Tofu: White Bread Of The Soy World?

I heard once that an agnostic is just an atheist in denial, so I’m wondering — if someone eats tofu and meat, are they a vegetarian in denial?

I’m a part-time vegetarian, happily going days without meat or fish, knowing that in a pinch I can reach into the fridge, retrieve the white, plastic tub and fish out the floating protein. But it always feels more like a vote against meat than a vote for tofu.

A recent stay in San Francisco, though, where I indulged in “fresh” tofu and was introduced to “Yuba” (a lesser known soy member who, along with tempeh, makes tofu look like the protein-lagging, under-achieving cousin), made me question what I thought I knew about soy …

The soy family

They don’t look anything alike: edamame is green, tofu is white, yuba is pasta-colored, tempeh is sandy, and textured vegetable protein (TVP) is brown. (There’s also soy yogurt, soy milk, miso and a slew of other derivatives, but for now we’ll stick to the dinner-time “what-to-eat-when-you-don’t-want-to-eat-meat” products.)  A soy milk post is coming soon.

The family in pictures: (TVP not shown)

  • Edamame: Means “twig bean” in Japanese. Soybeans have the highest ratio of protein to calories of any plant.  In its unprocessed state,it has nearly twice the protein of tofu. Best enjoyed bathed in soy sauce while waiting for sushi.
  • Tofu: The soy beans are turned into milk, the milk is then curdled and pressed. It’s white because the beans turn sandy-white when dried. Extra Firm has double the protein of Silken (which has more water weight).  Most tofu is made from pasteurized milk so it can be eaten three months after it’s made – an abomination in the minds of “purists”; (see this post on “unnecessary” pasteurization). Some brands will even add preservatives.  “Fresh” is far better tasting and usually higher in protein.
  • Yuba: 4x times higher in protein than tofu (also 4x higher in fat). It’s the “skin” that forms on the top of the soy milk when heated to make tofu.  It’s sold in sheets, cut into noodle strips and cooked.  Chewy texture, which means unless you know what you’re doing, it tastes like a rubber band. If you see it at a restaurant or find it pre-prepared by an “expert” like Hodo Soy (see below), get it. It (can be) outstanding.
  • Tempeh: 2x higher in protein than tofu (also higher in fiber and iron). The “whole wheat” of the soy world.  Not only has nothing been removed from the whole beans, but it’s pressed and fermented, a process not done to whole soybeans or tofu, and one that enhances digestion and increases the bioavailability of the nutrients.
  • Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP):  Highly processed, made from de-fatted soy flour. It’s extruded (pressure-forced into a new shape) which changes the structure of the protein to make it more meat-like.  “Purer” versions, are available, but often oil, gluten, sugar and flavoring are added.  High in protein but it’s a highly “manipulated”, processed protein and some contain corn and wheat proteins.  How “confused” is this food?  Product names include “Chickenish Chunks“, “Beefish Bits” and best of all  “Artificially Flavored Imitation Sausage TVP“. (It’s not photographed. I could not bring myself to buy it.)

See table with product comparisons of protein and fat.

Tofu or not tofu: Health concerns around soy

One of the key health issues is that soy contains isoflavones that act as phytoestrogens and can mimic human estrogen.  Many plants contain them (nuts for example) but soy has them at higher levels. I think the level of concern has been escalated  because of the abundance of extracted soy derivatives – protein (soy protein isolate), soy flour and soy oil that is used in fast and processed food, that we are unknowingly consuming in higher quantities than ever before. Moreover, most of these soy derivatives have been extracted using a toxic petroleum derivative called hexane.

The other issue with soy is that as a grain it has phytic acid which can latch onto minerals in your system meaning you will not absorb them, as well as enzyme inhibitors that inhibit your enzymes from digesting it.  As noted above, fermenting it (as in the case of tempeh) eliminates both these problems.

The GMO issue also comes up since most soy grown is genetically modified, but many soy products for humans (as opposed to the soy grown for animal feed) is “non-GMO” – look for this label (as well as “Organic”) on the package, as both are indicators that GMO beans were not used.

