What is Tofu? 9 Health Risks of Tofu that You May Not Know

what is tofu

If some of you does not know what is tofu then let me tell you that it is made from soy. Tofu is also known as soya curd or bean curd. Tofu is amongst the most controversial foods in the world. Some people can’t stop raving about its nutritional benefits like its ability to lower cholesterol, prevent cancer, and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Anti-soy crusaders, on the other hand, point out that soy diets are high in phytoestrogens which can wreak hormonal havoc, driving estrogen levels too high.

In reality, tofu is not good for health as it is a soybean product. There are several health risks associated with this genetically modified product. Tofu can cause thyroid, pancreatic stress, poor cognitive performance, heart problems, etc.

Let us learn what is tofu and its effect on our health.

What is tofu?

Some people often confuse tofu with a low-fat version of cottage cheese. They do not know what is tofu made of. In reality, tofu is made by curdling condensed soy milk and pressing it into soft, white blocks.

It is relatively bland in taste and can take on the flavor of any spice that you add to it. This soy-based food is a staple in Thai and Chinese cuisine.

Tofu originated in China centuries ago. During the Chou Dynasty, soybean was designated one of the five sacred grains, along with barley, wheat, millet, and rice.

According to a legend, tofu was discovered by a Chinese cook 2000 years ago, when he accidentally curdled soy milk by adding nigari seaweed to it.

The tofu came to Japan in the eighth century, and it was known as Okabe. Its modern name came into use in 1400. Tofu became a popular health food in the western world in the 1960s.

Tofu is high in proteins, and it contains all the essential amino acids. It is a rich source of iron, calcium, manganese, selenium and phosphorous. It contains magnesium, zinc, copper and vitamin B1.

It also contains isoflavones such as phytoestrogens. These may help against cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis but can also lead to some health issues.

Health risks of tofu

Many studies have linked soy to digestive issues, malnutrition, and even cancer. Let us learn more about the health risks associated with tofu.

1. It is genetically modified

One of the main reasons why you must avoid soy products is that 90 percent of the soybeans grown in the US are genetically modified.

Genetically modified foods are linked to numerous health issues as they kill the good bacteria in the gut and damage the digestive system.

One of the main reasons why soybeans were genetically modified in the US was so that they could withstand the pesticides that were sprayed on them.

According to a study published in the Environmental Sciences Review, GMO foods can lead to liver and kidney problems (1).

tofu health risk infographic

2. Can cause thyroid issues

According to a review of 14 studies by Loma Linda University, soy foods do not affect thyroid function in people with healthy thyroids. But if you have an underactive thyroid, you should avoid overeating soy (2).

Tofu is made from soy, which contains goitrogenic compounds like soy isoflavone genistein. These goitrogens can interfere with thyroid hormone production.

Parents should also avoid giving soy-based foods to their babies. According to a study published in the Archives of Diseases in Childhood, intake of soy-based products can have an adverse effect, especially for children born with congenital hypothyroidism (3).

Soy-based food also interferes with the absorption of thyroid medication (4).

3. Contains natural toxins

Soy-based products like tofu are high in natural toxins called anti-nutrients. These include inhibitors that inhibit the enzymes needed for protein digestion, which can lead to gastric distress and deficiency in amino acid uptake.

These are some of the antinutrients present in tofu.

  • Lectins and saponins can lead to gastrointestinal and immune system problems like leaky gut syndrome.
  • Phytates block the absorption of minerals like calcium, zinc, and iron.
  • Oligosaccharides lead to digestive problems like gas and bloating.
  • Oxalates can cause kidney stones and vulvodynia.
  • Protease inhibitors can cause digestive issues and lead to malnutrition and weak growth.
  • Cooking is not able to reduce the levels of antinutrients in tofu, but fermentation helps.

4. Can cause poor cognitive performance

According to a recent study, eating high levels of tofu may lead to memory loss (5). Tofu contains phytoestrogens, which mimic the impact of estrogen.

Phytoestrogens, when taken in large quantities can heighten the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

During an ongoing study on Japanese Americans, researchers found that the subjects who ate tofu in mid-life had lower cognitive function and an increased occurrence of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease (6).

While tofu leads to poor cognitive performance, other soy products like tempeh can improve memory thanks to its high folate levels (7).

