Tofu has been given a bad rap throughout the years, but now this soy-based protein is enjoying a new popularity, as health-conscious consumers are turning away from meat and looking for plant-based alternatives to add to their daily meals. Want to love it? Let these seven health facts convince you to become a fan of tofu.

Tofu has gone mainstream: During a four-week period that ended March 28, tofu sales were up 66.7 percent versus the same period in 2019, and sales were still brisk in May, up 32.8 percent, according to Nielsen data as reported in Bloomberg. One reason is the recent outbreaks of COVID-19 cases in meatpacking plants around the country, along with growing consumer awareness of the fact that diets high in red meat and dairy have been linked to increased risk of heart disease and diabetes.

While the pandemic might have catapulted tofu to recent popularity, experts hope this centuries-old, soy-based food maintains its new position on the tables of mainstream America, especially considering its health benefits and versatility in cooking. In case you need convincing about tofu’s super-plant powers, here are seven facts to win you over.

1. Eating soy does not increase breast cancer risk, but actually lowers it

Many people mistakenly believe soy can raise breast cancer risk, or impact the recurrence of breast cancer. Here’s why: Soy is a uniquely rich source of isoflavones, the naturally occurring plant chemicals that are classified as phytoestrogens (plant estrogens), and in one lab test on mice, isoflavones stimulated the growth of tumors. Yet there are flaws in assuming that soy creates this effect in humans. “Not only do mice metabolize isoflavones differently than humans, but isoflavones also differ from the hormone estrogen,” says Mark Messina, Ph.D., M.S., president of Nutrition Matters in Pittsfield, Mass., adding that clinical studies show that neither soy foods nor isoflavones increase breast cancer risk and appear to lower it.

In fact, one study found that higher soy consumption was associated with a 30 percent lower risk of developing breast cancer, since the plant version may protect women from making estrogen and drives down breast cancer reoccurrence: A review of "11,000 women from the USA and China show[s] that post-diagnosis soy intake significantly reduces recurrence and improves survival." The European Food Safety Authority and the German Research Foundation have concluded that isoflavones do not adversely affect breast tissue. What’s more, Messina says, “observational studies show women who consume soy after a diagnosis of breast cancer are less likely to die from their disease or suffer a recurrence.”

That may be why the American Cancer Society, American Institute for Cancer Research, and World Cancer Research Fund International have all concluded that breast cancer patients can safely consume soy. It might even be wise for kids to eat more tofu as well. “Although speculative, eating tofu early in life (childhood or adolescence) appears to reduce breast cancer in life,” Messina says. Soy is among the healthy foods to eat to lower your risk of cancer.

2. Soy can make your heart healthier

In 1999, the FDA awarded soy foods a health claim for reducing risk of heart disease. Why? “Soy protein directly lowers blood cholesterol levels,” Messina says, adding that 25 grams of soy protein a day (there are about 10 grams in one serving of tofu) will do the trick. Soy foods like tofu are high in healthy polyunsaturated fat, and when you replace foods like animal protein that are high in artery-clogging saturated fat, blood cholesterol levels are reduced.

3. Soy has been shown to lower cholesterol and other markers of CVD

Many studies have found that the healthy fat in soy helps blood lipids and lower LDL (so-called bad cholesterol) but the isoflavones in soy have been shown to help lower cholesterol by improving blood pressure, as well, and Isoflavones have been shown to "mitigate hypertension by targeting mechanisms involving vasodilation; in particular, interaction with the estrogen-response element of genes related to endothelial nitric oxide," so their benefit to heart health appears to be across the board. They also help with glycemic control, weight loss, and inflammation, according to a study that compared soy to other foods and found that it works to lower cholesterol and other major markers of cardiovascular disease.

4. Soy lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes

In the same review study published in Nutrients, the authors looked at fasting blood sugar and found that isoflavones in soy helped to lower the blood glucose levels as well as other precursors to diabetes. In fact, the study found that glycemic control is achieved more frequently by eating soy foods than other healthy foods. Consider this: Women who were given a calcium supplement containing 40 or 80 mg soy isoflavones "experienced significant reductions in fasting blood glucose over the course of one year compared to a group given a calcium supplement alone."

5. Soy lowers the risk of prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is the second most diagnosed cancer in men worldwide, with over 1.1 million cases discovered annually, accounting for 15 percent of all cancer in men. Yet the lowest incident rate for prostate cancer is in Asia, where men eat the most soy products. Research indicates that isoflavones found in soy may be associated with a lower risk of prostate carcinogenesis in the Asian population, according to new studies. "Several studies have reviewed the inverse association seen between soy food intake and prostate cancer incidence in Asian populations, proposing that soy isoflavones act as weak hormones to exert a protective physiological effect against the development of prostate cancer," the study noted. "Isoflavones genistein and daidzein have been shown to accumulate in prostatic tissue where they may be cytotoxic to cancer cells."

6. Soy improves cognitive function

A specific isoflavone in soy, daidzein, has been found to reduce the decline in cognitive function in aging women, according to one study. In the study, researchers compared the benefits of isoflavones to the resveratrol in grapes and found that soy can improve cognitive function by enhancing cerebral vasodilator responsiveness. They looked at the effects of phytoestrogen on cognition and found that it can "improve cognitive function in postmenopausal women." Six soy isoflavone studies showed positive cognitive effects, the research found.

7. Soy reduces more body fat than non-soy proteins

A soy-based low-calorie diet was found to have a greater effect on reducing body fat in a controlled research study than a non-soy protein diet. In the study, overweight individuals followed a diet of either soy-based protein or mixed animal-based protein, and over 8 weeks, the dieters on the soy plan lost more weight than the other group. "Bodyweight, body mass index, body fat percentage, and waist circumference significantly decreased in both groups," the study authors found, but "the decrease in body fat percentage in the soy group was greater than that in the traditional group."

 Tofu comes with other surprising health benefits

Want to build muscle strength? Even find relief from hot flashes? Soy products, tofu included, can do both, according to Messina. “Soy protein promotes gains in muscle mass and strength in individuals engaged in resistance exercise training to the same extent as animal protein,” Messina says. It can also alleviate hot flashes in postmenopausal women.

Tofu contains similar amounts of protein as animal foods

One of tofu’s selling points is its high protein content. It does range slightly from brand to brand, but it’s comparable to animal protein. The range is anywhere from 2 grams of protein an ounce up to about 6 grams an ounce. That’s nearly as much protein as in chicken, which has 8 grams of protein per ounce. That's one reason tofu is so mainstream: You can use it instead of most animal proteins in your favorite stir-fries, salads, or bowls.

Three easy tofu recipes to make tonight