Once popular solely among those following a vegan or vegetarian diet, tempeh has become a beloved staple in households across the globe thanks to its versatility, delicious flavor and the impressive nutrient profile that it offers. In fact, it tops the charts as one of the best meatless protein sources available, right alongside beans, lentils and other fermented foods like natto.
Packed with probiotics, antioxidants and isoflavones that can support better health, studies suggest that tempeh may help keep cholesterol down, boost bone health and stabilize blood sugar. Plus, it’s rich in many of the essential nutrients that you’re body needs, making it a worthy addition to your next shopping list.
What Is Tempeh?
Tempeh is a fermented soybean product that originated in Indonesia. It is made by a natural culturing and a controlled fermentation process that includes adding a tempeh starter, which is a mix of live mold. When it sits for a day or two, it becomes a cake-like, fermented food.
Tempeh is becoming popular, and today more and more grocery stores have begun to carry tempeh products. This is because it is known to reduce cholesterol, increase bone density, decrease menopausal symptoms and promote muscle recovery. In addition to these amazing benefits, tempeh is easy to prepare, delicious, high in protein, and rich in manganese, copper and phosphorus.
1. Rich in Probiotics
The consumption of fermented, probiotic foods has many benefits. The microflora that lives in fermented foods creates a protective lining in the intestines and shields it against pathogens like salmonella and E. coli.
Tempeh and other fermented foods can help increase the amount of beneficial bacteria in the gut, which can have far-reaching effects on health. Probiotics can help break down sugars and carbohydrates so they’re more easily digested, control harmful bacteria in the body, fight diarrhea, help with indigestion, fight chronic inflammation and even boost immune system function. (1)
2. Lowers Cholesterol
Having high levels of cholesterol is a major risk factor when it comes to heart disease. High cholesterol can cause your arteries to stiffen and narrow, making it harder for your heart to pump blood throughout the body.
A review published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition evaluated 11 studies and found that soy isoflavones, which are found in tempeh and other soy products, can help significantly decrease levels of total and LDL cholesterol. (2)
The niacin found in tempeh is also considered an important nutrient when it comes to controlling cholesterol levels and is often used as a treatment method for keeping cholesterol levels in check. Not only can niacin lower levels of triglycerides and bad LDL cholesterol, but it can also increase levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol, which helps clear fatty plaque from the arteries. (3)
A 2011 study conducted at the University of Kansas Medical Center found that supplementing with niacin was very effective at lowering cholesterol naturally, especially for those at an increased risk for heart attack or stroke caused by high LDL cholesterol, low HDL cholesterol or elevated triglyceride levels. (4)
3. Boosts Bone Health
The calcium provided by tempeh is integral to the growth and maintenance of bones. Calcium, together with other essential minerals like vitamin K and vitamin D, is needed to maintain bone mineral density and prevent weak, brittle bones and fractures. It helps form a part of hydroxyapatite, the mineral complex that makes your bones and teeth hard, maintains bone density and helps bones heal. People with a calcium deficiency are more susceptible to having weak and pliable bones, increasing the risk of fractures. (5)
Copper, another mineral present in tempeh, also plays an important role in bone growth. A copper deficiency can show up in brittle bones that are prone to breaking and not fully developing, plus it leads to osteoporosis, low strength and muscle weakness. (6, 7)
According to a study published in Biological Trace Elements Research, copper consumption can increase the rate of bone healing and may also play a key role in the maintenance and repair of tissue. (8)
4. May Reduce Menopause Symptoms
The isoflavones found in tempeh are known to serve as a natural remedy for menopausal relief. A paper published by the North American Menopause Society evaluated the role of isoflavones on menopausal health and found that isoflavones were able to help keep blood cholesterol levels in check. Along with hot flashes and mood swings, a sudden spike in cholesterol levels can be one of the hallmark signs of menopause. (9)
Studies found that isoflavones were linked with a significant reduction in levels of bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, plus an increase in beneficial HDL cholesterol levels. Some research even showed that isoflavones were able to help reduce the incidence and severity of hot flashes, although findings were mixed. Although more evidence is needed to determine specific doses, researchers suggest recommending whole foods that contain isoflavones, such as tempeh, to menopausal women to take advantage of the powerful cardiovascular benefits.
5. Provides Muscle-Building Protein
Tempeh is an excellent plant-based protein food, packing nearly 16 grams of protein into a single three-ounce serving. This puts it right on par with plenty of other protein foods, such as chicken or beef. Not only that, but the fermentation process has already helped convert some of the protein into amino acids, reducing the amount of work required by your digestive system.
