Jane Says: Tofu Can Be Tricky

Our food advice columnist tells you how the health benefits of soy stack up against the risks.
Soy is nutrient-dense, an excellent source of plant protein, soluble fiber, “good-for-you” fat, and minerals. But it comes with risks. (Photo: Photolibrary/Getty Images)
May 23, 2012· 2 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.

You’ve probably noticed by now that I ignore hostile questions. I also take an extremely dim view of contemptuous criticism of others’ beliefs and personal insults. Life is really far too short and interesting to waste the time, right? Especially when you could be cooking or eating something delicious. That’s why I appreciate how Puja Verma cuts to the chase with her recent query, “Tofu: Good or Bad???”

The short answer? Brace yourself: No one really knows.

I mean, you have to appreciate the irony in the fact that the world’s most innocuous-seeming food is now a source of great controversy. Perhaps tofu had it coming. Those snow-white blocks of soybean curd, along with soy milk, miso soup, and a whole host of other soy products have been collectively, successfully marketed as a superfood by agri-biz giants, nutrition gurus, and cookbook authors alike.

The science, much of it funded by Big Ag and other vested interests, is a mess. On several levels, it reminds me of that immortal “Inquiring minds want to know” 1980s ad for the National Enquirer. On one hand, soy is legendarily nutrient-dense, an excellent source of plant protein, soluble fiber, “good-for-you” fat, and minerals. For millennia, soy foods have been staples in Asia, where populations hewing to traditional diets and lifestyles have significantly lower rates of cancer and heart disease and increased longevity.

Whether those statistics are due solely to soy remains fodder for debate. To further complicate matters, some studies seem to show that soy may actually trigger breast cancer and other diseases it was once thought to prevent. Soy foods contain compounds called isoflavones, which may help reduce cholesterol and slow bone loss. They also act like a weakened version of estrogen, which is why they’re called phytoestrogens. Estrogen hormones increase the risk of breast and other cancers in women, but the data on phytoestrogens is very sketchy. It’s fair to say, though, that you would have to consume lots of soy (“far more than you would ever normally eat,” an oncologist friend once told me) to elevate the estrogen level in your blood.

So where do I stand?

I stand for moderation. You can obtain all the nutrients in soy from other sources, so if you don’t want to eat it for whatever reason, then don’t. If you enjoy eating tofu, edamame, or miso soup, then by all means, enjoy those things as part of a varied diet. If you, like me, prefer to avoid the vast amounts of genetically modified soy that are washing through the food chain, read labels carefully and choose organic soy products over conventional.

But resist buying into the obsessive, more-is-better approach so common today. Even if you are vegetarian or vegan, you probably get plenty of protein, so skip the concentrated shakes, smoothies, and meat substitutes. If you eat lots of convenience foods, be aware that most packaged items contain soy in one heavily processed form or another.

A few kitchen notes on tofu: For more than 2,000 years, home cooks have appreciated the versatility of tofu. Its very blandness is an asset, for it soaks up marinades and flavorful sauces like the proverbial sponge. It also lends itself to ready-in-a-flash cooking techniques.

Extra-firm and firm tofu hold their shape well, so they are ideal for stir-frying, panfrying, broiling, or grilling. Soft tofu is more delicate—you can stir-fry it, but it’s lovely for braising as well. Silken tofu, with its custard-like texture, is usually stirred into soups at the end of cooking. No matter what type of tofu you buy, it will last, in a container of water, up to four days in the refrigerator; change the water every day.

Do you cook with tofu? What’s your favorite way to prepare it?