Research is mixed on the overall risks or benefits from soy.  Some studies show soy lowers the risk of some cancers and brings about a myriad of other health benefit, others show it can be a catalyst for cancer. So depending on which you believe, eating soy will either add ten years to your life or subtract it.   I’m of the belief that if you consume organic “whole” soy products – tofu, tempeh for example, in moderation, as apposed to isolated soy components – soy isolates/protein, soy oil etc, soy is a healthy food.

Where to get it

Increasingly stores are stocking “fresh” (non-pasteurized) tofu; yuba on the other hand is a tough find.  If you live in San Francisco, Hodo Soy (sold at BiRite in the Mission) makes exceptional fresh tofu as well as phenomenal Spicy Yuba (pre-made) and sells sheets of plain yuba.

In NYC, I’m still looking for the best, but in the meantime, try Kong Kee on the N/E corner of Grand and Bowery for fresh tofu ($1 a box) as well as yuba.  I did find their yuba rubbery though, so I’m going to continue the hunt since I know what yuba is capable of…

And you? Your thoughts on tofu and the soy clan? Favorite ways to eat it?

Related Posts
Soy Milk: A Serving of Froot Loops in Every Glass?
What To Expect When You’re Expecting Kombucha (Another fermented food worth trying)

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  • Lisa

    So interesting! I keep a bowl of cooked (but cold) edamame in the fridge and snack on it. I’ve also sprinkled “truffle salt” on top of hot edamame and it is magical.

  • http://www.foodstheword.blogspot.com alana (at) the food

    i can’t even tell you how fascinated i am by your blog!
    keep on keepin’ on!

    • Michelle

      Thanks so much Alana! As long as I keep eating, I’ll keep writing …

  • Jiggsy

    Having lived in Japan in the early 90′s I can tell you they were way ahead of the soy game. Tofu and edamame were everyday fare. Upon returning to Canada edamame was certainly not a hot food item like it is now. Maybe looking to them will tell us what’s next!

    • Olivia

      Agreed, Jiggsy! I’m Chinese, and grew up eating all types of tofu — including yuba, although that seems to be a very recently created name. It’s strange that tofu is going so mainstream now, because when I was little, much of the Chinese food I ate was considered “weird.” Growing up in LA, my family was both health conscious and loyal to their heritage cuisine, so we ate a lot of “Buddhist food” — because the don’t-kill-animals, centuries-old philosophy created a plethora of delicious and nutritious food. The mainstreaming of all this food that I have long considered “Asian” (seaweed, tofu, rice, etc.) is a bit of a mixed bag for me. I think the wonderful thing about American cuisine, if there is such a thing, is that it tends to innovate with the best of different cultures. I think at times, it just makes me a little sad when people think that many foods were “invented” when in actuality, they have some history in a different culture.

      Michelle — have you tried Flushing or Sunset Park? I must admit, I’m eagerly awaiting tofu’s arrival to “hip” neighborhoods, preferably in the cultural south Brooklyn.

  • Taryn

    I made “TLT” (BLT) sandwiches with Tempeh, using bacon flavored tempeh as the bacon. It’s pretty good, and masks the grainy texture of the tempeh.
    I was wondering what your thoughts are on a soy milk diet, especially for children? Any truth behind premature puberty due to the high estrogen in soy milk? And I’ve also heard that it can lead to type II diabetes later in life.

    • Michelle

      The biggest concern I’d have about giving children soy milk vs say cows milk, is soy has very little calcium (and what IS there is largely added via calcium carbonate, ie not naturally occurring.) Moreover, the body needs vit D to absorb calcium and unless the soy is “fortified”, there will be little to no D.

      My personal opinion on the premature puberty is that the biggest contributor is the excess weight on children – there is a strong correlation between fat levels and earlier puberty.

      I have not heard about the connection between type II diabetes and soy – genetics, excess sugar in the diet and excess weight on the body seem to be far higher indicators of one’s likelyhood of getting diabetes.

      • Michael

        I’ve also heard that premature puberty is a result of all the growth hormones being given to the animals that we get our dairy and meat products from. Which is why knowing where these products come from and how they’re produced is so important.

    • Lina

      Drinking soy milk is a common breakfast item throughout China. Somehow our children do not have problems of premature puberty, and diabetes is only a more recent pressing social concern, perhaps due to the adoption of a more Western, mass-market diet.

