Soy. Tofu. Tempeh. Make that steaming rubbery gray squares of questionable origin.
I get a lot of questions about this bland food product we call by various names. Do I eat tofu? Is it healthy? Is it manna from heaven? Or will it cause your voice to jump an octave and your hormones to rage out of control?
I don’t want to claim to “set the record straight” on this topic, which is something a lot of people do in the health world (make that every area of life, right?). Science and experience are always revealing new information and insights, so I don’t like to be assumptive by claiming one food is definitively bad or good for all eternity.
That said, here are 10 important things I think everyone should know about tofu:
1. Hill of beans
Whole soybeans, or edamame (in-the-shell version), are a great plant protein source. I eat soybeans regularly and I think this is a great way to eat soy because beans are unprocessed, fresh, and whole. Soybeans do have a bit more fat than other beans, but they are a hearty protein and contain valuable phyto-nutrients. Soybeans do contain plant estrogens and phytic acid (more on that in a moment), so no, tofu is not a “miracle” health food. But it’s also not evil, unlike fat-free devil’s food cookies.
2. What’s this about black beans?
Did you know that douchi, the black beans commonly used in Asian cooking (think black bean sauce), are actually just fermented soy beans? Fermented foods are very high in nutritional value, so I recommend getting some sort of fermented food in your diet daily (organic sugar-free yogurt, kefir, kimchi and fermented olives or vegetables are great examples). Fermented foods reduce cholesterol and improve digestion and immunity.
In general, I recommend fermented soy products such as black beans because other, processed soy products like soy milk and tofu contain phytic acid, which does inhibit some nutrient absorption (hence the soy controversy).
3. Soybean oil
Soybean oil is heavily refined and ought to be avoided. This junk won’t do you any health favors at all. Aside from anti-nutritive compounds in soybean oil, most soybean oil contains some level of dangerous trans fat (even the “trans-free” varieties are still heavily refined and contain chemically-modified fat molecules). You’ll notice this worthless oil in most processed foods, which is why I advocate sticking to fresh, unprocessed meals. You don’t have to spend hours in the kitchen to eat healthily – salads, steamed veggies and grilled fish take just minutes to prepare once you learn to make them.
4. Soy nuts, chips, and snacks
Here is where we can make a really important distinction. Take even the healthiest food and turn it into a processed snack, and it is no longer healthy! Whether soy is a miraculous heart-healthy food or not, processing anything destroys valuable nutrients and enzymes and usually means added fat, sugar, and chemicals. I see people purchasing and eating unhealthy snacks every day simply because there is a trendy ingredient or some sneaky marketing. Sun chips and pita chips are examples. Somehow, these items garner the reputation of “healthy” and “wholesome” even though they are processed, nutritionally-deficient, and usually high in refined (trans) fat. An apple is healthy until you dunk it in caramel sauce. Soybeans are healthy until you turn them into faux nuts.
For example, chocolate-covered soy nuts are not healthy just because they are made from soybeans.
5. Soy milk
Though I’m not a big fan of dairy, I don’t recommend making soy milk a regular part of your diet. Soy milk contains phytic acid, which inhibits the absorption of nutrients. It’s also rather high in sugar and is so heavily processed, it can hardly be thought of as a “health” food. It’s probably fine once in a while for those who are not sensitive to plant estrogens and who don’t like dairy milk, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to include it in the diet. Remember, there simply is no magic bullet for health.
By now, tofu – in all its slippery and firm incarnations – has made its way into the mainstream of the American diet. Sort of. The texture is something we may never fantasize about, but it is a nice occasional alternative protein source, especially for vegetarians and people who want to avoid too much meat (given the way meat is produced these days). I say occasional because, remember, it is a highly-processed food. Many types of tofu – especially “mock meats” – are really akin to processed deli meats and sausages. Of course, tofu comes from a bean and doesn’t contain antibiotics, added hormones and animal products, but it’s still – all together now – a processed food. In fact, I really don’t think tofu is much different from a slice of low-fat cheddar. Puts things in perspective, doesn’t it?
Here’s where soy gets healthy (finally!). Fermented soy products are rich in isoflavones, which are excellent for the heart and may even prevent cancer. The good news is that you can find fermented soy milk and tofu if you look for it (and grocery stores will often start carrying it if you just ask). Tempeh is a chewy, nutty, meaty type of soy product that is loaded with isoflavones, so I do recommend this. I think it’s a lot tastier than tofu, too.
Miso is a fermented, thick soy paste. It’s great for soups and contains high levels of isoflavones and acts as a probiotic.
9. A little perspective
Removing certain parts of the soybean – say, oil, or protein – and expecting this to render fabulous health results is where we go wrong, I think. In general, any highly-processed food just isn’t what nature intended, and contributes to disease and obesity. This applies to many foods – yogurt is another great example. We hear that the fermented cultures are good for the gut, but Big Moo delivers what is more like glorified dessert than a health food. Full of sugar, gums, thickeners, dyes, chemicals, antibiotics, and hormones, yogurt becomes about as healthy as a candy bar.
10. The estrogen factor
Oh, the studies. There’s always a study for every side of a contentious health issue, and soy is no exception. One study shows that soy is dangerous for boys during puberty. Another shows that soy may help menopause symptoms. Another shows that soy may inhibit fertility. Yet another shows that soy may help prevent cancer and heart disease. I recommend doing a search for soy at vitasearch.com. Type “Is soy healthy?” into Google and you’re going to get a lot of conflicting information. I prefer to stick with the studies so I get accurate information. That doesn’t mean the studies aren’t biased or wrong themselves from time to time, but at least I know I’m looking at something that was held up to a scientific standard.
In other words, I don’t have the last word on soy – no one really does. I think controversial foods become so because we simply expect far too much. We learn about a possible benefit, and before you know it, food manufacturers are adding soy protein to lollipops. When you stick to fresh, unprocessed, organic, whole foods, 99% of nutrition and health worries simply disappear.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.