Soy boys: How tofu conquered America during a global pandemic
“Cooking fatigue” is one way to put it.
A year into the global pandemic, even the most avid chefs were starting to hate the sight of their own kitchens. Erin Evans was no different.
A meal-prep enthusiast who loves to experiment in her Brooklyn kitchen, life in quarantine soon made her feel “bored of the same old things; the monotony of meal planning.” So Evans challenged herself to eat a plant-based diet for a month. There was only one problem: While she’d attempted to cook tofu in the past, she’d never been satisfied with the results.
So she braced herself and turned to the primary source of cooking inspiration in the 2020s: TikTok.
“On TikTok, a woman showed how she was pressing the water out of the tofu … she put a cast iron on it and was pressing for 15 to 20 minutes,” Evans tells Inverse.
Once she learned this trick — that tofu cooks best when you remove as much water as possible — Evans found success. “I pressed all the water out [and] put it in my air fryer — another pandemic purchase I do not regret — and it came out really crispy.” With a gingery, peppery sauce, and some udon noodles, “it literally felt like eating chicken. It was filling and good and tofu is cheap, and I was like, Wow, all this time I've been uneducated on it and now I get why people call it a staple in their refrigerators.”
Evans isn’t alone. Across America, home cooks discovered tofu during the pandemic. Sales skyrocketed and Google searches for tofu recipes doubled in 2020. Against all odds, the affordable, healthy, back-of-the-fridge staple found itself perfectly positioned for a moment when meat production was faltering and people were trying their best to avoid crowded grocery store aisles.
Thanks to Covid-19, 2020 might just be the year tofu went mainstream in the U.S.
One year into the pandemic, Inverse is investigating how quarantine changed every facet of our lives, from video games to food to life-changing decisions.
The first year of the coronavirus pandemic was a critical turning point for tofu as it accelerated into “staple” territory. Nasoya, the most popular tofu brand in the U.S., saw an instant boom as quarantine mandates spread across the country. Beginning in March, “there was initially more pandemic buying,” Jay Toscano, the executive vice president of sales for Pulmuone, the parent company of Nasoya, tells Inverse. The company initially saw 20 to 40 percent more sales on orders.
“Throughout quarantine, we continued to see an overall spike in sales. We grew 25 percent in May and 43 percent in June for tofu compared to those months in 2019.” Like everything in 2020, these numbers were unprecedented. “At Nasoya, we’ve never seen a spike like this,” Toscano says. “Typically, tofu would grow annually two to three percent.”
Similarly, Tofurky, a brand that owns 70 percent of the vegetarian deli-sliced category in the U.S., saw massive growth in 2020, “even in market segments that weren’t growing overall,” says Erin Ransom, the company’s SVP of growth and brand innovation.
One thing that explains tofu’s newfound popularity was the mere fact that it was available. As meat processing plants shut down as the coronavirus infected workers, animal protein shortages inevitably left grocery shelves empty. Tofu to the rescue.
“We were just pumping out products left and right.”
The food proved to be a feasible and reliable protein for omnivores and plant eaters alike. Vegans felt this growing hunger from their meat-eating counterparts, who, for what felt like the first time, started to invade their side of the refrigerated aisle and hoarded all the tofu. But for the most part, tofu providers could keep up with demands.
“There was this huge conversation about animal protein shortages — the industry was projecting a 30 percent shortage — so our buyers started asking us to pad plant-based protein by 30 percent,” Tofurky’s Ransom says. “We were just pumping out products left and right.”
Already a customer favorite, Tofurky’s plant-based Chik’n grew 65 percent in 2020, in part because grocery buyers didn’t want to take on any new products. “They weren’t bringing in innovative items,” Ransom says. “They just wanted what they knew could sell.”
New buyers of the chicken alternative, which is made of a mixture of wheat gluten, tofu, and seasoning, may have discovered some bonus benefits of the product. Because it’s post-package pasteurized, it has a 90-day shelf life. This allows shoppers to bulk buy and stay out of the shops for longer, which many people were making an effort to do during quarantine’s peak. Ransom suggests home cooks learned to love the protein because “it provides an option for a family with mixed eating persuasions.” Preparation is also simple. Even those with extreme cooking fatigue could stand to microwave some fake chicken for two minutes.
In total, Tofurky grew from a topline perspective of 22 percent over 2020 — and most of this growth happened in conventional U.S. grocery stores, not in the natural market where it had previously dominated, Ransom says. Tofurky saw a 37 percent growth in conventional retailers like Target and Walmart, while in places like Whole Foods and definitive health food stores, business grew 20 percent. These shopping habits highlight what Tofurky already knew about the demographics of its consumers.
“Very few of our buyers are vegan or vegetarian,” Ransom says. “They're, for the most part, omnivores who eat meat and plant-based protein.”
“Tofu never caused a pandemic.”
Meat’s scarcity propped up tofu’s clout, and so did its declining reputation. As the world tried to make sense of the coronavirus, fingers pointed at wet markets, pangolins, bat soup, and the general concept of eating animals. Infamous for its brazen point of view, PETA capitalized on this infectious fear of eating animals and launched a viral campaign focused around a smiling cartoon block of tofu next to the words, “Tofu never caused a pandemic.”
“The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in a live animal market in China, where live and dead animals are sold for food. Previous influenza viruses have originated in pigs and chickens — but never in vegan foods like tofu,” the organization wrote in a press release.
Whether the campaign truly made an impact on consumer buying is tough to quantify, but the message was sent in a moment where people were already planning to eat less meat.
