Tofu is a widely-enjoyed food made from soybeans, and it is a great example of how a simple food like soybeans can be woven into human food traditions in a way that is natural, inexpensive, and nourishing. Tofu is a surprisingly versatile form of soybeans that is made by curdling soymilk so that its proteins become coagulated and then pressed into a sliceable cake. Even though very little tofu sold in the U.S. has been fermented, it is also possible for tofu to be made not only through coagulation, but also through fermentation—i.e., through the addition of micro-organisms which can interact with the soy curds.
In the Health Benefits section of our Soybeansfood profile, we provide an in-depth look at many of the controversial issues surrounding soy foods and their role in health. (You may want to visit that section of our website to learn more about these issues.) One of the most important things to remember about tofu is its basic whole food nature. The vast majority of soy consumed in the U.S. comes from a highly processed form of soy. The soybeans we consume have usually been genetically engineered, cracked, dehulled, crushed, and subjected to solvent extraction to separate their oils from the rest of the bean. What’s left behind after oil extraction (defatted soy flour) is then further processed into animal feed, or processed to produce a protein concentrate or a protein isolate. The isolate can be used as an ingredient in low-fat soymilk, and the concentrate can be further processed (extruded) to form a textured soy protein for use in meat analog products (like soy burgers). Tofu is produced with significantly less processing than most low-fat soymilks and soy burgers, it is a soy food that is much closer to a “whole foods” category than soy protein isolates and concentrates.