Why Tofu

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Tofu. It is probable that this is the first word that comes to your mind when you think of a vegetarian or vegan diet. How many people have asked the famous question “But what do you eat, salad and tofu?” when they are told someone is vegetarian or vegan. However, if this assumption makes sense in the 21st century, the link between tofu and vegetarianism and veganism hasn’t always been that clear, and was actually inexistent until quite recently. Which makes us wonder, how did each of them evolve?

Vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice

Although earlier humans were believed to follow an almost exclusive plant-based diet, the birth of vegetarianism as a lifestyle choice is more often associated to the ancient Greek times, in approximately 600 BCE, where the killing of animals for their meat was avoided because of religious and philosophical beliefs[1]. Ancient Greek vegetarianism continued to be practiced later on, in the 1st century, for moral and hygienic purposes; the consumption of meat was not only unnecessary for people of that time, but was also thought to be bad for the digestion process[2]. Little is known about the presence of vegetarianism by choice during the Middle Ages. Therefore, the next big era known to have avoided meat out of respect for animal life, after the Greeks, is the Age of Enlightenment. With this era came the realization of the proximity between humans and animals and more importantly, their common ability to suffer[3]. With this realization came a new sensitivity towards animal welfare that was put into light at first through important literature, and eventually through protective legislation[4]. Famous historical figures, such as Rousseau, Leonardo da Vinci and Voltaire, who were all active vegetarians, took part in this important movement.[5] From this point on, the fight for the protection of animals continued all the way to the foundation of the first Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824[6] and the foundation of the first vegetarian and vegan societies in 1847 and 1944 respectively[7].

It is important to note that alongside the Greeks and the great writers of the Age of Enlightenment, vegetarianism had also been recommended and practiced throughout history by multiple Eastern religions as a way of purifying the body and respecting the soul of each being[8]. These religious members were also the first vegetarians to use tofu, a soy-based product whose date of origin and inventor remain uncertain, but whose consumption can be traced back to the 10th century in China, as a protein source in their meatless diet[9]. In fact, tofu, which is basically made by curding soymilk, was much cheaper than meat and therefore widely consumed by the poor in Asian countries until the 14th century, from which point the rich also began consumption, making tofu one of the most common and popular dishes in Asia[10]. Given its popularity in Asia, European and American explorers eventually discovered the existence of tofu in the 17th and 18th century and studied this particular soy product for the next two centuries in their respective continents[11]. Even though Europeans and Americans learned how to produce tofu earlier on, it is because of massive Asian immigration that tofu was massively introduced to the Western culture in the early 1900’s[12]. Starting off in small Asian shops, tofu eventually spread through western culture and made its way into mainstream supermarkets.

Tofu and vegetarianism: How they came to be ‘soy-mates’

If you’re still wondering when tofu became vegetarians’ and vegans’ best friend, you have to go back to 1975, when Shurtleff and Aoyagi published The Book of Tofu. This book is considered to have played a major role in introducing tofu to the western world and encouraging a new era of vegetarianism and veganism based on the consumption of soy-based products[13]. From this point on, vegetarians, vegans and tofu were inseparable. That being said, with all the new fun tofu products on the market like veggie burgers, tofu sausage and soy cheese, why should vegetarians and vegans have all the fun? What are you waiting for? Go eat some tofu!

[1]Claus Leitzmann.”Vegetarian nutrition: past, present, future,” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 100, no. 1 (2014) : 1
[2] Leitzmann, Vegetarian nutrition : past, present, future, 1
[3]Thomas Keith. “Dans le Jardin de la Nature : La mutation des sensibilités en Angleterre à l’époque moderne (1500-1800), ” Le Débat 5, no. 27 (1983) : 10
[4] Keith, Dans le Jardin de la Nature : La mutation des sensibilités en Angleterre à l’époque moderne (1500-1800), 11
[5] Leitzmann, Vegetarian nutrition : past, present, future, 2
[6] Keith, Dans le Jardin de la Nature : La mutation des sensibilités en Angleterre à l’époque moderne (1500-1800), 11
[7] Leitzmann, Vegetarian nutrition : past, present, future, 2
[8]Laurence Ossipow, “Végétarisme,” Encyclopædia Universalis, http://www.universalis-edu.com/encyclopedie/vegetarisme/ (accessed June 28, 2014)
[9] Willam Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, Soyinfo Center, http://www.soyinfocenter.com/ (accessed June 28, 2014)