Vegetarians and vegans aren't the only tofu-lovers out there, confirms researchers from Cornell Food and Brand Lab. In their new study published in Eating Behaviors, 502 women, ages 20 to 35, said they believe this soy product is an easy-to-prepare and affordable source of healthy protein.
The research was sponsored by tofu supplier House Foods, which is why we're not completely sold on the glowing review. Although we enjoy the square stuff, we can't ignore the issues that have come up in the past about a tofu-rich diet. So we reached out to the nutrition experts to find out once and for all if tofu should be a staple in your healthy diet.
Pro: Tofu is a packed with nutrients. Tofu is a low-fat plant food that's teeming with high-quality protein and B vitamins. “It’s fine to eat soy foods a few times a week—I’d stick to one to two servings per day,” says Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D., author of the new book Eating in Color.
Con: Tofu shouldn't be the only protein you get. “I become concerned when it’s a young woman or young man’s only source of protein and they’re using soy milk several times a day, plus eating bars made with soy, soy protein powder, etc.,” she says. “Whether you’re a vegan, flexitarian, or meat-lover, you should mix up your protein sources.”
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Pro: Tofu is good for your overall health. Tofu Taco Tuesdays might help mitigate PMS symptoms and protect your bone health. “Soy contains natural plant chemicals called isoflavones, which may help reduce the severity of menopausal symptoms and decrease the risk of osteoporosis,” Largeman-Roth says. Eating this colorless, block-shaped food might also save your ticker. “Isoflavones can help keep you heart healthy by lowering cholesterol levels,” she adds.
Con: Soy may have a cancer link. Studies have found mixed results when it comes to soy foods and breast cancer. “This is really in reference to soy more than tofu,” says Christopher N. Ochner, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, adolescent medicine, and psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. “Isoflavones can bind to estrogen receptors and act very similarly to, or mimic the action of, estrogen,” he explains. If you have a history of cancer in your family, you might want to avoid soy altogether.
Pro: Some tofu is less processed than most other soy-based products. “Generally, less processed soy products, like tofu, are safe and healthy for most people. On the other hand, heavily processed soy-based products should be consumed in moderation, if at all,” advises Ochner, who says edamame, fermented soy, and tofu are considered among the healthiest in the soy family.
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Con: Not all soy is created equal. Stay away from products made with soy powders, suggests Largeman-Roth, echoing Ochner's concerns. And be sure to keep your tofu portions in check. “A serving is a half-cup. If you're eating half a block in one sitting, that's too much,” she says. The FDA recommends no more than 25 grams of soy protein a day.
Bottom line: “Tofu can fit into a healthy, balanced diet, but like all protein foods, it's important to mix it up to reap the nutritional benefits of each and minimize any negative effects of over-consumption of any one food,” says registered dietitian and nutritionist Elisa Zied, author of Younger Next Week.