Tofu versus Soy Protein Isolate – like Fresh-Squeezed Orange Juice versus Tang

“Soy”, the word conjures up so many images, from healthy and delicious tofu, to hand lotions and fire-fighting foam.

The humble soy bean is so versatile that its properties can be used in just about anything and everything today. But this was not always the case.

Soybeans were originally grown solely for consumption just like many other bean varieties (e.g., pinto beans, garbanzo bean, black beans). It was consumed as a whole bean by East Asians in the form of tofu. For thousands of years, tofu consumption spread from China to Japan and other Southeast Asia countries; it was consumed not only for its protein-rich nutrition but also for its wonderful taste.

Fast forward to the 1936, a brilliant American chemist named Percy Julian found a way to extract the protein from soy and use it as a functional ingredient for paper coating.  Dr. Julian built the first soy protein isolate extraction plant, and soy protein isolate was used in many products from paint to textile fiber. His discovery of soy protein isolate for non-food functional uses, unfortunately, eventually led us back to food. Click here for a great PBS documentary on Dr. Julian.

Soy protein isolate made its way back to food in 1959. This highly processed form of soy, was used to manipulate the textures of meat products, to augment protein level in processed foods, and to function as an emulsifier. Today, in your supermarket aisle, you can find soy protein isolates in salad dressings, soups, fake meats, infant formula, breads, cereals, and supplements. It remains one of the cheapest processed proteins.

Tofu, on the other hand, has been made in the same way it had been made over the past several thousand years — whole soy beans are soaked, ground, then cooked.  Soy milk is squeezed out from the cooked soy pulp, then a mineral coagulant (like rennet in cheese-making) is added to turn the milk into curd. And finally, just like cheese, the curds are pressed into various textures and formed into various shape.

At Hodo, we maintain this same artisanal approach to making tofu. Our tofu just tastes better because we use thicker and richer soy milk (I will write another blog on why our tofu is uniquely different on what’s out there in the marketplace later). I liken it to making cheese with whole cow milk instead of using watered-down cow milk. By not skimping on quality, quantity and the purity of ingredients and by using a traditional approach, we  make better tasting tofu. Here is a link to a video on how we make tofu.

Next time you pick up a “soy” product that is not tofu, chances are the food and its packaging have the same ingredient — soy protein isolate.


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