Tofu is a popular plant-based protein, but is it good for you? Here's what you need to know, including nutrition information, benefits and the truth about health claims.

Elizabeth Laseter

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Tofu is pretty divisive-you either love it or you can't stand it one bit. While some may be put off by its texture, tofu's versatility is tough to argue. Whether it's grilled, steamed or baked until crispy, tofu can stand in for meat in many recipes: try it in stuffed peppers, breakfast burritos and even vegan lasagna.

But how healthy is tofu, exactly? Some sources claim tofu is good for you, while others claim it's bad for you. So let's set the facts straight: here's what you need to know about tofu, including nutrition and health benefits, so you can decide if it's a smart choice for your dietary needs.

What Is Tofu?

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From soybean to bean curd, tofu requires three main ingredients: soybeans, water and a coagulant. First, the soybeans are processed with water to make soymilk. Next, the soymilk is simmered with coagulants, such as nigari (seawater extract) or calcium sulfate, until the curds begin to separate. Lastly, the curds are strained out and pressed into a solid block. The longer the curds are pressed, the less water the resulting tofu contains.

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Tofu has a distinctive texture and taste. It has a creamy mouthfeel, almost like soft cheese, but the flavor is very mild. You can eat tofu fresh out of the package, but cooking it greatly enhances the texture and flavor. Figuring out what to do with tofu isn't too hard, since it absorbs the flavor of the ingredients around it.

There are several different types of tofu: silken, soft, medium, firm, extra firm and super firm. Each of these are classified by the amount of water they contain-silken tofu has the most while super firm has the least. But how do you know which one to buy? Here's a breakdown of common tofu types and their uses.

Silken Tofu

This type of tofu has the highest water content and a smooth, custardlike texture. It's much too delicate to cook, and it's best used straight from the package as a base for salad dressing, smoothies, soups, dips and sauces.

Medium Tofu

Medium tofu isn't as delicate as silken tofu, but it still won't hold up to vigorous cooking methods like stir-frying. It's best marinated and baked for salads and rice dishes or incorporated into puddings or pie fillings.

Firm and Extra-Firm Tofu

These tofu varieties contain the least amount of water and feel the most solid to the touch. They hold their shape best during stir-frying, sautéing and grilling. Because they contain less water, they're also much easier to get crispy during cooking. Use firm tofu in rice dishes, stir fries, sandwiches and more.

Tofu Nutrition

The USDA recommends ¼ cup or 2 ounces as a healthy serving size for tofu. Keep in mind that most nutrition labels reflect a 3-ounce serving, which is about the size of a deck of cards. Here's a nutrition breakdown of silken and firm tofu from Nasoya (keep in mind that tofu nutrition varies slightly by brand):

Nasoya Organic Silken Tofu (⅕ package or 91g)

Calories: 45
Fat: 2g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Unsaturated Fats: 1.5g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Sodium: 0mg
Carbohydrates: 1g
Fiber: 0g
Sugars: 0g
Protein: 4g
Calcium: 8% DV
Iron: 4% DV

Nasoya Organic Firm Tofu (3 oz. or 85g)
Calories: 70
Fat: 3.5g
Saturated Fat: 0g
Unsaturated Fats: 3g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Sodium: 20mg
Carbohydrates: 2g
Fiber: <1g
Sugars: 0g
Protein: 8g
Calcium: 10% DV
Iron: 6% DV

Source: Nasoya.com

For relatively similar serving sizes, the nutrition differences between silken and firm tofu are pretty big. Silken tofu contains only about half the calories and fat, while firm tofu contains over twice the protein. The reason for this is water content. Silken tofu contains the most water, while firm tofu is drier and more dense.

Protein

Tofu is an excellent plant protein source. It's also a complete protein, meaning it contains all nine essential amino acids. To put that into perspective, all animal-based foods are complete proteins but most plant-based foods lack certain amino acids. So, if you're following a vegetarian or vegan diet, tofu can help you meet your daily protein needs (about 50 grams, depending on your size).

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Fiber

Soybeans pack a wealth of fiber-a 1/2-cup serving supplies about 5 grams-so you'd think that tofu would follow suit. However, tofu is relatively low in fiber. The reason being, soybeans actually lose the majority of their fiber when they're processed into tofu. To get fiber when you're eating tofu, make sure you're pairing it with fiber-rich foods like avocados, sweet potatoes and quinoa.

Iron

Tofu packs a solid amount of iron, a mineral that helps your body convert nutrients into energy and maintain a healthy immune system. This is particularly attractive to vegetarian and vegan athletes, who are more at risk for low iron levels than meat-eating athletes. However, it's important to note that the type of iron in tofu, nonheme iron, is not as easily absorbed as the heme iron found in animal-based foods. To help your body absorb plant-based iron more effectively, try pairing tofu with vitamin C-rich foods like red bell pepper.

Calcium

Tofu made with the coagulant calcium sulfate contains a surprisingly high amount of calcium, an essential mineral that contributes to healthy bones. The amount of calcium varies between tofu types and brands, but one 3-ounce serving can deliver around 10 percent of your daily needs (1,000-1,300 mg). This is especially good news if you're dairy-free.

Tofu Health Risks

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Tofu packs plenty of worthwhile health benefits, but there is also plenty of buzz against it. To distinguish between facts and fiction, let's take a closer look at the health claims and potential risks associated with tofu.

Soy Isoflavones

You won't find isoflavones on nutrition labels, but they're abundant in tofu, edamame and other soy products. Isoflavones, powerful phytochemicals with antioxidant and estrogen-like properties, have been linked to healthier skin and they may help reduce symptoms in menopausal women.

At one point, isoflavones were thought to increase the risk for breast cancer due to their hormonal effect, but more recent studies have suggested the opposite. In fact, one study focused around women in Asia uncovered that those who consumed soy early in life actually had a decreased risk for developing breast cancer later on. However, research in this area is still developing, and we recommend sticking to a moderate amount of tofu (1 to 2 servings daily).

Tofu and Heart Health

You may have noticed the words "heart healthy" on tofu packages or soymilk cartons. For years, soy protein was believed to decrease the risk for cardiovascular disease by lowering harmful LDL cholesterol levels in the body. When the FDA officially approved this claim in 1999, soy products like tofu and soymilk were allowed to tout heart health benefits on their labels.

However, a 2006 report from the American Heart Association revealed that soy protein actually doesn't lower cholesterol nearly as much as previously believed. As a result, the FDA reevaluated their official position-and most recently proposed a new rule that would require companies to remove any health claims about soy protein and cardiovascular disease from their labels. In the meantime, we can safely say that replacing red meat with tofu in your diet is an easy way to cut back on saturated fat.

The Verdict on Tofu

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While research around tofu is still unfolding, we believe that it can be part of a healthy diet. Yes, packaged tofu is technically a processed food, but it can help those who follow a vegetarian, vegan or dairy-free diet meet their daily protein or calcium needs. Enjoy tofu in moderation and incorporate it into soups, smoothies, rice dishes, salads, sandwiches and more.

Ready to add tofu to your diet? Our handy guide-How to Cook Tofu So You'll Actually Like It-has everything you need to get started.

WATCH: Are Soy Foods Good or Bad For You?

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