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.)
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?
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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