Try as they might, Americans have a tough time embracing tofu. A staple of Eastern diets, it's still an uncommon sight on U.S. dinner tables. Taste isn't an issue, since it has no discernible flavor. But texture can be. Then, there's the ongoing debate about the general healthfulness and safety of soy.
Perhaps most important, consumers get turned off by the idea of coagulated legumes pressed into wet bricks.
“Anyone who knows me knows I don't eat tofu. Don't do it. Won't do it,” writes celebrity chef Devin Alexander in a recipe for low-calorie, low-fat chocolate malt shakes. “Except in this recipe.”
Such reluctance, coupled with confusion over how to prepare it, is reflected in flat sales of tofu. There was no change in sales between February of this year and last. Sales in the combined natural and conventional channels are down a negligible 0.4%, data from SPINS shows.
Don't count tofu out yet, though. New products are coming to market this spring, on the hunch that American consumers — more aware of their diet and the national obesity epidemic — are looking to reduce their consumption of animal proteins. These products also appeal to the growing number of people who include animal welfare in deciding what to buy.
“This is for people who eat little or no meat, and those who are interested in reducing meat consumption,” said Susan Rolnick, vice president of merchandising at Vitasoy USA. “We think that is a huge potential group of consumers.”
The company is rolling out an organic line called Tofu Plus, fortified with nutrients that are typically found in abundance in meat, like B vitamins, iron and calcium.
“We're helping those consumers who don't eat meat, but also those who might be concerned about missing nutrients they get from eating meat,” Rolnick said.
Another company, Custom Blending, is introducing a dry tofu mix in two flavors that actually mimics the flavor of meat.
“It was important for us to appeal to meat eaters,” said Andrea Ridder, marketing director for the company's new Harmony Valley brand. “You can use it just like you would use meat in any dish.”
In yet another case, tofu is going gourmet. House Foods America is rolling out ready-to-eat flavored noodles under a new So-Yah! line of microwavable entrees.
“We created it in response to demand for convenient and healthy soy products that deliver on flavor,” noted Yoko Difrancia, House's marketing director. The noodles are available in creamy coconut curry and red vindaloo curry.