Could 2013 be the year that tofu (soy bean curd) finally starts to move from the niche to the mainstream?
While tofu sales have been sluggish in the US for some time*, the fact Chipotle is now rolling out its ‘Sofritas’ shredded tofu (braised with chipotle chilis, roasted poblanos, and spices) as an alternative to chicken, pork or beef in multiple regions beyond the west coast is clearly a sign that it has untapped potential, says the firm behind America’s #1 tofu brand: Nasoya.
Speaking to FoodNavigator-USA after unveiling plans to roll out the Non-GMO Project verified seal across its Nasoya branded tofu products in the coming weeks, Vitasoy brand manager Brad Lahrman said he is convinced tofu has the potential to appeal to a far wider audience.
US, household penetration for tofu is still fairly low at around 5%, but it’s gone up around 10% over the past 3-4 years
After all, the Greek yogurt category was not really going anywhere until Chobani arrived on the scene and sales exploded, he pointed out.
“There is so much upside for tofu. While it was traditionally seen as a vegan protein, in the last few years things have changed with initiatives like meatless Monday. More people are looking to replace meat one or two days a week. There’s been a big rise in flexitarianism.
“In the US, household penetration for tofu is still fairly low at around 5%, but it’s gone up around 10% over the past three to four years.”
People can be intimidated by tofu. It’s a case of, What do I do with it? How do I cook it? How do I store it?
But why isn’t tofu (which is high in protein and has zero saturated fat) more widely consumed given that consumers are apparently seeking out more veggie options and reducing their meat consumption?
Lots of reasons, says Lahrman. “I think people that have heard of tofu know that it’s healthy, but they can be intimidated by it. It’s a case of, What do I do with it? How do I cook it? How do I store it?
“There is also a perception that the texture isn’t great, or it’s a hippy food, or doesn’t taste of anything, but that’s from people that haven’t tried it.”
Even consumers that have tried tofu are not always aware of how versatile it is, he added.
So they have maybe tried chopping it up and adding it to a salad or stir fry, but are unaware that you can also bake, sauté, BBQ and marinate, deep fry or broil tofu, or use it in cheesecakes, pies, smoothies, soups, cakes and other baked goods as a dairy replacement, he said.
It would be great to get some secondary placements for tofu by the beef or chicken
There is also the fact that people are “very routine-based” when they go grocery shopping so if they don’t shop the section of the store where tofu is typically stocked, they won’t see it or think about it, he said.
“It would be great to get some secondary placements for tofu by the beef or chicken, but given the category is so small, I think we’d have a hard time convincing buyers to do it!
“Our focus right now is trying to raise awareness. There are really unlimited possibilities, and we’re looking more at recipe cards, suggestions on pack, digital marketing and so on.
“We’re also seeing that more restaurants are offering tofu-based dishes on menus, so that’s helping to raise awareness about how to prepare it, and we hope might encourage more people to buy it in stores and try new recipe ideas. ”
The Nasoya brand was launched in the late 1970s in Massachusetts and acquired by Vitasoy USA in 1990. Since then the brand has expanded its product line beyond tofu and also offers Asian style noodles, wraps and Nayonaise egg-free sandwich spread.
What is tofu?
Tofu is made by adding a coagulant to soy milk and pressing the resulting curd into blocks. It does not have a strong flavor of its own but acts like a sponge and absorbs the flavor of other ingredients.
*According to the Soyfoods Association of North America, US tofu sales "recovered from a few challenging years and grew 3.2% in 2011 [to $255m] with strongest growth in the 'Other' channel of stores, including Asian market sales".
Click here to find out more about how to prepare tofu.