But a job's a job, and I found myself "forced" to cook with tofu. And to my surprise, it started to grow on me. First there was an Asian stir-fry that turned out to be pretty tasty. Then came a breakfast tofu scramble that—gasp—was as delicious as eggs. When I started filling pasta shells with blended seasoned tofu instead of ricotta and whipping up tofu chocolate pies for dinner parties, I realized tofu had become one of my favorite staple foods.
My odyssey is not unique. Tofu has come a long way since it was defined as "a bland, cheese-like food made from curdled soybean milk" by The Random House Dictionary of the English Language in 1987 (the very year I had my college tofu experience). Today, my favorite natural foods store boasts not just the basics—extrafirm, firm, soft, and silken—but also seasoned and baked varieties, marinated cutlets, easy-to-use cubes, and artisanally prepared organic tofu from a nearby cooperative. Looking around, anyone can see that tofu has moved up in the world since 1987—its popularity credited to its versatility in the kitchen, its long list of nutritional benefits, and a stamp of approval for promoting good heart health.
A True Health Food
Soybeans were considered one of five sacred foods (along with rice, wheat, and two types of millet) in ancient China, where bean curd is thought to have been produced for more than 2,000 years. The food was taken to Japan by Buddhist monks traveling back and forth between the countries. Today, tofu continues to be a primary protein source for Buddhists in Asia and around the world. Tofu, or bean curd, can be thought of as a kind of soymilk cheese. Soybeans are soaked and cooked in water, then pressed to make a soymilk base. A coagulant is added to the soymilk, which turns it into cottage-cheese-like curds. The curds are then pressed and drained to form white cakes—the pressing and draining time determines the final product's firmness.
Over the years, there's been a lot of controversy over soy (and therefore tofu), and some doctors argue that it should never be eaten. Still, tofu has made its way into most diets as a "health food," but only recently has this designation been fully appreciated. "Soy foods, including tofu, are among the healthiest foods you can place on the table," says James W. Anderson, MD, professor emeritus of medicine and clinical nutrition at the University of Kentucky. In fact, tofu is a low-calorie protein, rich in B vitamins, calcium, and alpha-linoleic acid, which the body can convert into an omega-3 fatty acid. It's low in saturated fat and has zero cholesterol.
In the 1990s researchers turned their attention to the health benefits of two components unique to tofu and other soy foods: soy proteins and isoflavones. "Soy lowers LDL cholesterol between 6 and 10 percent. Our research shows that if you eat 8 to 10 grams of soy twice a day—that's about three servings of soy protein all together—you'll raise good-guy HDL cholesterol by about 3 percent. This translates into reduced risk for heart disease," Anderson explains.
Continued research has linked the consumption of soy protein to lowered blood-sugar levels, faster weight loss, and even the prevention of certain cancers. In 2007 an ongoing study of Japanese women by the Japan Public Health Center confirmed the heart-health benefits of soy protein by revealing that those individuals who consumed about one serving of soy per day had 39 percent less risk of stroke and heart attack. That risk was reduced by 75 percent percent in the post-menopausal women studied. "Soy clearly protects the kidneys of persons with diabetes and those with blood pressure at risk for kidney disease. It normalizes blood flow to the kidneys and actually reverses kidney disease in diabetic persons," Anderson adds. "Soy also decreases blood pressure and promotes healthy bones."
Anderson's report in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1995 was one of many that prompted the FDA to approve a claim in 1999 that diets that include 25 grams of soy protein a day (a serving of firm tofu contains 10 grams) may reduce the risk of heart disease. Suddenly everything from cereal to cookies was fortified with soy flour and soy protein concentrate. Then, as with every food fad, the backlash began.
The Isoflavone Dilemma
Although some health professionals say soy is an important part of a balanced diet, there is growing concern because an increase in soy protein intake raises the levels of isoflavones in the body. Isoflavones, or plant estrogens, act in the body like the female hormone estrogen. Until recently, isoflavones and soy compounds were the all-natural darlings for treating PMS and menopause symptoms. Supplements of purified isoflavones derived from soy were prescribed to alleviate symptoms in the same way hormone replacement therapy had been prescribed. But isoflavones have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women and to a stimulated growth of estrogen-responsive breast tumors. The evidence isn't conclusive, though. A study done by the University of Southern California in 2008 showed that one serving of soy a day actually reduced breast cancer risk in participants. However, more research is needed before firm conclusions can be made.
Some experts differentiate between eating whole-soy products like tofu and eating soy-based products like soy ice cream, substitute meats, and other foods that use large amounts of soy fillers, which are found in everything from canned tuna to protein bars. "When diet-based soy products like tofu are consumed, that's very different from the highly processed ingredients used in certain foods and supplements and tested in research experiments," notes William Helferich, a professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who has spent more than 10 years researching the connection between soy isoflavones and breast cancer. "It's hard to overconsume whole-soy foods. I don't know anyone who can eat that much tofu," he says, noting that tofu is a safe and healthful addition to any diet, unless you need to limit your intake of isoflavones for medical reasons. So, for tofu, how much is too much? According to Anderson, it's not safe to eat more than 100 milligrams of isoflavones from soyfoods a day. To reach that number, you'd have to eat nearly two cups of tofu daily.
Making Tofu Tasty
But let's face it—for many people, eating tofu at all can be a challenge because there are lots of cooks who simply don't know what to do with it. "People think they have to sit down and eat a block of tofu, which is not very appetizing," says Donna Kelly, co-author of 101 Things to Do with Tofu. "You need to approach tofu as an ingredient in a recipe, not as an end in itself. It is completely idiot-proof and accessible. It is really easy to use and very forgiving. Tofu can be used in place of so many different ingredients—sour cream, cream cheese, heavy cream—and it is a much healthier option than any of them."
Plain tofu has a faint nutty taste but not much flavor by itself. That may seem like a flaw, but tofu's blandness is also its best feature. Catherine Clark, a working mom in Charlottesville, Virginia, gives her son, Jake, slices of plain tofu to snack on while waiting for dinner. "It's filled with protein, and it's also the right color—toddlers are infamous for eating only white and brown foods," she says.
To satisfy adult palates, think of tofu as a seasoning sponge. Whatever you mix it with, cook it with, or marinate it in, tofu is sure to take on the flavors of the other ingredients. In Asian stir-fry dishes, tofu soaks up gingery soy sauces and tames the heat of dried chilies. It makes a low-fat replacement for mayonnaise or sour cream in dips and spreads, and can be used instead of milk and soft cheeses in casseroles, lasagnas, and cream sauces. Tofu can also be infused with sweet sensations, such as chocolate, vanilla, and citrus, to make luscious desserts with only a fraction of the fat.
I am the first to admit that it may take a while for tofu to become a staple in your kitchen. But I can also tell you that, once you're hooked on just how light, healthful, and easy it can be to prepare, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. Just don't sprinkle it plain on a salad.
Mary Margaret Chappell is the food editor of Vegetarian Times.