Is Tofu Vegan? What to Look Out For

If you’re new to a vegan diet, deciphering food labels and figuring out which foods are vegan-friendly can be overwhelming. Even when a certain food seems straightforward, surprising animal-based ingredients may be used to produce it.

Tofu is a popular source of protein, but is tofu always okay for vegans? Are there any ingredients vegans should watch out for?

Keep reading as I discuss how tofu is made, common ingredients used in tofu, and instances where tofu may not be vegan.

Is tofu vegan?

Yes, tofu is vegan since it’s made from soy, a plant-based legume. No animal products, byproducts, or processing aids are used during its production, so tofu is vegan-friendly. That said, some specialty varieties of tofu or traditional dishes may contain animal ingredients. 

I’ll discuss these exceptions in more detail later on in this post.

What is tofu?

Tofu (also known as “bean curd”) is a protein-rich food made from coagulated soy milk. It originated in China1 during the Han Dynasty, which spanned from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. 

Tofu has been a popular ingredient in traditional dishes for hundreds of years. In Western countries, tofu is primarily enjoyed by vegetarians, vegans, and flexitarians as a plant-based protein source.

How tofu is made

The process of making tofu is remarkably similar to cheesemaking. Soybeans are boiled in water, after which the pulp is removed from the liquid soy milk. 

A coagulant is added to soy milk which separates it again into liquid and solid components. These solids are rich in protein and are pressed together to form a solid cake. 

Silken tofu in a bowl with sliced green onions and soy sauce

Types of tofu

Tofu can be made with varying degrees of firmness, depending on what type of dish it will be used for. Tofu comes in the following varieties:

  • Silken tofu – Very soft and doesn’t hold a firm shape; has the highest liquid content
  • Regular tofu – Used commonly in many traditional recipes
  • Firm tofu – Lower water content, holds its shape well. It is usually pressed to remove excess water before being cooked
  • Extra-firm tofu – Even lower water content than firm tofu
  • Super-firm tofu – The highest in protein and lowest in water content. It doesn’t require pressing

Yuba, the tofu “skins” which form as soy milk is boiled, is available fresh or dried in the form of sheets or sticks. You may find them labeled as bean curd sticks. 

RELATED: What Does Tofu Taste Like? [The Ultimate Flavor Guide]

Ingredients

Tofu is made using three main ingredients: soybeans, water, and a coagulant.

The most common coagulants used for commercially available, packaged tofu are calcium sulfate, calcium chloride, magnesium sulfate, glucono delta-lactone, and nigari. Nigari is a liquid made primarily of magnesium chloride and sodium chloride. All of these coagulants are vegan-friendly.

Is tofu ever non-vegan?

As a starting ingredient, plain tofu is always vegan before any cooking or further preparation. Some forms of tofu aren’t vegan, so look out for these terms when perusing a restaurant menu:

  • Stinky tofu. Stinky tofu is made by soaking plain tofu in a fermented brine composed of meat, milk, vegetables, and sometimes dried shrimp. Traditionally prepared stinky tofu is not vegan.
  • Chinese egg tofu. In Chinese cuisine, egg tofu is made from soy milk and eggs. It’s similar in appearance to purely soy-based tofu but isn’t vegan.
  • Japanese egg tofu (Tamago Tofu). This type of tofu isn’t made from soy at all – rather, it’s made from eggs and dashi. Vegans will want to avoid this type of tofu.

Additionally, some traditional dishes that use tofu may sound vegan but often include animal ingredients. Examples include:

  • Mapo Tofu – often includes minced meat
  • Agedashi tofu – often made with bonito (fish) flakes.
  • Ganmodoki (hiryōzu) – Japanese tofu fritter that may contain egg
  • Huai’an Pingqiao tofu – Chinese dish that contains seafood and chicken
  • Tofu skin roll – Tofu skin often stuffed with seafood or meat

If you see a dish you aren’t familiar with on a menu, be sure to do your research or contact the restaurant to see if it contains animal products. 

Health benefits of tofu for vegans

As a dietitian, I couldn’t resist adding a quick section on the health benefits of tofu. Tofu is an incredibly nutritious food that can improve the nutrient density of vegan diets. Some of its advantages are that it is:

  • High in protein: Half a block of firm tofu contains an impressive 22 grams of complete protein containing optimal amounts of all nine essential amino acids
  • Potentially high in calcium: Tofu is a great source of calcium as long as calcium sulfate is used as the coagulant. You should see “calcium” in the ingredients list and a Daily Value percentage listed on the nutrition facts label. A half-block of tofu prepared this way usually provides about 20% of the daily value for calcium for strong bones.
  • Good source of iron: Half a block of tofu contains 3 grams of iron, a mineral important for vegans to get enough of to support healthy red blood cell production and good energy levels. 
  • Low in saturated fat. Replacing meat with tofu can lower your intake of saturated fat and may help lower inflammation2.

RELATED: Are Soy Curls Healthy?

Summary

Since tofu is made only from soybeans, water, and vegan-friendly coagulants, this protein-packed food is vegan on its own. Just be sure to watch out for stinky tofu and egg tofu, neither of which are vegan. 

Of course, tofu’s vegan status can be altered by the way it’s prepared in food. Some traditional dishes like Mapo Tofu may be made with meat or other animal-based ingredients, so try to do your research ahead of time before ordering an unfamiliar menu item.

If you’re also wondering how to safely eat any tofu-based leftovers, check out my article on how to reheat tofu.

New to veganism? Download a free PDF of my Vegan Food List for Beginners!

The scientific information in this article was accurate at the time of publishing but may change over time as new research becomes available.

References

  1. McHugh, Tara. How Tofu is Processed. Food Technology Magazine. February 2016, Volume 70, No 2. IFT website. Accessed 12/29/23.
  2. DiNicolantonio JJ, O’Keefe JH. Good Fats versus Bad Fats: A Comparison of Fatty Acids in the Promotion of Insulin Resistance, Inflammation, and Obesity. Mo Med. 2017;114(4):303-307.

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