  • Heather

    I’ve only tried tempeh once, when I was eating at an Indonesian fast-food joint in Los Angeles. Wow, I thought it was really good, and not “in a dry, fibrous, I-know-it’s-good-for-me, kind of way.” It was just delicious!

  • http://www.reallyliteral.blogspot.com/ christinachan

    I’ve never liked tofu. I always think that it’s like tasteless, white, jello. But I know it’s good for you so I’m going to persist. Thank you for this piece!

    • Rob

      It is tasteless but it will absorb any flavoring added to it

    • Janet

      I’ve even made a wonderful tofu chocholate mousse that has fooled everyone who has eaten it! Keep trying new recipes and you’re bound to find something interesting!

  • Betsy

    I blend shelled edamame beans with avacado for a dip we call, guacamame! My family loves it.

    • Michelle

      What a fantastic idea! Going to try it ..

  • http://crawlsontheceiling.blogspot.com danielle

    i love tempeh! my bf does not so much so we compromise with tofu. recently we’ve been doing a lot of tofu marinaded in teriyaki or bbq sauce and baked. it keeps us off eating only processed fake meat frozen stuff – i’d like to eat less or none of those things but sometimes i really enjoy a sweedish meatball dish with fake meatballs :)

  • organicgal

    Nice piece…I believe you’d be called a flexaterian these days. No shame in that.

    Yes, tofu can be bland BUT if you grew up in a Tofu culture, you probably appreciate the subtleties of different Tofu tastes just as homemade white Bread is a lot different from Wonder Bread.

    Went to a cooking class at EN Brasserie in NYC that focused on Tofu where I learned that it’s not too hard to make Soy Milk or Tofu or Yuba or Okara. Miso and Tempeh are more complicated.

    Re the soy/cancer controversy, we Americans hear that something’s “good” for us and then eat a TON of it, we also eat it in an unorganic/processed state AND cook it in an unhealthy manner (deep fried, microwaved) and expect to get the same health results as ancient cultures did.

    Re: Type 2 Diabetes and Soy consumption…look to Japan for that answer.What do Japanese kids eat growing up on traditional diets and how do they fare?

    Moderation, unprocessed, organic, varied..good words to eat by.

    I’ll have to check out Kong Kee!

    • LaraChick

      I LOVE EN BRASSERIE! Sorry just had to shout out to the best Japanese restaurant i’ve ever eaten in, and I’ve spent a little time in JAPAN!!

  • Regina

    Tofu is easily made at home which of course means that it extra fresh. I make it for many friends who’d never eat store-bought tofu (or any else for that matter).
    Also I had to give soy-milk (home-made) exclusively (after weaning) to my 7 kids, the last one even got soy-based formula from 3 1/2 months on, and none entered puberty early (they are 14-27 yo today).
    As for the diabetes concern: it is very prevalent in their father’s family so I researched the risk factors. Cow’s milk (in formula) given too early is the risk factor that stuck most in my brain.

  • suzanne

    I love this blog Mich! I often use soft tofu in my guacamole, which makes it delicious and less rich. my kids love edamame doused in salt and lime juice.
    For anyone interested in delicious tofu recipes, look into japanese (and Chinese and vietnamese) cookbooks which usually have tofu sections. BE BOLD and follow the recipe. I made a japanese recipe which featured mainly ricotta and tofu for a dinner party the other day, it sounded strange, but tasted delicious.

    If anyone knows where to get good fresh tofu or even yuba in the uk, please let me know. thanks!

  • Hyvonne

    Thanks Michelle for the great post. It is always a good reminder to eat a balanced diet, not too much of one thing. I am also a flexaterian. This past year I have found some wonderful tempeh recipes that I enjoy making and now I rarely use ground beef unless I can get local grass feed beef for a good price. The recipes I use tempeh in are spicy tacos, vegetarian chili and sloppy joes. The tempeh picks up the flavor of the spices nicely and it’s fast since it only needs to be heated up, not cooked through like beef. I’ll be interested to read your soy milk post. I prefer almond and coconut milk for their nutritional values.

  • http://prasadabeauty.com Lisa G

    SOUEN in SOHO,NYC has delicious epic YUBA.
    I sure do wish it was available in Miami, Fl. If anyone knows where please let me know. Thanks.
    I love this blog!