5. Can lead to pancreatic stress

Soybean and its products like tofu contain protease inhibitors which suppress enzymes that help digest proteins. To compensate for this our pancreas have to work more to produce more enzymes.

If were consume soy day after day, the pancreas does not get time to rest and recover, and this leads to an increase in the number of pancreatic cells (hyperplasia) and an increase in the size of the pancreatic cells (hypertrophy).

Pancreatic stress and cell proliferation can also lead to cancer. In fact, pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer deaths in the US, and it has seen an alarming rise in the recent years.

6. Soy sensitivity

Soy sensitivity can lead to many digestive issues like bloating, gas, cramping, abdominal pain and diarrhea. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, soy contains at least 15 different types of proteins that can cause an allergic reaction.

The soy allergy is triggered when the body fails to recognize the proteins in soy and develops antibodies against them. One such chemical is histamine, which can cause the lining of the stomach and intestines to become inflamed.

A severe reaction to tofu can also lead to anaphylaxis which can also lead to death.

7. Can cause heart problems

According to research, a soy-rich diet can lead to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a condition in which causes the muscle wall of the heart to become thick and makes it difficult for the heart to pump blood.

It can lead to shortness of breath, chest pain and irregular heart rhythms.

According to a study on mice published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation, mice that had a soy diet exhibited a worse HCM than those who had a soy-free diet (8).

This study proves that a diet rich in soy products like tofu can hurt heart health.

8. Can stimulate breast cancer growth

Soy products like tofu contain phytoestrogens, which can restrict the growth of certain cancers. However, one study from Canada found that low levels of phytoestrogens can stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.

It also inhibits the effects of tamoxifen, the drug used to treat late-stage breast cancer. Interestingly, a higher concentration can cause the tumors to shrink (9).

9. Can lead to vitamin B12 and vitamin D deficiency

Contrary to the widespread perception, soy products like Tofu are not good sources of vitamin B12. The vitamin they contain is inactive, which means the body cannot use it like vitamin B12.

This is the reason why tofu leads to vitamin B12 deficiency. Unfermented soy food like tofu can increase the body’s requirement of vitamin D. So, in fact, eating more tofu can make your vitamin D deficiency worse.

In fact, there are reports of a child who developed vitamin D deficiency rickets because he drank soy milk day after day(10).

Healthier alternatives to tofu

So, now that you know what is tofu and reality behind this vegan food. There are many healthier vegetarian alternatives to tofu.


Seitan is made by mixing wheat gluten and water, kneading it and cooking it. Because wheat dough does not have a flavor, cooks combine it with sauces and spices.

It is then packed into a loaf and baked or steamed. It is higher in protein than tofu and tempeh. Since it contains soy sauce, it is high in sodium as well.


Tempeh is made from whole, fermented soybeans that are pressed into a mold. Tempeh is dense and nutty. It also contains grains like barley, millet or wild rice sometimes.

Tempeh is higher in fiber than tofu. Since it is fermented, it is easier to digest. Since it is made from whole beans, it is also rich in iron.


Natto is a traditional Japanese food that is made from fermented soy. It is a rich source of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.

It also contains Bacillus subtilis, which creates an enzyme called nattokinase, which produces vitamin K2 (11). Natto is helpful in lowering blood pressure.


Miso is a thick paste-like substance that is made from fermented soybeans. This essential ingredient for many Japanese dishes has a great umami flavor. Miso soup is a popular dish made from miso. Miso is reddish brown and has a salty and tangy taste.


People mostly eat tofu thinking it as a healthy vegan food item. They do not know what is tofu and how is this food item is prepared. Most soy products consumed in the Asian countries contain fermented soy. In the western world, tofu is the most popular soy product.

Unfortunately, it is made from unfermented, genetically modified soy. You must avoid tofu as it may lead to many health problems.

Tofu consumption can lead to thyroid issues, heart problems like hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and allergy symptoms like bloating, gas and cramping.

Though many experts claim soy is beneficial for health, you are better off eating fermented soy products like tempeh and natto. These are rich sources of protein and fiber and offer many health benefits.

Manveen had an illustrious career in journalism and writing. She is the mother of a super active 7-year-old. While chasing her around the house, she also finds time to pursue her passion for writing on parenting, education, health, fitness, and entertainment.