Tofu is condensed soy milk that people press into blocks of different firmness. It is a nutrient-dense food that is high in protein and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs.
As a registered dietitian, I frequently field questions about tofu.
Is tofu healthy? Will it mess with my hormones? Can I give it to my kids? Is there a maximum daily amount I shouldn’t exceed?
Tofu has been around for centuries and makes regular appearances in my family’s meals. Still, many of my clients remain somewhat wary of it or wonder whether it’s truly as healthy as it’s said to be.
This article takes a deep dive into the latest research about tofu and its health effects to help you decide whether to eat it.
Tofu, which originated in China, is made of condensed soy milk that’s pressed into solid white blocks in a process similar to cheese making.
Nigari, a mineral-rich coagulant that’s left over after salt is extracted from seawater, is used to help tofu solidify and keep its form.
Most of the world’s soybeans are grown in the United States, and a large proportion is genetically modified (GMO). GMO crops have genes added to them to improve their growth, pest resistance, nutrient content, and ease of farming (
Although more studies are needed on the long-term health effects of GMOs, some people are concerned about their effects on the environment and human health — particularly for those who are predisposed to allergies (
In the meantime, if you’re worried about GMOs, try purchasing only tofu that’s labeled organic and GMO-free.
Tofu is made from condensed soy milk in a process similar to cheese making. It’s often made from GMO soybeans, so if you’re worried about GMOs, organic tofu is your best option.
Tofu is high in protein and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It also provides fats, carbs, and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals.
One 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of firm, calcium-set tofu offers (
- Calories: 144
- Protein: 17 grams
- Carbs: 3 grams
- Fiber: 2 grams
- Fat: 9 grams
- Calcium: 53% of the Daily Value (DV)
- Manganese: 51% of the DV
- Copper: 42% of the DV
- Selenium: 32% of the DV
- Vitamin A: 18% of the DV
- Phosphorus: 15% of the DV
- Iron: 15% of the DV
- Magnesium: 14% of the DV
- Zinc: 14% of the DV
Since tofu has a lot of nutrients in relatively few calories, it’s very nutrient-dense.
The nutrient content of tofu varies depending on the type of coagulant used to make it. For instance, nigari-set tofu contains slightly more fat and potassium but less protein, fiber, and calcium than calcium-set tofu (
Tofu is low in calories but high in protein and fat. It also contains many important vitamins and minerals, including calcium and manganese.
Like most plant foods, tofu contains several antinutrients. These compounds are naturally found in plant foods and lower your body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food.
Tofu contains these two types of antinutrients:
- Phytates. These compounds may reduce the absorption of minerals such as calcium, zinc, and iron (
- Trypsin inhibitors. These compounds block trypsin, an enzyme needed for the proper digestion of protein. This may also cause indigestion, trigger abdominal pain, and reduce the absorption of certain minerals (
Antinutrients aren’t typically a cause for concern if you follow a varied, nutrient-rich diet. However, these compounds may make it more difficult to meet your nutrient needs if you follow a nutrient-poor or very restricted diet.
Sprouting is another helpful strategy. For instance, sprouting soybeans before making tofu reduces phytates by up to 56% and trypsin inhibitors by up to 81% while increasing protein content by up to 13% (
Fermentation can also reduce antinutrient content. For this reason, the nutrients found in fermented, probiotic soy foods — such as miso, tempeh, tamari, and natto — tend to be more easily absorbed (
In certain cases, antinutrients may even provide a few health benefits. For example, phytates may act as a natural iron regulator, protecting your body from absorbing high levels of iron from animal foods (
Tofu contains antinutrients such as trypsin inhibitors and phytates. Soaking, sprouting, or fermenting soybeans before making tofu reduces the antinutrient content.
Soybeans contain natural plant compounds called isoflavones.
These function as phytoestrogens, meaning that they can attach to and activate estrogen receptors in your body.
In some cases, isoflavones behave like the hormone estrogen, although their effect is weaker. In other cases, these compounds don’t act like estrogen. For example, isoflavones don’t stimulate vaginal maturation or increase markers of inflammation (
Each gram of soy protein provides about 3.5 mg of isoflavones (
To put this into perspective, a 3.5-ounce (100-gram) serving of firm, calcium-set tofu offers about 60 mg of soy isoflavones, while 1 cup (240 mL) of soy milk contains only about 28 mg.
Many of the health benefits of tofu — including reduced risk of cancer, diabetes, and heart disease — are attributed to its high isoflavone content.
However, a comprehensive review of relevant studies by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that isoflavones don’t increase breast, thyroid, or uterine cancer risk in this population (13).
All soy foods, including tofu, contain isoflavones, which are believed to be the main cause of tofu’s health benefits.
Soy foods such as tofu are renowned for their cholesterol-lowering effects. In fact, the evidence is so strong that regulators in the United States and Canada have approved health claims linking soy protein to a lower risk of heart disease (
For instance, according to a recent review, people who regularly eat soy have lower total and LDL (bad) cholesterol levels than those who eat no soy. They also tend to have higher HDL (good) cholesterol levels (
Experts believe that tofu’s combination of fiber, protein, and isoflavones may cause its heart health benefits. This specific combination may also explain why whole soy foods such as tofu appear to be more beneficial for lowering cholesterol levels than soy supplements (
In addition, experts suggest that eating tofu instead of animal foods such as meat, eggs, and dairy likely helps reduce the total amount of saturated fat in your diet, further contributing to heart health (
Although research is mixed, soy isoflavones may also help lower blood pressure, high levels of which may increase your risk of heart disease (
However, because few studies have examined tofu specifically, more research is necessary.
Whole soy foods such as tofu may improve several markers of heart health. Still, more studies are needed.