“Even before quarantine started, in January and February of 2020, tofu market sales were up 18.5 percent compared to 2019 January and February,” Toscano says.
But it's not all sunshine and soy sauce for tofu, and this wouldn’t be a 2020 tale without some backlash. While PETA’s campaign elicited a ton of outrage (which, in truth, was probably its intent), tofu has endured its fair share of criticisms, even without the animal rights organization’s help.
Soy boys, no more
Soy products get flack for being high in estrogen, a hormone that all human bodies produce, but which plays a large role in the reproductive system of people who are assigned female at birth. There’s a misguided insistence that soy products like tofu contain a wild amount of estrogen, which, in turn, will lead men to grow breasts and become more feminine.
While this has been widely debunked (soy doesn’t even contain estrogen; it has compounds called phytoestrogens) the association between soy and effeminate characteristics has evolved into something of an alt-right wing conspiracy theory that claims liberals designed soy products to emasculate men and to make them more likely to adopt left-wing beliefs.
According to Paul Joseph Watson, a British far-right conspiracy theorist with close to 2 million YouTube subscribers, soy-based infant formula is used to create “an army of soy boys from birth.”
Soy-based infant formula and soy, in general, were, unsurprisingly, not created to fuel a liberal army. Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, who you know for his corn flakes and weird take on masturbation, was among a small group of physicians in the U.S. and Europe who were interested in soy as a formula alternative for babies with dairy milk allergies, Jia-Chen Fu, an associate professor for the department of Russian and East Asian languages and cultures at Emory University, tells Inverse.
Kellogg was something of a soy hype man. Among many other praisings, he wrote in a 1937 letter, "I am thoroughly convinced that [the soybean] is the most wonderful food product ever grown and that it must have been of immeasurable service to the Chinese.”
And he was correct in his guess that tofu served the Chinese. While there’s a bit of dispute around tofu’s origins, cultural historian Miranda Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at the University of Michigan, tells Inverse the first records of tofu date back to the ninth century.
“It was a poor man’s dairy curd or fresh cheese.”
“It was a poor man’s dairy curd or fresh cheese — it was for people who couldn’t afford dairy products, which was most people in China at the time,” Brown says. Tofu is not considered “a high culinary product” for some time, and the food is continued to be eaten as a dairy substitute through the Ming Dynasty.
In 17th-century China, tofu had what Brown describes as a “watershed moment.” At this point, “dairy consumption is on the decline, and [tofu] was considered a ‘politically correct’ food by the elite. If officials went out of their way to have diets reflective of diets of the state,” Brown says it signaled that they were leaders of frugality and legitimacy, and weren’t living corruptly or “high off the hog.” As Chinese officials endorsed the food as somewhat of a political act, it evolved into a food for everyone.
Chinese and Japanese immigrants brought tofu to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While there were pockets of communities that embraced soybeans — even the United States Department of Agriculture was doing soybean research in the early 1900s, taking notes from China — many Americans perceived tofu and some soy products in general as “too foreign,” says Fu. Even with Kellogg’s endorsements, tofu didn’t carve out an established identity until it was, once again, made political.
“Soy foods did not cross over into the mainstream until the 1960s and ‘70s, when non-Asian hippies popularized tofu as a politically conscious vegetarian food,” Matthew D. Roth, author of Magic Bean: The Rise of Soy in America, told History.com. Roth continued:
“In the 1980s, tofu built a reputation as a cholesterol-free meat and milk alternative among health-obsessed yuppies, who flocked to Tofutti and similar products. By the 1990s, the discovery of phytochemicals in soybeans – thought to combat certain forms of cancer – lent soy, itself, the aura of healthfulness, helping to drive a market in soy milk, soy-protein bars, and a growing array of health foods.”
It was a little more nuanced than this. Frances Moore Lappe's 1971 book, Diet for a Small Planet, for example, showed evidence that plant-based protein could rival that of animals and asserted that going meatless was a way for people to take action against world hunger. In 1975, The Book of Tofu, by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, expanded on Lappe’s principles and provided accessible recipes for making tofu at home. A May 1978 article in the New York Times said the book, in part, “awakened the West to the wonders of tofu.”
The future of tofu
The West is now wide awake, welcoming tofu to join its takeout orders and home-cooked meals. While tofu sales soared over the past year, so did the interest in eating better for the planet. A recent survey by Social Nature found that 22 percent of consumers plan to eat less meat and 20 percent intend to eat a plant-based or vegan diet in the next six months.
While these numbers tell us one thing, Americans are still eating as much meat as they were previously. “What I think is happening is that there is a growing population of people who have decided to cut back on the amount of animal products they consume, and another population of people are eating more meat than they have in the past,” says Brian Kateman, co-founder and president of the Reducetarian Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing consumption of animal products. Kateman says younger generations tend to be more concerned over climate change, and we’ll see this reflected in the numbers over time as older generations phase out.
“What’s meaningful is that the general number of people who are plant-based eaters has remained about the same, but what has become very legit, plant-based foods, including tofu, have become part of the mainstream,” Kateman says. “There’s a sense of normalization that has happened and not just when you get sesame tofu at your Chinese restaurant. There’s a broad appeal to the masses, which is very exciting.”
Now off her veggie challenge, Evans, the Brooklyn home cook, still picks up a firm block of tofu on her grocery runs and prizes the protein for making meal planning much more manageable.
“I know I don’t have to put a ton of effort into getting it cooked,” she says, adding that she loves the stuff for taking on whatever flavor she’s in the mood for. “That part of it for me is really important, having it bend to my will whenever I want.”