  • Vanessa

    I don’t know anything about the author’s background of Pub Med (it’s freely accessible), to support what you say in this post. The web is rife with so much opinion about the benefits or detriments of soy–why not examine and incorporate some data to make this site stand out? It would also be great to remind/point out to readers that certain people should never have any soy, such as those with thyroid disease. Endocrine disorders are rampant in the U.S. and while eating a more whole-foods-based diet is desirable, even whole forms of sugar or soy can be harmful for this population.

  • Michele

    I am vegetarian and stopped soy in all forms 4 years ago, due to hormone issues. It was the first and only food sensitivity I had ever encountered and it never occurred to me it was messing with me. Overnight my monthly cycle went from being a nightmare (body, mind, and spirit) to having no issues. And now, any time I inadvertently consume soy during the month, fermented or not, I know it. Similar to corn as a subsidized crop, I am nearly 100% convinced that non-GMO soy doesn’t exist, at least, not in the U.S.

  • Dani

    Thanks for the good information. The health benefits are still confusing though…I guess we should just eat tofu in moderation, like everything else…

    • Michelle

      I think it’s good to be aware of the controversy and then decide which side of the argument feels right for you. The problem with many “studies” is that subjects are fed excessive amounts of the food in question and then when they show signs of illness, the food gets blamed! If you fed someone 2 pounds of kale every day for a week and they felt sick – there’s clearly an issue with kale!

  • Hank

    I found this blog looking for information about Tempeh. I first heard of the stuff on a recent organic cooking program. We’ll have to find some to give it a try.

    It sounds a lot like Natto which is a fermented soy bean product very popular in Eastern Japan. They tend not to like it in the West of Japan and most of the rest of the world. The fermentation of Natto causes the proteins to denature and turn into a slime similar to boiled okra. The smell is also something that takes some getting used to. I lived in Japan for many years and one friend told me to try it 10 times before making a final decision as to whether I liked it or not. He was right, by about the 7th time I started to like it. It’s like fermented ripened cheese. Many Japanese find a really ripe Camembert about as appealing as most westerners find Natto.

    As for Tofu fresh is definitely best. In Japan most neighborhoods have a small shop that makes it fresh every day. When it’s like that the best way to eat is is plain with a splash of soysauce and maybe some shaved bonito flakes and grated ginger. Heaven!

    • Michelle

      How wonderful to have had that experience in Japan! I was in Tokyo for a week and I recall rarely seeing people eat FIRM tofu (as we prefer in the West) but choose the SILKY tofu instead which is much more like the texture of custard. I also found the tofu in Tokyo had a far less “chalky” taste than most here – largely due, I’m sure, to the quality and freshness.

      Will also be on the look out for Natto! Should it ever make its way over here … and will give it at least 7 tries…

  • http://activefingers.com Anna

    I have never heard of Yuba before. Thank you for the information.

    It is interesting to hear the different arguments for food. My parents use soy milk and soy in their cooking since they became vegetarians a few years ago but my sister-in-law switched her daughter to almond milk instead of soy milk (food sensitivity to dairy products) because of future health concerns.

    With all of the new technology being used, I still think moderation and less processed ingredients create a nice balance.

  • http://www.flipbuilder.com printable file

    Very nice picture. Soy products have all sorts of antioxidants and isoflavones that are known for their anti-cancer attributes.

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  • bethp

    This is a great website – i’m really interested in so much i’ve read here!

    One great source for these kinds of discussions I’ve found is the weston a. price foundation, because a lot of the info is sourced. THere is a discussion about soy here: http://westonaprice.org/soy-alert.html

    I feel like you make a great point, that often it’s not soy per se, but again and again, it’s the highly processed versions of “healthy” foods that become dangerous.

