The Health Benefits of Tempeh

Tempeh is a soy-based food, sometimes used as an alternative to meat. It’s popular with vegans and vegetarians because it has vitamin B12 and is a complete source of protein. That means it has all nine of the essential amino acids your body need for healthy bones and muscles. But it’s not just for people who don’t eat meat. Tempeh is a healthy way to add more plant-based food to almost any diet.

What Is Tempeh?

People in Indonesia started making this nutty-tasting bean cake hundreds of years ago. It’s made from partially cooked soybeans and fermented with a type of mold called rhizopus. If you look closely, you’ll notice a fuzzy white substance holding tempeh together. That’s a safe byproduct of the fungus, called mycelium.

Mold in your food may not sound too appealing, but don’t forget, mold and other fungi are part of the process of making several foods, including some cheeses. Fermentation actually improves tempeh because it:

  • Adds nutrients
  • Makes it easier to digest

Types

Tempeh (or tempe) typically comes from soybeans, but you can also make it from other kinds of beans. You can buy it seasoned or mixed with other grains like rice, wheat, or barley.

Nutritional Profile

Tempeh has no cholesterol, and it’s a good way to get B vitamins, fiber, iron, calcium, and other minerals.

A 3-ounce serving of tempeh has:

  • 140 calories
  • 16 grams of protein
  • 5 grams of fat (2 grams of saturated, 2 grams of polyunsaturated, and 1 gram of monounsaturated)
  • 10 grams of carbohydrates
  • 28% of your daily fiber
  • 6% of your daily calcium
  • 10% of your daily iron

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Benefits

Like other soy foods, tempeh has isoflavones. These are chemicals called phytoestrogens that have cancer-fighting and antioxidant properties.

There is also evidence that soy products like tempeh may:

Tempeh usually doesn’t cause bloating or gas. That makes it a good alternative to beans for people who have a digestive disorder like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).

Fermented soybeans may do a better job than unfermented soy when it comes to keeping type 2 diabetes from getting worse. But scientists need to do more testing of that idea in humans to know for sure.

Children or teenagers who eat soy-based foods like tempeh early in life may see more health benefits later. Experts think that early exposure to soy may lower the risk of breast cancer.

How to Prepare and Eat Tempeh

Tempeh can be a little dry and stiff when you take it out of the package. You can soften the cake by steaming it for about 10 minutes. You’ll probably want to add some flavor with a marinade. Then you can cook it pretty much any way you like: cubed, sliced, crumbled, sautéed, or baked. But if you deep-fry it, the heat may reduce some of the isoflavones.

Tempeh is a popular meat alternative in sandwiches, salads, and stir-fry. But you can also serve it as a main dish.

Is It Safe?

There’s some conflicting information about the effects of soy foods. Scientists used to think there was a link between soy and breast cancer. But further studies haven’t found that to be true. It’s still considered healthy to eat moderate amounts of soy.

Who Shouldn’t Eat It?

You should avoid tempeh if you have a soy allergy.

There is some concern that soy may affect how your thyroid works or how you absorb thyroid medication. To be safe, you should talk to your doctor about eating tempeh or other soy products if you have a thyroid disorder.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on July 10, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Nutrients: “Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians,” “Soy, Soy Foods and Their Role in Vegetarian Diets,” “Beyond the Cholesterol-Lowering Effect of Soy Protein: A Review of the Effects of Dietary Soy and Its Constituents on Risk Factors for Cardiovascular Disease,” “Soy and Health Update: Evaluation of the Clinical and Epidemiologic Literature.”

Cleveland Clinic: “What you need to know about protein.”

Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition: “Tempe, a nutritious and healthy food from Indonesia.”

Foods: “Production, Quality, and Acceptance of Tempeh and White Bean Tempeh Burgers.”

International Journal of Food Properties: “Structural and Functional Properties of Fermented Soybean (Tempeh) by Using Rhizopus oligosporus.”

Frontiers of Microbiology: “Functional Properties of Microorganisms in Fermented Foods.”

USDA: "Tempeh," “Organic Three Grain Tempeh.”

FDA: “Soy Protein.”

Oregon State University: “Soy Isoflavones.”

Journal of American Heart Association: “Cumulative Meta-Analysis of the Soy Effect Over Time.”

Annals of Internal Medicine: “Effect of soybean protein on blood pressure: a randomized, controlled trial.”

The Journal of Nutrition: “Insights Gained from 20 Years of Soy Research.”

Nutrition Research: “Antidiabetic effects of fermented soybean products on type 2 diabetes.”

Forschende Komplementarmedizin: “Impact of Soy Foods on the Development of Breast Cancer and the Prognosis of Breast Cancer Patients.”

American Cancer Society: “Soy and Cancer Risk: Our Expert’s Advice.”

Thyroid: “Effects of soy protein and soybean isoflavones on thyroid function in healthy adults and hypothyroid patients: a review of the relevant literature.”

Gretchen Swank, registered dietitian, Northwestern Medicine.

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