Tofu and its identity crisis

Ever wonder why tofu rarely appears on school lunch trays? I found out recently that tofu is not recognized as a “meat alternative” by the USDA. I looked it up:

USDA is aware of a growing interest to expand the list of allowable meat alternates to include tofu, a whole soybean food. We recognize that soybean foods are increasingly being incorporated in the American diet as nutrient-dense meat alternatives. This rule is not proposing to credit commercially prepared tofu as an allowable meat alternate at this time. However, USDA is interested in receiving comments from the child nutrition community proposing a methodology that could be used for crediting commercially prepared tofu.

A longstanding concern regarding tofu is the lack of an FDA standard of identity. An FDA standard of identity defines what a given food product is, its name, and the ingredients that must be used or may be used in the manufacture of the food product. Without a standard of identity, USDA cannot assure nutritional consistency across brands and types of tofu in a food-based menu planning approach. Although tofu does not have a standard of identity, the USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 22 (2009) provides nutrient profiles for different types of tofu.

Other soy-based products are currently allowed as alternate protein products (APP) if they meet the requirements in Appendix A to 7 CFR part 210, and Appendix A to 7 CFR part 220. Examples of allowable APPs include products that are formulated with ingredients such as soy concentrates, soy isolates, soy flours, whey protein concentrate, or casein. Tofu is not an allowable APP because it does not meet the established minimum requirement to consist of at least 18 percent protein by weight when fully hydrated or formulated. (Federal Register / Vol. 76, No. 9 / Thursday, January 13, 2011 / Proposed Rules)

Makes me wonder how did Red #40 and Yellow #5 got by, when tofu was stopped at the gate? Tofu seems like an easy win to me: it’s cheap, it’s healthy, and it’s plant-based. 

I have heard some people ask why don’t school lunches go meatless more often? If cost is an issue, why don’t we go the “rice and beans” route more often? Well, I have seen “meatless” consist of neon yellow processed cheese…

Although I am a meat eater, I don’t think every meal needs to incorporate meat. With respect to school lunch, the default lunch is often a hamburger consisting of a standard meat patty. I don’t know what the life cycle of a soybean plant is, but I bet it’s shorter than the 18 months it takes to raise a calf from birth to when it is ready to be slaughtered. The life/growth cycle of an organism should factor into their consumption cost, right? And what about other costs of production? Per Meatless Monday, an estimated 1,800 to 2,500 gallons of water go into a single pound of beef. Tofu requires 220 gallons of water per pound.

This week I chatted with a rancher and I should be posting a Q and A with him sometime in the next couple weeks. Also, the amazing school lunch I ate earlier this month? I still owe you a post! Actually I’m turning it into a short series. Look for it to start next week.

It’s nice to be back. Thanks for waiting! Speaking eating tofu, here’s a recipe you might enjoy Orange-Soy Tofu Stir-Fry. Any other ways that you prepare tofu at home?

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29 thoughts on “Tofu and its identity crisis

  1. you're back!!!! missed your posts, mrs. Q! 😉

    you talk in this post about tofu and meatless alternatives…have you ever seen school lunches that include quinoa? (I love it!)

  2. I wish we could eat tofu at home. I love it prepared in hot, spicy thai dishes. Soy is the next food on our food challenge list. If we pass, I'll be looking for tofu recipes.

    Really only 220 gallons of H20 vs. 1800-2500? Sounds like there's a special interest somewhere in there, keeping soy from moving up the food chain.

  3. Great post, Mrs. Q! Maybe the problem lies in seeking "meat alternatives." Such a framework inherently makes meat–and not quality meat at that–the center of the meal. Another consideration, APPs tend to be heavily processed and verging on the artificial and may not be the best substitute for kids.

    Did you ask the rancher about land use, energy inputs to caloric output, and grass-fed vs. corn-fed?

  4. I grew up vegetarian so we ate tofu a lot of ways. Some that seem school lunch friendly:

    Sliced into a "patty" (grilled with BBQ sauce or baked with teriyaki sauce)
    Cubed & marinated, added to pasta salad or green salad
    Crumbled into sauce and served sloppy-joe style on a bun
    Ricotta-replacer in lasagna
    Simmered in soups and stews

    Most kids I know love tofu, so I am surprised that it's not already in school lunches!