  • Margaret

    I’ve been having some hormonal problems recently that I thought were attributed to eating too much soy products. I am a long-time vegetarian, a busy grad student, and often I rely on a lot of soy because of the convenience. After a few-too many atrociously painful periods I made it a habit not to consume alcohol or soy products two weeks before I anticipated my period, around the time of ovulation. After a few months of this experiment, nothing really changed. I live in Vancouver (Canada) where there is an ample supply of fresh, organic, whole soy (a lot of which supplies the whole country), but I wasn’t taking advantage of it. I botched the experiment and ate only non-GMO organic local soy and that was the ticket. After a few OK months (where I hadn’t called in sick and stayed in bed), I tried eating lots of soy (edamame, local organic fresh tofu and tempeh) for 2 weeks before my period. Interestingly enough, it made things much better, even better than eating no soy products at all. I also made my own herbal sort-of-cleanse tea with nettle and raspberry leaves, dandelion and marshmallow root, don quai, oat straw, a wedge of lemon and ginger, to help with the pain and inflammation.

    • Michelle

      Very interesting! In the US, the vast majority of tofu and other soy products are labeled “non GMO soy”, but perhaps in Canada that is not so much the case?

      That cleanse tea sounds like it could cure pretty much anything! Glad you found a food-based solution to your health probs. I’m a big believer that the cupboard is often a better dispenser of “cures” than the pharmacy.

  • jenny

    i just returned from japan and was lucky enough to experience on multiple occasions all that yuba is capable of as well as tofu. so delicious. i cant tell you how amazing it can be freshly made.
    as for yuba in ny, ive only seen it at souen – the souen in soho has a nice yuba soup and their other – newly renovated – location by union square does a great yuba appetizer.

  • Lenna

    I just heard from Morningstar Farms that 90+% of ALL soy beans are now GMOs and the only product they are making that does not have GMO beans is their breakfast patties!!!
    Let’s write to our GOVERNMENT that we do NOT want to eat GMO foods nor should they be fed to animals (which some people eat!!!)

    • Michelle

      Very true but what’s also key to be aware of is that the vast majority of soybeans are made for animal feed. Look for “non-GMO” on any soy foods for humans. Most actually are labeled as such.

  • Lenna

    I guess I should be glad I’m a veggie, if the animals are being fed the GMO foods. When people eat the animals, I have to wonder what effect that has. Does anyone know?

  • Kuion

    gotta love the cargills and monsantos of the world

    get fundamentally radical on them

  • Mary Bologna

    Thanks Michelle, as usual another very insightful article, I wold like to try all of these mentioned foods (I have tried the soy, and endamine) I live in the Tampa Bay area does anyone know where to purchase these amazing foods, thanks

  • Dan

    Really informative post, but I still have a few questions.  Being a young male vegetarian, I have incorporated soy into my diet in many forms, but I am alarmed at the whole “phytoestrogen” thing- am I screwing around with my hormones here?  Also, I like seitan which I know is gluten and not soy, but how does it stack up to the other “faux” meats nutritionally?

    • http://www.thesweetbeet.com Michelle Madden

      My feeling is that soy eaten in moderation is fine, but if you’re eating tofu twice a day, drinking soy milk, eating soy chips and soy based veggie burgers, you’re likely getting more than your body would like and more than is healthy. But if you eat a meal of soy twice a week, then I think thats fine.

      I am a big fan of tempeh, which is soy made more easily digested due to the fermentation process.

      As for seitan, I’m not a fan at all, since it’s a hugely processed product made from pure wheat gluten. I dont think gluten is large amounts is healthy for anyone even if they are not gluten intolerant. Sure you’ll get lots of protein, but it’s also a Q of the quality of the protein, and this is where I think seitan falls short. I would also read the ingredients closely as many manufacturers add soy as a filler, and flavors (which I am not a fan of since even natural flavors are not all that natural).

      Hope that helps and let me know if you have any more Qs…

  • allen ying

    4th street food coop, manhattan, has organic tofu that can be purchased in bulk, as in with your own reusable. it’s organic and made from locally grown soy beans, $1.96/lb. 4thstreetfoodcoop.org

  • Martha C Sando

    Thanks for the information. Valuable info.

  • Lina

    People here in Asia eat both tofu and meat all the time. “Tofu and fish” (豆腐斑腩), for example, is a popular lunch option in Cantonese diners. I would not consider omnivores consuming tofu and meat to be a vegetarian in denial, no more than those who consume ersatz meats (e.g. on Buddhist holidays, because they prefer the taste of “vegetarian ham” to real ham) to be vegetarians in denial. It is a bit insulting to others’ food culture to say so.