Tofu: Friend or Foe? …It Depends.

Like many foods out there, tofu (and soy-based products, generally) are debated. Tofu is a product made from soybeans, water and a coagulant (which helps give it the spongy form we all know and…love?). It’s been touted as a “health food” because it is a source of plant-based protein that is both low in calories and fat. However, it’s important to know what types of tofu and soy-based products are the most health promoting because there are definitely products out there that have raised some questions. (Surprise, surprise!)

Perhaps the most concerning issue is that soybeans and corn are the most common genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the market. This is bad because we don’t really know the long-term effects of GMOs and at least a few studies have already linked GMOs to liver and kidney problems in mammals. While GMOs weren’t introduced to the market until 1994, they took off quickly. Some estimates calculate that almost 90 percent of soy products available today contain GMOs. And, currently in the US, GMOs don’t require labeling so we don’t really know when we are eating them. ┬áThat said, if a product is labeled “organic”, it should not fall into this camp — I buy organic whenever possible.

So, fine. Just buy organic tofu and soy products and it’s all good, right? Well, not so fast. Even organic unfermented soy products such as┬átofu, edamame and soy milk still may not be so great. Some studies have linked various quantities of them to breast cancer, thyroid disruption, dementia, vitamin deficiencies (B12 and D, in particular), and other health problems. While I personally have been known to eat tofu and edamame from time to time, I keep these to less than 1 serving a week.

Alternatively, fermented soy products don’t seem to have the negative side effects of their unfermented peers. Miso, natto, tempeh and tamari fall into this category. While all soybeans naturally contain toxins and plant hormones, studies show that fermentation actually seems to make soy products health-promoting. For instance, natto has been shown to lower blood pressure and tempeh reduces cholesterol. Both have beneficial bacteria that promote gut health.

While I don’t believe enough studies have been done to be completely conclusive about the health impacts of soy, I personally choose to buy soy products sparingly. When I do I major on organic, non-GMO, fermented varieties as my top picks. Better to be safe than sorry in this case.