  5. My husband has a mild soy allergy, and I know he would never recognize tofu in a prepared lunch, as he's never eaten or been exposed to it. If it was served in a way that was clearly marked so that those with soy allergies (which is a lot of people!) could avoid and had an alternative main course, it could work.

    Does your school provide main course alternatives when the entree contains one of the top 8 allergens? Are they clearly marked as such? I know the food labeling laws help at the grocery store, but do they also apply to school lunch?

  6. My kids' school lunch is vegetarian once a week, but I've never seen tofu on the menu those days.

  7. The only use of my George Foreman grill (gift from the in-laws) is for grilling tofu. It makes for a great, chewy, textured tofu. Then I'll use it in almost anything – like my son's favorite tofu bar-b-cue salad

  8. This is a great post. I love to hear real info from the USDA and FDA. it is so much better than hearing about it second hand.

    Soy is controversial. I have a hard time believing that anyone is keeping soy down, as it too has a strong lobby and is one of the five crops receiving the most agricultural subsidies. I think it is more that the beef lobby is politically STRONGER than soy, so they win more room on the national plate. Not to mention that tofu is not a traditional American food. It might be a traditional vegetarian food, or Asian food, but not every American eats it everday (or even every month). So I am sure it has to do with the assumptions of what kids want to eat.

    Unfermented Soy is controversial because of it's high concentration of phytates and antinutrients. Also, some of it's other chemical bits can function as estrogen in the body, creating all kinds of havoc. I am currently looking for sources for both the pros and cons of soy. We aren't eating much of it these days since I am not clear what risk it poses. Fermented soy on the other hand is rich in nutrients, which is why the traditional Asian diet incorporates things like natto and soy sauce. I have recently read that tofu is a relatively new soy occurance, in the last couple hundred years. But that when it was first made in Asia, there is evidence that it too was fermented as a result of the lack of refrigeration.

    If anyone has links or info, I would be really happy to ook at them. I want to make sre I have my soy stories straight.

  9. i only like fermented soy. too many problems that need research regarding unfermented soy, I like what the table of promise said. Plus, soy, i believe is one crop that is becoming GMO very quickly!

  10. I cringe at the thought of feeding our children soy products in school lunches. Most of the soy grown in this country is genetically modified, and has never been proven safe for human consumption. Unfermented soy is one of the most unhealthy products you could ever put into your body. It is full of phytic acid, as The Table of Promise said, but it is also full of phytoestrogens. These can mimic natural hormones in our body and cause all kinds of problems, especially in infants and children.

    Here are a few links:

    "Soy is particularly problematic for infants and it would be very wise to avoid giving them soy-derived products, since it has been estimated that infants who are exclusively fed soy formula receive the equivalent of five birth control pills worth of oestrogen every day."

    I urge every parent to thoroughly research soy before feeding it to your infants and children.

  11. Welcome back, Mrs. Q! I've missed your posts!

    I love the idea of meatless meals. I'm a big fan of bean-based dishes, and I love another commenter's suggestion of quinoa!

    However, I share some of the same concerns that other posters have regarding soy. Soy is one of the most common allergens in the US. My husband has a soy allergy as well as a dairy allergy, so a lo of meatless options are off the table for him. I'm not sure if an entirely meat-free menu (even for one day) would be okay for a lot of kids who suffer with food allergies unless the cafeteria sticks with something basic like beans and rice.

    Also, I've been avoiding eating large amounts of soy because of evidence that it functions as a hormone disruptor. I was planning on asking my doctor about it (the women in my family already have poor thyroid health), and I'm afraid of the risk. However, soy seems to be an integral part of the incredibly healthy Japanese diet, so I'm interested in more research on the issue. I'm still not a huge fan of soy, though (although I think edamame is one of the most delicious snacks ever).

