One legend has it that in his quest to cheat death, a man created tofu instead.
According to the legend, in ancient China, an emperor's grandson tried to create a pill or drink that would lead to eternal life. He didn't succeed in finding the fountain of youth, but his experiments with soybean mixtures led to the food we know today as tofu.
Tofu -- also called bean curd -- is made by pressing curdling soymilk into a solid block. Some people complain that it's bland, but it nicely takes on the flavor of the sauce you prepare it with. And it's got a lot of health benefits going for it.
Nutrients per Serving
One 3-ounce slice of tofu has:
Unlike other plant proteins, tofu contains all nine essential amino acids that your body can't make on its own. All that protein packed into a 3-ounce slice does a great job keeping you full for longer, which is a big help if you're trying to keep your weight in check.
Most tofu brands use calcium sulfate to combine the protein and oil in the soymilk. This gives you an extra calcium boost beyond tofu's natural calcium content.
Tofu is also full of vitamins and minerals like:
But much of the research that raised that concern looked at the effects of soy on rodents. Those animals process soy differently than humans do. Studies with people show that tofu doesn't have enough plant estrogens to cause breast cancer. And some research suggests tofu may lower your risk of the disease.
Tofu can be helpful for several health concerns:
Hot flashes. When researchers noticed that most Japanese women get fewer hot flashes than women in other cultures, they followed the pattern. Studies show that the estrogens in tofu (and other soy-based foods) cut down how often women in menopause get hot flashes and make them less severe.
Coronary heart disease. Plant estrogens may help make it less likely that you'll get heart trouble. That's because they improve how well your endothelium works. That's the tissue that lines your blood vessels and the inside of your heart.
Osteoporosis. When estrogen levels go down after menopause, women can lose bone mass. Plant estrogens in tofu can make up for that drop-off. Tofu is also rich in calcium and vitamin D, which is good for bone health, too.
Colorectal cancer. Tofu has fiber, and high-fiber diets keep your colon healthy and cancer risk low.
Risks and Warnings
Avoid tofu if you take medicines called MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) for mood disorders or Parkinson's disease. Tofu contains tyramine, an amino acid that helps balance your blood pressure. MAOIs block the enzyme that breaks tyramine down. Combine the two and your blood pressure could get dangerously high.
The plant-based soy in tofu is safe, but talk to your doctor before taking soy supplements. Their levels of plant estrogens are much higher and may cause problems.
How to Prepare Tofu
Tofu is like a blank canvas for countless dishes. It soaks up whatever flavor you want to splash on.
Replace cream with tofu and you'll raise the amount of protein in your sauce. Or use tofu as a soft cheese, especially in lasagna or manicotti dishes.
The options don't stop there. Throw it in a breakfast shake. Marinate it in barbecue sauce and toss it on the grill. Bake, broil, or fry up a few slices and put it in a stir-fry.
Tofu comes in different textures that you can prepare in different ways:
- Extra firm and firm to grill or pan fry
- Medium and soft, which is good for recipes that call for crumbled or mashed tofu
- Silken, which is mostly liquid, and works best in baked goods, sauces, dips, and smoothies
You'll find tofu packed in water in plastic containers in the refrigerated section of your grocery store. Drain the water and rinse off the block. Pat it dry with paper towel or press it between two plates to squeeze out as much water as you can before you marinate or cook it.