If you are looking to include tofu in your diet while you’re pregnant, you may want to know about any possible risks as well as the benefits of tofu for you and your baby.
Most women can eat tofu safely in moderation during pregnancy, and there are many nutritional benefits of soy. However, tofu contains phytoestrogens that can mimic the actions of estrogen in a small number of individuals.
As more people are turning to plant-based foods, soy is a popular choice, particularly as a meat substitute. Most people can eat it safely but for others, there may be health implications.
We will look in detail here at whether it is safe to eat tofu or not, and if you do choose to eat it, the best ways to do so safely during pregnancy.
We’ll also look at the health benefits as well as any potential risks that you will want to know about.
Is It Safe to Eat Tofu When You’re Pregnant?
Tofu is made by soaking dried soybeans in water and then crushing and boiling them.
The mixture is separated into pulp and soy ‘milk’, and coagulants are added to the milk in order to separate the curds from the whey. These curds are pressed into blocks, much like the cheese-making process, resulting in tofu.
For most of us, tofu is perfectly safe to eat during pregnancy, as long as you don’t overdo it and are eating a wide variety of other healthy foods (Source: NHS).
However, if you have been diagnosed with breast cancer or have hypothyroidism, you will want to avoid eating too much tofu, as soy phytoestrogens may mimic estrogen.
Too much estrogen can block the uptake of thyroid hormones which can lead to hypothyroidism. With breast cancer, soy could increase the growth of breast cancer cells in certain women (Source: JON).
Concerns about Tofu and Autism in Pregnancy
Many pregnant women are concerned that eating too much tofu or other soy products could contribute to autism, particularly in baby boys, where autism is 4.7 times more common than in girls.
However, there is no scientific evidence to suggest there is a link.
Current studies show that environmental factors, as well as the maternal level of thyroid hormones from insufficient dietary intake, could be contributing factors to causing autism, rather than soy (Source: ScienceDirect).
There is some research indicating that autistic children could have increased incidences of autistic behaviors when they drink formula made from soy (Source: NCBI).
Having said that, studies so far have not found a link between healthy babies being fed soy formula and any negative long-term effects (Source: NCBI).
For most pregnant women, eating soy – and therefore tofu – is fine as long as you don’t eat too much of it.
Are All Types of Tofu Pregnancy Safe?
If you do choose to eat tofu, it’s worth noting here that there are several types, depending on their consistency.
Silken. This is the softest tofu, commonly found in creamy, blended foods, or as an egg substitute.
Regular. This tofu is slightly softer than the firm tofu: its texture resembles a softer kind of cheese.
Firm. This is the most common form of tofu that you are likely to find, and has roughly the same consistency as feta cheese.
Extra-firm. This type of tofu – as well as super-firm tofu – is most commonly found in stir-fries or as baked tofu.
Super-firm. The texture of super-firm tofu comes the closest to that of meat.
All these types of soy are safe in pregnancy if they are both cooked and stored properly once opened. There’s more on this below.
Can Pregnant Women Eat Cold Tofu?
Tofu is kept in the refrigerated section of your supermarket because it is a perishable food.
It is considered a ‘high risk’ vegan food as well as a potentially hazardous food, because it can go bad if left at room temperature.
For this reason, it’s best to avoid cold tofu during pregnancy. Although the odds are getting sick are small, cooking tofu is an easy step that makes it much safer to eat during pregnancy.
If you are eating tofu in a restaurant, make sure it is served hot, because pre-cooked tofu can become contaminated with bacteria after the cooking stage (Source: FoodSafety).
Cooking and Storing Tofu When Pregnant
To make sure that your tofu is safe to eat, it needs to be cooked until it reaches an internal temperature of 74C / 165F for at least 15 seconds.
Once it is cooked, it needs to be eaten before it cools down, or chilled quickly – within 2 hours (Source: BCCampus).
And like all perishable foods in the refrigerator, tofu should be stored at 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4C) or less, where it will keep for 7 days once opened.
If you wish to freeze it, you can do so, and it will keep in the freezer for up to 5 months (Source: USDA).
In the process of producing tofu, the soybeans (rather than the tofu itself) are subjected to high temperatures which helps to eliminate heat-sensitive bacteria before any pasteurization takes place.
This is why pasteurization is not required for tofu – in fact, the FDA does not distinguish between pasteurized and unpasteurized tofu. However, almost all tofu sold in the USA is pasteurized (Source: FSI).