  12. Personally, I'm not a big fan of soy – particularly tofu, but that's mainly because tofu gives me a stomachache. The non-meat food I'd love to see on menus is lentils. Lentils are cheap, versatile, and very healthy. Even my carnivorous husband happily eats chili with lentils replacing the ground meat – I bet kids would too.

  13. We plant beans in Late April/may and harvest sometime in September/October. I don't think our beans are made into tofu though.

  14. It seems like I'm going to have to do another post on soy — there really is a lot to say.

    First, the GM soy is a big concern, but no less concerning than the GM corn that is fed to cows who are hormoned up and drunk on antibiotics and then milked and later slaughtered for our consumption. Both are not good.

    Second, concerned about soy in school lunches? It's already added as a filler to their "beef crumbles" or the equivalent. Although I don't have access to ingredient information, it's added here and there. I'd rather see tofu on the menu than some hidden soy.

    Third, if you've noticed, my son's lunches are soy free. The kid is definitely not responding well to soy.

    Genetically modified food is a bad idea.

  15. My recollection from Michael Pollan (in Defense of Food) is that tofu is not dangerous like other soy-based foods because it is not processed in the modern sense. I could be wrong about this. I do feed my kids organic tofu as a semi-regular part of our diet.

  16. Years ago, I decided my children were weird when I came home from work and shopping, to be greeted with "Yum! You got the good tofu from the co-op!" I drink soy milk, as I'm dairy intolerant…but that's only enough for my coffee.

    Its amazing what kids will eat and love if you give up notions of catering to pickiness and also involve them in preparation of the food.

  17. I asked my huband about the pesticides etc and he said that there are more things that are grown that have more pesticdes in them like fruit and vegetables then soybeans. He also said about the gm beans and he said its so we can more bushels/acre. He's been farming most of his life.

    On the whole antibiotic thing on cows would you rather have them be sick and not treated. It's common courtesy to treat them if they are sick

  18. You have to be careful where you source soy because the majority of it (upwards of 90% I think) is GM, and you also have to be careful to whom it's being fed because of possible reduced iron absorption capabilities and the isoflavones in soy being connected to certain cancers. That's not to say that the meat that is served in the majority of school cafeterias is any better, but I would be majorly cautious about soy as a major substitute for meat. I personally try to avoid both, mostly because the soy block that you get in the store is fairly processed and the body doesn't efficiently extract nutrients from unprocessed soybeans. I love your blog though. There's definitely a lot of interesting insights into schools and the food that kids are forced to eat.

  19. @ Anonymous (April 1, 9:18am) The cows should definitely be treated IF they are sick. The problem however is that in most factory farms where most meat in america comes from the cows are given antibiotics in ridiculously high does to keep them from getting sick regardless of if they or any of the other cows are sick or not.

  20. Soy products can effect estrogen levels so it's good to be wary of what kind of soy products you are eating and in what kinds of quantities. There are many people who are developing soy allergies, too.

    As for the dyes, they made it in because they are only a small amount in a larger recipe. 🙂

  21. I have heard that soy mimics estrogen, but Asians have been eating tofu for how long now? Are the cancers that are supposedly associated with soy prevalent in Asian countries? I just find it really strange that soy only becomes a problem when it leaves Asia.

  22. I asked my husband who raises cows for a living about the antibiotics and cows. He says it's a waste of money to be pretreating the cows. Now if one cow in the pen is sick they will treat all the others in the pen with the same antibiotics.

  23. I have read your post multiple times and keep coming back to your statement "…how did Red #40 and Yellow #5 got by, when tofu was stopped at the gate?" Food dyes are not classified as a protein source, are they? It reads as though that is what you are suggesting. Or else that you are suggesting that the FDA has banned tofu from food products while allowing food dyes. Perhaps comparing additives and nutrient sources is more inflammatory than educational? I am no fan of dyes and I drink soy milk daily, so I appreciated the post and the comments that followed, but this line confused me.

  24. Anonymous @ 5:56 — I'm sorry, that wasn't clear. What I was trying to say is that the FDA refuses to classify tofu, but they allow artificial dyes (Red #40, etc) and give them an "identity" as an additive. Food dyes are not a protein. Sorry about that!

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