Protein is important because it keeps our metabolism running, increases energy and keeps blood sugar stable. Protein is used in every single cell of the body and is critical for gaining muscle mass, supporting neurological function, aiding in digestion, balancing hormones and maintaining an upbeat mood. (10)
Filling your diet with plenty of high-protein foods like tempeh can also help you shed extra pounds and trim your waistline. One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for instance, showed that upping protein intake by just 15 percent resulted in increased satiety and reduced caloric intake. (11)
6. Balances Blood Sugar
With one serving knocking out up to 54 percent of your manganese needs, tempeh is a delicious and nutritious way to get in your daily needs for this crucial mineral. Manganese plays a role in numerous chemical processes, including synthesis of nutrients like cholesterol, carbohydrates and proteins. Manganese is also involved in the formation of bone mass, and it helps balance hormones naturally. (12)
One of the most notable benefits of manganese is its ability to help maintain normal blood sugar levels and fight off diabetes. Manganese is needed to help with proper production of digestive enzymes responsible for a process called gluconeogenesis. Gluconeogenesis involves the conversion of protein’s amino acids into sugar and the balance of sugar within the bloodstream. (13, 14)
Manganese has been shown to help prevent overly high blood sugar levels that can contribute to diabetes. A 2013 animal model published in the journal Endocrinology, for example, found that manganese supplementation in mice increased insulin secretion to help manage blood sugar levels and improve glucose tolerance. (15)
7. May Have Anticancer Properties
The isoflavones found in tempeh have been associated with a wide range of health benefits and are revered for their impressive anti-inflammatory properties. This is because soy isoflavones are rich in antioxidants, which fight free radicals and help prevent inflammation to protect cells against damage. (16) Antioxidants are believed to play a central role in health and disease, with some research suggesting that they can even help reduce the risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. (17)
For this reason, it should come as no surprise that some emerging research has even found that soy isoflavones could be effective in blocking cancer growth and development as well. One study out of Minnesota, for instance, showed that soy isoflavones could help prevent cancer by decreasing estrogen synthesis and altering metabolism away from gene-damaging metabolites toward inactive metabolites. The study involved 12 healthy premenopausal women who consumed soy protein supplements for 100 days, which was found to have cancer-treating effects compared to a control group. (18)
Tempeh’s fermentation process and its use of whole soy beans gives it a higher content of protein, vitamins and minerals. It has a firm texture and an earthy flavor, which becomes more noticeable as it ages. Because of its nutritional value, tempeh is used worldwide in vegetarian cuisine. Its ability to take on many flavors and textures makes it a great substitute for meat products.
In addition to its high protein content, tempeh is also rich in a wide array of vitamins and minerals, including manganese, copper and phosphorus.
A three-ounce serving of tempeh contains approximately: (19)
- 162 calories
- 7.8 grams carbohydrates
- 15.6 grams protein
- 9 grams fat
- 1.2 milligrams manganese (54 percent DV)
- 0.6 milligram copper (24 percent DV)
- 223.5 milligrams phosphorus (21 percent DV)
- 68.1 milligrams magnesium (18 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligrams riboflavin (18 percent DV)
- 2.1 milligrams niacin (12 percent DV)
- 2.4 milligrams iron (12 percent DV)
- 93.3 milligrams calcium (9 percent DV)
- 345 milligrams potassium (9 percent DV)
- 0.3 milligram vitamin B6 (9 percent DV)
- 20.1 milligrams folate (6 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligram zinc (6 percent DV)
Uses in Ayurveda and TCM
Consumed around the world for thousands of years, tempeh fits well into different forms of holistic medicine. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example, it is considered warming and can help tonify the blood as well as qi, the life force that flows through the body.
Meanwhile, on an Ayurvedic diet, soy and soy products like tempeh are considered hard to digest, but some experts claim that they should be allowed in moderation. Tempeh is believed to act as a diuretic to increase urine production and can also satisfy the stomach and provide important nutrients.
Tempeh vs. Tofu vs. Seitan
Tempeh, tofu and seitan are three of the most popular meat substitutes used by those on a vegetarian or vegan diet as well as those simply trying to limit their consumption of animal products. All three, however, have differences when it comes to the way that they are prepared and the health benefits they can provide.
Although most of us are familiar with tofu, many people often wonder: What is tofu made of? Both tempeh and tofu are derived from the soybean plant, but tofu is made by curdling soy milk and then creating soft white blocks of tofu. Although these two products share a similar nutrient profile, tofu has not been fermented so it doesn’t provide the same health benefits or probiotics.
Seitan, on the other hand, is one of the few soy-free vegan meat replacements available. What is seitan? Seitan is actually made from wheat gluten and has a taste and texture that closely resemble meat, making it a good fit for meat-free recipes like mock duck. However, the pre-prepared seitan found in most grocery stores and supermarkets is often heavily processed and contains high amounts of sodium, preservatives and additives that make it not so stellar when it comes to your health.