When purchasing tofu, beware of any homemade varieties. Tofu is susceptible to botulism which can cause serious illness, and there have been cases of people falling ill after having eaten home-fermented tofu (Source: MMWR).
Little is known about the possible effects of botulism on an unborn fetus, but as botulism is one of the most potent food-related toxins known (Source: NEJM), you are better off cooking your tofu thoroughly!
Is Tofu OK in Early Pregnancy (The First Trimester?)
There are no particular safety concerns for eating tofu in the first trimester of pregnancy.
As with other stages of pregnancy, eating soy products in moderation should be safe for most people.
However, you should still cook and store the tofu properly – or ask for it to be heated until hot – as explained above.
Is Tofu a Healthy Pregnancy Choice? Are There Benefits?
If you are looking for a source of protein that is low in fat, then tofu is an excellent choice.
Half a cup of firm tofu has approximately 98 calories for 11 grams of protein. The same amount of soft tofu has 75.5 calories and 9 grams of protein (Source: Nutritionix).
Tofu is also rich in potassium, containing 4-5% of the daily value for adults.
Potassium has been considered to be helpful to prevent hypertension, as it is particularly good at lowering both systolic and diastolic blood pressure, so if you have high blood pressure, you may find this helpful.
Potassium has also been proven to help prevent strokes, particularly in people who don’t suffer from hypertension. The best results were shown when people ingested 3,500-4,700 mg per day.
Potassium-rich foods are encouraged during pregnancy, to the amount of 4,000 mg per day for pregnant women and 4,400 per day for lactating women (Source: ANM).
Tofu is also cholesterol-free, high in polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fat and is recommended as a healthy substitute for meat or dairy products for most children and adults (Source: USDA).
Popular Tofu Dishes and Pregnancy Safety
Here are some common tofu dishes that you may wish to eat, and any safety considerations:
Tofu hot dogs – Like other hot dogs, tofu hot dogs are safe in pregnancy to eat provided they have been cooked to the right hot temperature. However, these foods frequently have a lot of additives for flavoring, so they are not the healthiest options. You can read our complete guide to hot dogs here.
Tofu in soup – As long as the tofu has been cooked and the soup is served steaming hot, tofu in soup is safe for pregnant women to eat. Tofu is often found in miso soup, and can be a fairly healthy choice.
Fermented tofu – Fermented tofu is also called bean curd, bean cheese, tofu cheese, preserved bean curd or wet bean curd. Check that the tofu has not been fermented at home – store-bought is your best option for safety during pregnancy. Make sure that it has been pasteurized, and that it is served steaming hot.
Fried tofu – Fried tofu is safe to eat when pregnant, as the heat required for frying will kill any potentially harmful bacteria. Once again, make sure it is very hot – tepid stir-fried tofu is not hot enough. You want to see steam, or know that it has just been deep-fried (although any deep-fried food is best eaten in moderation because of the added fat).
Agedashi tofu – Agedashi tofu is soft tofu that has been coated with potato starch and then deep fried to form a crispy outer shell. It is safe to eat when pregnant provided that the tofu inside is steaming hot.
Mapo tofu – Mapo tofu is a deliciously Sichuan Chinese dish where silken tofu is stir-fried in a spicy sauce, along with bits of pork and vegetables. As long as the tofu is nice and hot, Mapo tofu is also safe for pregnant women to eat – although very spicy!
Pregnancy-friendly Tofu Recipe Ideas
Here are some healthy, pregnancy-friendly ideas to incorporate tofu into your diet:
Tofu stir-fries. Cube some firm tofu and sauté with lots of crispy vegetables. You can then serve it over brown rice or cauliflower rice for a very healthy and veggie-packed meal.
Baked tofu. Unlike fried tofu which has extra fat, you can marinate tofu cubes or pieces in some soy sauce or tamari with a bit of sesame oil and your favorite seasoning (think barbecue, Cajun, Mexican…) and bake the cubes in the oven with the remainder of the marinade poured over the top.
Sandwich wraps. Cube your tofu, coat it in a dry spice mixture, cook it and serve it as a meat alternative in sandwiches or collard lettuce wraps.
Tofu quinoa bowl. Toss some hot tofu cubes over a mixture of quinoa and veggies for a one-bowl meal.
We hope this reassures you that not only is tofu a healthy protein alternative, but there are many ways to eat it that are safe and delicious during pregnancy.