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What Is Tempeh? Nutrition, Health Benefits & How To Cook It

June 28, 2020
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Whether or not you follow a meatless diet, you may have noticed an increase of plant-based "meats" hitting the market in recent years. One high source of plant-based protein that's been around far longer is tempeh. But what exactly is it?

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What is tempeh?

Tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food made of cooked and fermented soybeans. It has become popular among plant-based eaters as a high-quality source of protein

"It has a tangy, nutty taste and firm texture," women's health dietitian Valerie Agyeman, R.D., tells mbg. After they're cooked and fermented, the soybeans are packed into a brick-like cake, she explains. 

Less traditional tempehs use other types of beans, and may add whole grains and seasoning into the mix, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Amy Kimberlain, RDN, says. These alternative options are helpful for people with soy allergies. 

Tempeh nutrition

A standard serving size of tempeh is about 3 ounces, or 85 grams. These are the nutritional values of 100 grams, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)1:

  • Calories: 192
  • Fat: 10.8 g
  • Carbohydrates: 7.64 g
  • Protein: 20.3 g
  • Sugar: 0 g
  • Sodium: 9 mg
  • Calcium: 111 mg 
  • Magnesium: 81 mg
  • Phosphorus: 266 mg
  • Potassium: 412 mg
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Is tempeh healthy? 

Tempeh is a healthy source of plant-based protein and other nutrients, like phosphorus, magnesium, riboflavin, and antioxidants, Agyeman says. "There are so many health benefits, including better heart health,2 stronger bones3, and better digestion4," she adds. 

Along with those nutrients, Kimberlain says tempeh is high in B vitamins, and because it's packed into a block, it's more dense in nutrients than tofu. 

What's the difference between tempeh and tofu?

Tofu and tempeh both come from soy products but are made differently. 

Tempeh is made from whole soybeans, which are cooked, fermented, then packed. Because it's fermented and less processed, tempeh tends to have a better nutrition profile than tofu, Kimberlain says. Nutritional benefits include higher protein, fiber, vitamins, and prebiotics.

Tofu, on the other hand, is made from coagulated soy milk. It comes in firm, soft, silken, and sprouted varieties. 

"Tempeh is on the chewy side and has a nutty taste," Agyeman says, "and tofu is a bit more neutral and absorbs the flavors of the foods it's cooked with." 

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How to cook with tempeh.

In most dishes, tempeh can replace meat-based products and tends to hold its shape better than tofu. One of our favorite brands to use is Lightlife. With five varieties to choose from (including buffalo), you're sure to find one to fit any recipe.

Agyeman recommends marinating, roasting, or grilling tempeh like meat, or adding it to pizzas, sandwiches, stir-fries, pastas, or stews.  

Many recipes recommend softening tempeh before cooking, Kimberlain says. This allows it to absorb more flavors, like seasonings and sauces. "You can do this by steaming or simmering it for about 10 minutes," she says.

Summary

Tempeh is a brick-shaped product made from cooked and fermented soybeans. It is a good source of plant-based protein, vitamins, and minerals. While similar to tofu, tempeh tends to be more firm, nutrient-dense, and nuttier in flavor. 
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