How to Use
Luckily, it doesn’t take much effort to find where to buy tempeh. In fact, it is widely available at most grocery stores and can be typically found in the refrigerated section with other vegetarian products, such as tofu. You may notice that some packages include beans that have a white, feathery fluff growing on them, and this is totally normal and safe to eat. Tempeh can be stored in the refrigerator when eaten within a week or so, and it freezes well for later use.
You can eat tempeh raw or by boiling it and eating it with miso or soy sauce. It can also be used as a substitute for meat in just about any meal. It’s easy and fun to cook with tempeh because it absorbs other flavors quickly and has a delicious, mild yet nutty flavor.
When cooking with tempeh, you can crumble it, cube it or slice it thin to make tempeh bacon. Cooked tempeh can be eaten alone or used in chili, stir-fries, soups, salads, sandwiches and stews. It also works well paired with a simple side of brown rice and veggies to make a well-rounded and tasty meal.
Curious how to make tempeh at home? It’s easy! Because it absorbs other flavors well, it can be marinated and seasoned and then baked, sautéed or steamed for just 15–20 minutes and then added to side dishes and main courses alike.
You can easily add tempeh to your favorite recipes in place of meat to give them a healthy, plant-based twist. It works well in recipes like my Slow Cooker Bison Chili Recipe, for example, and can be used in place of bison or mixed with a smaller amount of bison to add a nutty and unique flavor.
It also makes a great base in place of beef in my Hearty Spaghetti Squash Casserole. You will love how tempeh absorbs the flavors of garlic, basil and oregano in this dish. It’s the perfect meatless (and healthy) option!
Here are a few other interesting and creative tempeh recipe ideas to add this healthy food into your diet:
- Vegan Greek Gyros with Tempeh
- Teriyaki Tempeh
- Kale Salad with Spicy Tempeh Bits
- Vegan Tempeh Chili
- Tempeh Bacon
On the island of Java, in Indonesia, tempeh is considered a stable source of protein that has been consumed for centuries. In fact, the soybean from which it is made has been recognized in Java since around the 12th century.
In the 17th century, the Chinese introduced the tofu-making industry in Java. According to legend, tempeh was discovered accidentally when discarded soybean residue caught the spores and grew a certain whitish fungi that was found to be edible.
To prepare tempeh, whole soybeans are softened by soaking them, removing the outside covers and partially cooking them. A milk acidulent, usually vinegar, is sometimes added to tempeh to lower the pH, which creates a better environment for mold growth. A fermentation starter that contains the spores of fungus Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae is then mixed in to the softened soybeans. The beans are spread into a thin layer and are left to ferment for 24 to 36 hours at a temperature of around 86 degrees. Typically, the beans are then knitted together by a mat of white mycelium filaments.
Risks and Side Effects
If you are new to eating fermented foods like tempeh, take it slow at first to avoid stomach pain or digestive problems. Start by sticking to a single three-ounce serving a few days per week, and slowly increase your intake as tolerated.
Because tempeh is made from soybeans, those with a soy allergy should avoid tempeh altogether. If you experience any food allergy symptoms like hives, itching or swelling after consuming tempeh, discontinue use and consult with your doctor.
If you have a history of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer, avoid eating tempeh because it can elevate levels of estrogen and trigger breast cell reproduction. The research on this issue is mixed, but until there is a clear answer regarding tempeh’s ability to accelerate the causes of breast cancer when eaten in excessive amounts, it is safer to avoid the food altogether.
Additionally, soybeans are considered a goitrogen, meaning that they may interfere with the function of your thyroid gland. While studies show that consuming soy protein has minimal effect on thyroid health, it may be best to keep your intake of tempeh and other soy products in moderation if you have a history of thyroid problems. (20)
- What is tempeh? Tempeh is a fermented soybean product that is well-known for its health-promoting properties.
- The tempeh taste is mild but slightly nutty and absorbs other flavors well and can work in a variety of tempeh recipes, from soups to stews to sandwiches and more.
- Tempeh is low in calories but provides a good chunk of protein and micronutrients, such as manganese, copper and phosphorus.
- It’s rich in probiotics, plus may help reduce cholesterol levels, decrease menopause symptoms, balance blood sugar, boost bone health and ward off cancer growth.
- Whether you’re trying to cut down on your meat consumption or just looking to add new and interesting foods into your diet, tempeh is a great choice to supply plenty of important nutrients and deliver a dose of health benefits as well.
Read Next: Natto: The Fermented Soy Superfood
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