety of dishes.
To make your tofu even more dense and meat-like, try freezing your tofu overnight, then defrosting it in the refrigerator. This will give it a firmer texture that works very well when using tofu as a meat replacement.
How to press tofu
Pressing your tofu can be a great way to increase the firmness of your block of tofu. This makes it so your tofu doesn’t fall apart in the cooking process.
Luckily, you don’t need a fancy tofu press to press your tofu. This method is very simple and can be achieved using materials you probably already have at home.
First, wrap your tofu in paper towels or a clean hand towel. Place on a cutting board and place another cutting board on top. Then, place a few heavy objects on top of the cutting board such as books or a bowl of fruit. Press for about 30 minutes to an hour.
Moisture will start to seep out of your tofu, resulting in the paper towels or hand towel becoming drenched. You may need to replace your towels halfway through the pressing process to remove as much moisture as possible.
Where to find tofu
Nowadays you can find tofu at most grocery stores. You may need to venture into the international foods aisle or in the refrigerated section. If you can’t find tofu in your local grocery store, you can always go to an asian grocery store or order tofu online.
Here are a few online options where you can find tofu:
Tofu nutrition facts
Tofu is a very nutrient dense food and a good source of protein. Four ounces of extra firm tofu (about ⅓ of a block of tofu) contains about 125 calories, 15 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of fat. This is about the same amount of protein as two ounces of meat.
Tofu is a complete protein, meaning it contains all essential amino acids. Despite the common belief that only animal-based proteins are complete proteins, this isn’t true. Most plant foods are complete proteins, they just may contain small amounts of certain amino acids. Tofu is unique because it contains high amounts of every essential amino acid.
Tofu is also low in saturated fat compared to animal products. Four ounces of extra-firm tofu contains only 1.4 grams of saturated fat. As a comparison, two ounces of 85% lean ground beef contains 3.1 grams of saturated fat for about the same amount of calories.
It is recommended to reduce your saturated fat intake to less than 10% of your daily calories. For someone consuming 2000 calories per day, this is around 22 grams of saturated fat daily.
Health benefits of tofu
Some people avoid tofu because they believe it will negatively impact their hormones due to soy containing phytoestrogens. This belief has not been supported through the research. Soy does not seem to have an impact on hormone levels in men.
In fact, soy seems to have a positive effect on breast cancer risk. A study looking at over 300,000 Chinese women showed that soy intake was inversely associated with breast cancer. This means that breast cancer risk was reduced as soy consumption increased.
Soy has also been shown to have a neutral effect on thyroid function. A meta-analysis of 18 studies showed that soy supplementation has no effect on thyroid hormones.
Along with this, soy has been shown to reduce LDL cholesterol levels and risk of heart disease as well as lower risk of colorectal cancer.
Soy has been shown to be just as effective as animal protein when it comes to muscle mass gain and strength. There is also some evidence to suggest that soy isoflavones can help increase bone density.
Overall, consuming tofu as well as other soy products like natto, soymilk, edamame and miso are a great way to improve your health, especially when used as a replacement for animal protein.
History of tofu
The origins of tofu go back thousands of years, though the exact date is debated. We do know that tofu originated in China, though the word “tofu” is Japanese. Although there are multiple theories as to how tofu was created, the most common theory was that tofu was accidentally created when unrefined sea salt was added to a pureed soybean soup, resulting in curds being formed.
Since then, tofu has become an integral part of the diet of multiple asian countries and is frequently consumed in western countries as well. It’s included in traditional cuisine in multiple parts of Asia, including China, Japan and Korea.
As more Asian immigrants came to the United States, tofu started to become more and more popular. Tofu shops began popping up in the early 1900s, mostly on the West Coast. Today, tofu is available at most grocery stores across the country.
Who should avoid tofu?
Although I wish everyone could enjoy the taste and health benefits of tofu, there are some who need to avoid tofu for health reasons.
Most obviously, those who have a soy allergy must completely avoid tofu and other soy products. Consuming tofu could lead to a potentially life threatening reaction. It’s also important to avoid cross contamination with tofu or soy products, as even small amounts can cause a reaction.
Also, if you have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) you may need to avoid or limit your tofu consumption. Tofu, especially silken tofu, can be high in FODMAPs, meaning they could cause gastrointestinal discomfort for those who are sensitive.
There is some concern about the effect of soy on autoimmune diseases such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis. Despite the concerns, there is no strong evidence to suggest soy worsens any of these conditions.
Other foods containing soy
There are plenty of soy-based foods that aren’t tofu, but are just as delicious. There foods include:
- Soy milk
- Soy sauce
- Miso, miso soup
- Soybean curds
- Soy protein isolate
- Tofu products (Tofurkey, Tofutti)
You can find most of these products at your local grocery store or at an Asian grocery store. Products like soy milk, soy sauce and edamame should be easy to find.
Other plant-based protein
There are plenty of plant-based protein options other than soy that can fit into vegan or vegetarian diets. So many plant foods are naturally high in protein. Here are a few plant-based protein options to add to your diet.
- Beans and legumes: black beans, chickpeas, lentils, split peas, kidney beans, etc.
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, peanuts, chia seeds, flaxseed, hemp seeds, cashews, etc.
- Plant-based protein powders: hemp protein, pea protein, rice protein, pumpkin seed protein, etc.
- Whole grains: brown rice, whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, quinoa, barley, etc.
- Meta substitute: Beyond Meat, SIMULATE, Jack & Annie’s, Gardein
There are plenty of whole and processed foods that are plant-based and high in protein. While I recommend sticking with mostly whole food sources of protein, some processed meat alternatives are fun to play around with.
Tofu can be prepared in so many creative and delicious ways. Here are a few of my favorite recipes using tofu.
- Japanese Style Mapo Tofu
- Miso Marinated Baked Tofu
- Tofu Katsu (Breaded Tofu Cutlets)
- Air Fryer Sesame Tofu
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