Tofu is often sold as a meat alternative. It’s processed much like a dairy product yet made from plants.
So, what kind of food is tofu, and where does it fit in the classic food groups? Is tofu a vegetable?
No, tofu is not a vegetable. Tofu is made from soybean curds, and soybeans are legumes, not vegetables. The process of making tofu involves coagulating soy milk and then pressing the resulting curds into soft, white blocks.
While tofu is derived from a plant source, it doesn’t fit the typical definition of a vegetable in either botanical or culinary terms. Instead, tofu is often considered a protein source, especially in vegetarian and vegan diets.
Read on for a more detailed explanation.
What Food Group Is Tofu In?
Although tofu and soy-based foods are made from legumes, a type of vegetable, the food origin doesn’t determine their food group.
According to the USDA, soy milk is a dairy food grouped with milk, yogurt, cheese, and other dairy foods.
Although it is made from soy milk, like cheese, tofu belongs to the USDA’s protein food group, along with meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, other legumes, nuts, and seeds.
Is Tofu a Vegetable?
In one sense, yes, tofu is a vegetable. However, tofu is made from soybeans, which are legumes.
Legumes are typically considered a class of vegetable.
However, there are many definitions of “vegetable,” and classifications can sometimes be controversial. For a brief explanation, according to botanists:
- A “fruit” is a seed-bearing structure that develops from the ovaries of a flowering plant
- All other edible parts of a plant, including leaves, roots, stems, flowers, etc., are considered “vegetables.”
- This botanical definition makes seeds, beans, nuts, squash, and, yes, tomatoes classified as a type of fruit.
However, there is also a culinary definition of fruits and vegetables.
For most chefs and foodies, plants and plant parts that are sweet and used in sweet dishes are called “fruits,” while plants and plant parts used in savory dishes are considered “vegetables.”
This method classifies tomatoes, squashes, and bell peppers as vegetables and is often how foods are sorted and displayed in markets and grocery stores.
Is Tofu a Meat?
Tofu is not meat in terms of containing any animal proteins or animal products. But that’s not the end of the story.
The USDA classifies tofu in the protein food group, including meat and other high-protein foods.
According to the USDA’s food group guidelines, beans and peas are categorized in the protein food group with meats and meat products because they’re high in protein.
They’re also included in the vegetable food group because they are vegetables, and they contain essential nutritional elements that belong to both food groups.
Also, many people consider tofu a meat alternative and use it as a meat replacement in foods and recipes, while many grocery stores stock tofu with other vegan options.
However, from a culinary perspective, as the primary source of protein in a meal or recipe, tofu may be considered “meat.”
It’s often prepared and seasoned like meat, although it’s made from plants.
Those who must avoid meat due to specific dietary restrictions (like halal), need not worry when it comes to tofu.
Is Tofu a Dairy Product?
Tofu is a cheese in the same way that soy milk is “milk.”
Like cheese, tofu is made by coagulating soy milk into curds with an acid, then forming the curds into blocks.
In addition, soft and silken tofu are often used as a substitute for cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, sour cream, and other dairy products.
Firm tofu is often used in place of feta and other firmer cheeses.
The textural similarities make it easy to use tofu in the same way you would use a dairy product, and many recipes are written accordingly.
However, some people strongly feel that plant-based milk is not “milk;” therefore, tofu cannot be considered a dairy product.
Is Tofu a Grain?
From an ordinary culinary perspective, tofu is not a grain.
However, tofu is made from soybeans, the soy plant’s seeds.
The seeds of cereal and legume plants are the primary sources of grain, so, scientifically speaking, tofu may be considered a grain-derived food.
Tofu is not considered or classified as a grain despite these technical details.
We usually think of grains as foods that are high in starches and carbohydrates and use grains to make bread, cereals, pasta, and other starchy foods.
Because tofu is low in carbohydrates and starches, it’s not used as a grain or used as a grain in foods and recipes.
Is Tofu a Legume?
Tofu is made from soybeans, which are legumes. Legumes are the fruits and seeds of plants in the Fabaceae family.
Other legumes include peas, chickpeas, peanuts, carob, and clover.
Legumes are unusual in that they are typically higher in protein than most plants, and most have root nodules capable of fixing nitrogen in the soil.
As a result, they are one of the world’s most important food crops for humans and animals.
Interestingly, many legumes are soaked and ground and used to make a kind of flour.
When legumes are processed in a way that allows them to be used as a grain, they are called “pulses.”
While soybean flour is an increasingly popular vegan cooking and baking ingredient, it still does not make tofu a type of grain.
Is Tofu a Fruit?
Soybeans are a seed that grows in a pod, similar to garden peas and green beans.
Botanically speaking, because these seeds are developed from a flower, they are a type of fruit.
Therefore, scientists classify any seed that emerges from the reproductive flower of a plant to be a type of fruit.
However, we would usually not consider soybeans, peas, or lentils as a type of fruit.
Instead, we would typically consider them vegetables and look for them in the vegetable section of the supermarket.
There are enormous differences between the ways that foods are classified and categorized.
Some of the systems include:
The science of botany groups and categorizes plants by their anatomy and morphology, genetic structure, ecology and environment, and other factors.
Believe it or not, plants have detailed legal classifications.
However, there is often significant disagreement and debate over these classifications, which help to determine which food imports are taxed at different rates, which are subject to tariffs or restrictions, or which receive subsidies and government support.
Famously, tomatoes were classified as a vegetable to avoid additional taxes owed for fruits, and the potato content of Pringles led to years of legal conflicts.
Professional chefs often use culinary classifications like “pulses,” “cereals,” or “milk” in a way that ordinary people don’t.
In addition, because chefs functionally think of foods and use specialized language, they may categorize foods in an unusual way.
Most supermarkets need to group foods in an intuitive way to make them easy to find, beneath a sign or on an aisle that designates like foods.
Although placing different foods in grocery stores may be somewhat arbitrary, grouping foods beneath a sign affects how we think of those foods and the categories we use for them.
So, for example, you can almost always find mushrooms in the vegetable section of a grocery store, but mushrooms aren’t scientifically “plants” at all.
Tofu is an interesting food in an interesting food group.
The USDA classifies legumes in a unique way because they fulfill many of the essential characteristics of both a protein food and a vegetable food, so they fit into both food groups.
Tofu is also prepared in the same way that a dairy cheese would be prepared, although soy milk is not classified as a dairy product.
Tofu is made by the flowering part of a plant and thus classified as a type of fruit.
However, you can usually find it with the other vegan meats and meat alternatives in your grocery store.
Tofu is so versatile and such an interesting food that it defies classification.