Is Tofu Vegan?
Transitioning from animal-derived products to a plant-based diet can be challenging. Many unexpected products, such as beer and white sugar, can contain animal byproducts. Some of these foods list the animal products on their packaging – however, unfortunately, not all are required to include animals’ contributions to labeling.
Tofu is a meat substitute made primarily from soy; additives vary by company (we’ll delve into those later). Vegan recipes frequently rely on tofu to add protein, texture, and substance to lighter meals. Tofu features in vegan stir-fry, burgers, and even imitation yogurts. It’s available in a range of textures for varying cooking needs and is one of many vegans’ “go-tos” for a quick meal.
But is tofu truly vegan? Are there any animal byproducts not listed in tofu’s ingredients, or are animal parts used in the processing of this protein? In this article, we’ll explore tofu: where it comes from, how it’s made, and whether it can be genuinely included in a vegan diet.
Tofu’s Origin: An Ancient Cheese Alternative
Tofu was born in China over 2000 years ago – though no one is completely sure who to credit with its discovery. Ancient records cite a prominent Chinese prince as the originator of tofu (but that may have been ordered by the prince himself, whether or not tofu was his idea). Some academics believe a cook may have discovered it by accident, or the dish may have been borrowed from the Mongols.
However, academics are certain that tofu began in China, where soybeans were plentiful and cooked in a variety of ways. In fact, the use of fermented soy products in cooking came from the Chinese belief that fermented dairy products (yogurt and cheese) should not be consumed. Yes – tofu was vegan from the day it appeared in a Chinese chef’s kitchen.
The Chinese soon shared their new invention with other Asian regions. It spread across the continent, to Japan, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Today, tofu is popular both for its novelty and its cruelty-free health benefits. Unfortunately, not all tofu is truly vegan.
The Process of Making Tofu
Tofu is made in a series of steps that extract soymilk from beans, then curdle the milk using specific curdling agents. The result is pressed and sometimes flavored before being packaged and shipped.
First, soybeans are soaked in water overnight to soften and loosen the inside material. Then, they are mashed and boiled. The pulp is removed through a strainer, leaving pure soymilk.
After the pulp is extracted, the soymilk is boiled again. This time, a coagulant is added to curdle the milk (such as calcium sulfate).
In none of these steps are any animals or animal products used; up until pressing, tofu is completely vegan. But what about the final step?
Following this process, curds are removed and pressed in a mold, removing any remaining milk and resulting in a springy loaf of tofu. The pressing process is very important: it determines the type of tofu and what it can be used for. Firmer tofu has been pressed until very little water remains, and can be baked, fried, and chopped. Softer tofu retains some water from processing and is often creamed or added to dishes for texture.
Each variety of tofu is made by pressing alone – nothing is added (with the exception of seasoned tofu). To this point, tofu is still completely vegan.
Traditional or Regular Tofu
Traditional or regular tofu is the most common form. Also known as “medium” tofu, this type is about the same texture as a household sponge. It holds its shape, making stir-frying and baking simple.
Soft tofu still has some water in it. Its texture is similar to a soft cheese: it’s dense, but not firm.
Silken tofu is the Japanese version of soft tofu. It’s processed differently and retains a silky, mousse-like texture.
There are three “firm” varieties of tofu: firm, extra-firm, and super-firm. Super-firm is the only kind difficult to cook with – because it has very little water remaining, it dries out quickly. Firm and extra-firm are both excellent for stir-fry. Firm crumbles slightly, so it’s recommended in place of ricotta or bleu cheese. Extra-firm is stronger and can be used in place of ground meat or for baking.
Popular Tofu-Derived Products
While pure tofu is definitely vegan, there are some tofu-derived products that are not.
One example of this is tofu cheese. Some imitation cheeses are made with casein, a milk-derived protein. Vegans should also be cautious around flavored tofus. Many use chicken broth, animal fats, or other animal byproducts to intensify their flavors. These may or may not be listed on the packaging – anything with “natural flavors” may contain animal byproducts.
Verdict: Is Tofu Vegan? Yes, usually.
When making tofu, chefs and manufacturers do not need to add any animal products to soy to produce tofu’s springy texture. The entire process is animal-free, from growing and picking the beans, to soaking and boiling for soymilk, to curdling and pressing.
Because tofu does not involve animal byproducts in its creation or its final form, it can be considered fully vegan – but only in its purest form. Not all dishes containing tofu or forms of flavored tofu are necessarily vegan. Reading labels, calling corporations, and staying informed on labelling standards can help you select the best cruelty-free tofu for your meal.
Tofu provides an important source of nutrients for vegans. It’s high in magnesium – an important nutrient for regulating blood pressure and blood sugar. Iron, commonly found in beef, is also present in significant levels; iron ensures the body can keep a high blood cell count. Finally, all known amino acids are present in tofu. Amino acids can help with hormones, metabolism, brain health, and countless other physiological processes.
So, yes: when carefully selected, a regular serving of tofu is a healthy addition to a well-rounded vegan diet.