Top 5 health benefits of tofu
Popular plant-based meat and dairy alternative soya is the world's most cultivated legume, and a rich source of protein. Registered nutritionist Jo Lewin discovers the benefits of enjoying soya in the form of tofu.
What is tofu?
Tofu, or bean curd, is a popular food derived from soya. It is made by curdling fresh soya milk, pressing it into a solid block and then cooling it, in much the same way that traditional dairy cheese is made by curdling and solidifying milk.
- A 100g serving of tofu provides:
- 73 kcal / 304KJ
- 8.1g Protein
- 4.2g Fat
- 0.5g Saturated fat
- 0.7g Carbohydrate
Calcium levels of tofu vary, so check labels and look for a product that's ‘calcium set’ – this means calcium chloride (E509) or calcium sulphate (E516) has been added to the product.
Top 5 health benefits
1. Source of protective antioxidants
Soy products like tofu contain natural compounds called isoflavones; these are powerful antioxidants and as such help minimise the damage known as oxidative stress done by molecules called free radicals. It’s this oxidative stress that's involved in both aging and the onset of a number of chronic diseases. Soya beans are especially rich in isoflavones and provide other active plant compounds, such as saponins.
2. May alleviate menopausal symptoms
Isoflavones are also often described as being phyto-oestrogens; this means they mimic a weak form of the hormone oestrogen in the body and some women find it helps with peri-menopausal symptoms such as poor mood and hot flushes.
Genetics, your gut microbiota and environmental factors play a huge part in how our bodies react to certain foods, so as yet we can’t say whether a diet rich in phyto-estrogenic foods is beneficial for all women.
3. May support heart health
Regularly eating foods rich in isoflavones, like tofu, has been associated with reduced cholesterol levels. Studies suggest this includes a reduction in low-density lipoprotein (LDL), the type often referred to as ‘bad’ cholesterol, as well as total cholesterol. Regular consumption of legumes, including soya, is linked to a lower risk of heart disease; this is thought to be because they are a rich source of phytochemicals as well as fibre.
4. Source of ‘complete’ plant protein
Soya, including tofu, is a useful source of plant protein, providing all nine of the essential amino acids we need for growth, repair and functions like immunity. The digestibility of the protein in soya, which refers to how well our body can use the protein, is good, with some studies suggesting it may even be comparable to that of animal protein.
5. May support blood sugar management
One study of post-menopausal woman who consumed 100mg of soy isoflavones each day saw a reduction in fasting blood sugar levels by 15% and insulin levels by 23%. Similarly, diabetic post-menopausal women who supplemented with isolated soy protein saw a reduction in fasting insulin levels, insulin resistance and an improvement in cholesterol management.
However, other studies have generated mixed findings with a meta-analysis suggesting there is still more for us to learn in this area. In the meantime, it appears consuming soya foods like tofu may be useful, but more studies are needed.
Is tofu safe for everyone?
Tofu is generally recognised as safe for most people, unless you have a soya allergy, when it should be avoided. Soybeans are also considered to be goitrogenic, which means they interfere with the activity of the thyroid gland. Although in practice this effect may be minimal, if you have a thyroid condition, you may wish to minimise your intake.
Tofu and other soya products contain oxalate; people with a history of calcium oxalate kidney stones may choose to avoid over-consuming soya products. However, studies suggest that soya products containing some oxalate and moderate amounts of phytates may actually be advantageous for kidney stone patients.
The consumption of soya has become controversial over recent years, with some animal studies suggesting a link with certain cancers. In support of the food’s safety, the European Food Safety Authority has concluded that soy isoflavones do not adversely affect the thyroid, breast or uterus in postmenopausal women.
Soya contains anti-nutrients, including trypsin inhibitors and phytates, these may inhibit our absorption of some of the bean’s valuable nutrients. Soaking or fermenting the soybeans before cooking can minimise these compounds, and this is why choosing traditional soya products like tempeh and miso can provide superior nutritional value.
If you have concerns speak to your GP or registered dietician before making any changes to your diet.
This article was last reviewed on 6 October 2021 by Kerry Torrens.
Kerry Torrens is a qualified nutritionist (MBANT) with a postgraduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the past 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.
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