Processed Food vs. Whole Foods: Where does Tofu Stand?

Is tofu a processed food?

Since it’s October Unprocessed, I thought it would be a good time to look at one of my favorite foods that I think gets a bad rep: tofu. There’s a perception that tofu is a highly processed food, but is it really as bad as haters would have you believe?

Before we even get into whether tofu is a processed food, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t address the whole question of whether soy is healthy or not. Honestly, I couldn’t do a better job with the soy question than Tanya did in this article. She really nails it, in my opinion, so check out her article on soy, then meet me back here, OK?

OK! So maybe soy isn’t the poison that it’s made out to be, right? If you’re still on board, let’s talk a little bit about tofu and about what processed food is.

What is processed food?

I like to think of processed food as having degrees. Technically, if you puree veggies or simmer them to make broth, you’re processing that food, but I don’t think that’s what we mean when we say processed food, right?

What we are talking about are those packaged snack and convenience foods that are made with more high fructose corn syrup, salt, and preservatives than actual food-based ingredients. They’re the things that are alarmingly shelf-stable without needing to be canned. They usually come in plastic wrappers, and there is no way that you could recreate them exactly without a lab.

Does that sound about right to you?

Is tofu a processed food?

I would say yes and no. In the “it’s different from whole soybeans” sense, then yes, but it’s not processed to within an inch of its life, like a Twinkie.

In fact, it’s totally possible to make tofu at home. I’ve done it. Homemade tofu is amazing, and if you have the time to devote to making your own, I can’t recommend it enough. What I learned from making my own tofu is:

  • It’s doable, but time consuming.
  • There are not a whole lot of ingredients.
  • It’s a lot like making cottage cheese.

You can read the post a linked above for more detailed instructions, but here is how you make your basic tofu, just to give you an idea:

  • Find soy milk that’s made with just water and soybeans, or make your own. You don’t want one with other ingredients, because it may not curdle properly.
  • Use a curdling agent like nigari or calcium sulfate.
  • Simmer the soy milk, adding the coagulant at the right times and temperatures.
  • Press into blocks.

The only ingredients in homemade tofu (and most store-bought tofu) are: water, soybeans, and nigari or calcium sulfate.

That stands up to the Michael Pollan rule of 5 ingredients or fewer, right? And the ingredients are all things that are totally not scary. The coagulants are just salts, and you don’t need to do anything special when handling them.

I would love to hear from you guys! Did you consider tofu a processed food? Do you still, after seeing how it’s made? Let’s talk tofu in the comments!

photo by Becky Striepe

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About the Author

My name is Becky Striepe (rhymes with “sleepy”), and I am a crafts and food writer from Atlanta, Georgia with a passion for making our planet a healthier, happier, and more compassionate place to live. My mission is to make vegan food and crafts accessible to everyone!. If you like my work, you can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, and .
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  • Les

    I’m a registered dietitian and I totally agree with your assessment of tofu as only being minimally processed and totally healthy. It should also be pointed out that the estrogen in soy foods is extremely low and should not be an issue to anyone. I recommend tofu to my clients. It’s a great food that can be used in so many different ways.

  • andrea

    thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • jaeger8383

    Thank you. I’ve recently started the whole foods plant-based diet and have been struggling a little with this one.