Adding tofu to your diet may also help reduce your risk of certain cancers.
A recent review suggests that women who eat a soy-rich diet may be 16% less likely to die following cancer diagnosis than those who eat very little soy (
Moreover, postmenopausal women — though not premenopausal women — who follow a soy-rich diet before and after a breast cancer diagnosis may be 28% less likely to experience cancer recurrence once their cancer is in remission (
Another study reports that both pre- and postmenopausal women with soy-rich diets may have up to a 27% lower risk of cancer. However, only Asian women appeared to experience this benefit, whereas women from Western countries did not (
One recent review of studies on tofu itself suggests that women who regularly eat tofu may be up to 32% less likely to develop breast cancer than those who rarely eat it (
Overall, at least some women may benefit from regularly eating soy-rich foods, including tofu — though more research is needed to determine which populations would benefit most.
Other types of cancer
A soy-rich diet may also help lower your risk of other types of cancer, including endometrial, colon, stomach, and prostate cancers.
For instance, a recent review of 23 studies linked soy-rich diets to a 12% lower risk of dying from cancer, especially cancers of the stomach, large intestine, and lungs (
Another review of 13 studies linked high intakes of soy isoflavones to a 19% lower risk of endometrial cancer (
Therefore, more research is needed before recommendations can be made.
Research suggests that tofu may safeguard against breast, gut, and prostate cancers. However, more studies are necessary before specific recommendations can be made.
Tofu may also protect against type 2 diabetes.
A 2020 review of studies concluded that participants who regularly ate tofu were less likely to develop this condition (
The soy isoflavones found in tofu may be partly responsible. However, a 2017 study on the beneficial effects of soy foods for type 2 diabetes failed to find a direct link for tofu specifically (
Moreover, older studies suggest that the protective effects of soy foods against type 2 diabetes may not apply to all soy foods. Therefore, more studies are needed (
Soy foods may help protect against diabetes, but more research is needed on tofu itself.
Due to its high isoflavone content, tofu may offer additional health benefits, including:
- Stronger bones. Recent reviews suggest that soy isoflavones may help reduce bone loss or increase the mineral density in bones (
- Improved brain function. Recent studies note that soy isoflavones may improve memory, attention, processing speed, and overall brain function in some — but not all — adults (
- Fewer menopause symptoms. Soy isoflavones may help reduce symptoms of menopause, including fatigue, mood disturbances, and hot flashes (
- Antidepressant effects. A study in pregnant women suggests that eating an average of 1.8 ounces (49 grams) of tofu per day may reduce the risk of developing depression during pregnancy by up to 28% (
Although these results are promising, studies are limited and more research is needed.
Due to its high isoflavone content, tofu may improve bone mineral density and brain function and reduce symptoms of menopause and depression. All the same, further studies are necessary.
Eating tofu and other soy foods every day is generally considered safe. That said, you may want to moderate your intake if you have:
- Breast tumors. Because of tofu’s weak hormonal effects, some doctors suggest that women with estrogen-sensitive breast tumors limit their soy intake.
- Thyroid issues. Some professionals also advise people with poor thyroid function to avoid tofu due to its goitrogen content.
However, a report from the EFSA concluded that soy and soy isoflavones pose no concerns for thyroid function or breast or uterine cancers (13).
In addition, many of my clients worry about whether eating too much tofu can be harmful to men or children.
Few studies have examined the long-term effects of soy in children. However, based on available data, the amount of soy a child eats doesn’t appear to negatively affect their hormones, nor does it appear to affect development during puberty (
Instead, some research suggests that eating soy during childhood or adolescence may protect against breast cancer into adulthood, although more research is needed (
Moreover, a review of the most recent evidence failed to link soy infant formula to any developmental irregularities (
That said, one recent study suggests that baby girls given soy formula in their first 9 months of life may experience changes in vaginal cells and a difference in how genes get turned on or off, compared with those fed cow’s-milk formula (
It’s still unclear whether these differences have any long-term effects. As such, more research is needed.
If you have any particular concerns about the amount of tofu in your diet, consult a doctor or registered dietitian.
Eating tofu is safe for most people. Still, if you’re worried about side effects, consider talking with a registered dietitian or your doctor.
You can purchase tofu in bulk or in individual packages. It ranges in consistency from soft to extra-firm.
It’s available in both refrigerated and shelf-stable varieties. You can also find it dehydrated, freeze-dried, jarred, or canned.
Plus, you can make your own tofu using whole soybeans, lemon juice, and water.
Store-bought tofu doesn’t generally require much processing, so most varieties have relatively few ingredients — usually soybeans, water, optional seasoning, and coagulants such as calcium sulfate, magnesium chloride, or delta gluconolactone.
Once you’ve opened tofu, you can refrigerate it for up to 1 week by storing it in a jar, submerged in water. Just make sure to change the water every day or so. You can also freeze it in its original package for up to 5 months.
Be sure to rinse tofu blocks before using them.
Tofu is available in a variety of shapes, consistencies, and forms. Homemade tofu is also surprisingly easy to make.
Tofu is high in protein and many healthy nutrients.
It’s available in many forms and consistencies and is a versatile addition to dishes such as stir-fries, smoothies, soups, sauces, and even desserts.
Compounds in tofu appear to protect against illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and even certain types of cancer. In addition, this soy food may promote brain and bone health and have several other benefits.
As such, tofu makes a great addition to a well-rounded diet.
Just one thing
Try this today: Baked tofu strips are a favorite in our family. They’re crunchy, tasty, relatively quick and easy to make, and easy for little hands (that are just getting used to solid foods) to hold.
Here’s one of my favorite recipes in case you’d like to give them a try. I personally skip the Buffalo sauce to make them more child-friendly.