Tempeh: The Fermented Soybean Product That's Healthier Than Tofu

Written by Joseph Hooper

Image by Ina Peters

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When it comes to plant-based protein alternatives, most people think of tofu. But many nutrition experts want you to consider tofu's even healthier soy-based cousin, tempeh. While somewhat lesser known, tempeh (pronounced tem-pay) is readily available and makes a delicious, nutrient-dense addition to salads, stir-fries, and tacos. Here's what you need to know about the benefits and how to incorporate it into your meatless meals.

Tofu vs. tempeh: What's the difference?

Both tofu and tempeh share an Asian provenance (tempeh hails from Indonesia while tofu is from China), are made from soy, have a relatively mild flavor, and make a great protein source for vegans or anyone looking to replace meat in a given dish.

Whereas tofu is made from soy curds, tempeh is made from de-hulled, partially cooked soybeans that are fermented with a starter made of Rhizopus oligosporus fungi spores. You can actually see the shape of the beans in the finished tempeh cakes, which add some satisfying texture. Unlike tofu which, by itself, has a flavor profile that could best be described as neutral, tempeh is chewy with an appealingly nutty taste that combines seamlessly with salty or spicy sauces and marinades.

What to look for when buying tempeh.

You can increasingly find tempeh in the refrigerated aisle of grocery stores like Whole Foods Market, sold in rectangular cakes that can be sliced or crumbled and then cooked. The brand Lightlife is the most widely available option, which happens to be organic (and thereby, non-GMO)—a very good thing when it comes to soy products.

In fact, when buying tempeh (or any soy product), you should always try to look for organic or non-GMO options. That's because much of the soy produced in this country is GMO and heavily treated with the pesticide glyphosate, which can present a number of health (and environmental) concerns.

The good news, though, is that non-GMO soy foods can be total nutritional powerhouses.

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Health benefits of tempeh.

While tofu is a more well-known food among the plant-based community, functional medicine dietitian Brigid Titgemeier, RDN—and probably most of her peers—prefer tempeh, as it combines the virtues of soy with those specific to fermented foods. Here are a few of the top benefits of tempeh:

1. Its nutrients (including calcium) are more bioavailable than nutrients from other soy products.

Like all soy foods, tempeh is an excellent source of B vitamins, iron, and calcium, but the fermentation process reduces levels of phytic acid and allows the body to more readily access and absorb those nutrients.

In particular, tempeh is a good source of bone-building calcium, containing about 10% of the recommended daily intake per serving. And while dairy products are considered some of the most bioavailable sources of calcium, research shows that the calcium in tempeh is as well absorbed as the calcium in milk.

Additionally, the fermentation process breaks down the starches that can cause gassiness when we eat soy in its natural state, and it may better tolerated than other soy foods among people with a soy sensitivity.

2. It's a great source of complete protein.

Soy is the only legume, and the only plant food, whose proteins are assembled from the full complement of essential amino acids necessary for human life—making it the highest-quality protein option for those who forgo meat. And tempeh is a particularly potent source. One 3-ounce serving of tempeh contains 16 grams of protein (along with 7 grams of fiber and 10 percent of your daily value of iron), whereas the same amount of tofu has only about 6 grams of protein.

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3. It may help alleviate hot flashes.

Soy is also the only food that has appreciable amounts of a group of phytochemicals called isoflavones, a type of plant estrogen. These isoflavones interact, albeit weakly, with human estrogen receptors in the body. There is, for example, a considerable amount of research looking into soy isoflavones' ability to help balance hormones and alleviate perimenopausal and menopausal symptoms like hot flashes.

4. It's great for your gut.

Tempeh is a great source of prebiotic fiber that acts like fertilizer for the good bacteria in our gut. When the bacteria in our gut consume and break down this type of fiber, they, in turn, produce beneficial short-chain fatty acids, including butyrate, which help strengthen and heal the gut lining and reduce systemic inflammation in the body.

5. It may help reduce cholesterol.

Tempeh's isoflavones may boost your heart health as well. A research review evaluating 11 studies found that soy isoflavones, present in all soy products, can help significantly decrease levels of LDL and total cholesterol. 

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How much tempeh is safe to consume?

Titgemeier recommends two to three servings of soy a week to her clients. Some nutritionists are comfortable with more soy, but you don't want to overdo it on any one food. It's better to cast a wide nutritional net, especially with fermented foods, Titgemeier says, "I'm a big advocate of rotating them so you get more diversity in the bacterial strains you're ingesting."

In past decades, results from animal studies gave rise to the fear that the phytoestrogens in soy could "feed" cancer cells and increase cancer risk. The generally low cancer rates in Asia, where soy consumption is high, are evidence that this generally isn't a problem in humans. Additionally, more recent human studies suggest that, if anything, soy consumption offers modest protection against breast cancers as well as cancers of the stomach, lung, and colon. Even more reassuring, studies, including one in the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that higher consumption of soy was associated with lower rates of cancer recurrence in breast cancer patients.

One important health caveat to note: Soy can affect the thyroid gland, and there is research to suggest that high levels of soy consumption could raise TSH levels (not a good thing) in women with hypothyroidism. Accordingly, Titgemeier steers her clients with low thyroid issues, including Hashimoto's disease, away from all forms of soy.

How to cook with tempeh.

Unlike a lot of plant-based meat substitutes, tempeh has its own appealing flavor and mixes well with most anything. Also, you don't have to cook it, but often, cooking tempeh gives it some nice added flavor. "It's hard to mess up and very versatile," says Titgemeier, offering the following suggestions on how to eat it:

  • Crumble it, lightly pan fry with avocado oil with taco seasonings, and serve it in tortillas or taco shells.
  • Crumble it; lightly pan fry with avocado oil; season with salt, pepper, and herbs; and eat as an egg substitute for breakfast.
  • Simply cut it into small squares and cook it in a saucepan so it gets a nice layer of crisp, then add it to a salad or sandwich.
  • Stir-fry it with vegetables and your favorite sauce. Titgemeier's go-to stir-fry sauce recipe: Mix 2 tablespoons tamari sauce or coconut aminos, ¼ cup peanut butter, and a splash of lemon juice.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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