If you’re looking to find healthy and tasty alternatives to meat, here’s why the often overlooked meaty plant protein known as tempeh could help you eat better than ever.
MATTHEW KADEY MS RD
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When it comes to the way we eat, plant-forward eating is definitely trending. Meatless Mondays have now spilled over into Tuesdays (and beyond!) as more people become comfortable with plant alternatives to meat. And if you’ve been following the research, you’ve likely noticed that it’s not just the well-being of the environment that benefits when you trade in beef for beans more often – your health also sees positive changes.
And there’s research to back up the benefits that come with plant-based eating. A modeling study in PLOS Medicine suggested that if men and women changed their diet at age 20 to include more fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains and less meat and processed foods, they could increase their lifespan by 13 and 10 years, respectively. Women and men who started following a more healthful diet at age 60 might add eight or nine years of life, respectively. Additionally, an investigation in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests adhering to a healthy plant-forward diet (one not filled with refined grains and sugary packaged foods) can help people overcome a genetic susceptibility to heart disease.
This is why you’ve likely seen more recipes featuring a mysterious fermented soy patty popping up online and in your social media feed. Located alongside tofu in supermarkets, tempeh is being pitched as a highly nutritious meat alternative that can find a home in stews, chili’s, and on your grill. Tempeh also appeals to consumers who don’t have an appetite for the highly engineered (and processed) plant-based products like burgers and faux chicken nuggets that are now everywhere. Instead, it’s viewed as a less adulterated form of veg protein.
Here’s everything you need to know about tempeh, the protein that’s taking the alt-bacon world by storm – and why you should add it to your grocery list.
What is tempeh?
If you’re curious about what goes into making a brick of tempeh, here’s the short version: Tempeh, which originally hails from Indonesia, is produced when whole soybeans are soaked, cooked, left to ferment with a fungus and then pressed into a firm, dense patty that’s big on earthy, umami flavor with a background of nutty flavor.
This is in contrast to tofu, which is made by curdling soy milk. While soy is tempeh’s main ingredient, different brands can contain other ingredients including brown rice, sesame seeds and millet along with flavorings like maple syrup and soy sauce. And yes, bacon-flavored tempeh is a thing!
Why tempeh is so nutritious
The nutrition cocktail contained within tempeh should even pique the interest of ardent carnivores.
What stands out in the nutrition breakdown of tempeh is its protein content. The 20 grams it delivers in a 3-ounce serving is about 60 percent more than you’ll get from tofu. This is about the same amount of protein as what’s in chicken breast. So, the belief that plants are protein wimps is certainly not the case when it comes to tempeh.
And since tempeh is soy-based it has a similar amino acid profile and digestibility to that of animal proteins. That means it will have favorable results in terms of building and maintaining lean body mass. A recent investigation in JAMA Internal Medicine found that replacing some of the protein from eggs and red meat in a diet with plant proteins can result in a lower chance of premature death.
Tempeh should also be praised for its hefty amounts of dietary fiber – there are 10 grams in a 1-cup serving. That’s 10 more grams than what’s in animal-based proteins.
It’s worth pointing out that only about 7 percent of Americans are meeting their daily fiber needs. This is a big problem when you consider the major role dietary fiber plays in heart health, digestive functioning, steadying blood glucose levels and improving the gut microbiome. Fiber feeds those healthy bacteria in your gut, which then produce compounds like short-chain fatty acids that have anti-inflammatory benefits. And don’t forget that the more high-fiber foods you eat (like tempeh), the more satiating your diet becomes, a detail that can help put the brakes on overeating and needless snacking.
Tempeh is fermented, too, so it contains probiotics. But since tempeh needs to be cooked before eating, just a few of these beneficial microorganisms may remain by the time you take a bite. However, there are benefits that come with fermentation that go beyond fertilizing your gut with friendly critters. This includes marking tempeh more digestible (mercifully, which means less gassy after-effects) and improving micronutrient bioavailability. Bioavailability is a measure of how easily your body can absorb particular nutrients in a food, such as the iron, calcium and magnesium found in tempeh. One way it turns this trick is by reducing levels of so-called “antinutrients” like phytic acid that can bind up nutrients, rendering them harder to absorb and use.
Tempeh also delivers a decent amount of iron, a mineral whose main purpose is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin of red blood cells throughout the body so cells including those in your brains and muscles can produce energy.
According to reports, it appears the amount of iron we’ve been eating is in decline – which is contributing to an uptick in iron deficiency and its associated complications. Just keep in mind that the form of iron (nonheme) present in plant foods like tempeh isn’t as easily absorbed in our bodies as the iron (heme) contained within meat. But fret not; you can help remedy this by consuming tempeh with a source of vitamin C like bell peppers and broccoli, which serves to bolster plant-based iron absorption in the body.
You can also turn to tempeh as a good source of potassium. The more potassium you eat, the easier it is to keep your blood pressure numbers in the safe zone.
And the best available evidence suggests regularly eating soy-based foods can help most women lower their risk of breast cancer, not the other way around as some internet rhetoric would have you believe.
But since tempeh is made from soybeans, if you have a soy allergy you’ll need to steer clear.
How do you eat tempeh?
Look for packages of tempeh in the refrigerated section of supermarkets and health food stores, typically near where tofu and other perishable meat alternatives are found. Two reliable brands are Tofurky and Lightlife. You can buy tempeh that is plain flavored, with added flavors such as maple, or smoked. As a rule of thumb, look for tempeh made with fewer and simple ingredients like soy and whole grains while watching out for added sugar and too much salt.
While it can be a bit intimidating, cooking with tempeh is pretty simple. Since it soaks up flavors like sauces and spices beautifully, try marinating plain versions just as you would steak and other proteins and then grill, bake, pan-fry or stir-fry.
Tempeh sears best when cut into steak-like slabs. Using a sharp kitchen knife, cut each piece of tempeh crosswise into two 3½-inch-long pieces Next, carefully cut each piece horizontally into about ⅜-inch-thick slabs, being careful to cut pieces of even thickness. These slabs will develop a crispy edge when cooked.
You can use cooked tempeh in grain bowls, salads, sandwiches and tacos. Or, crumble a block with the large holes of a box grater and use the grounds to make a meat-free chili, plant-based meatballs, veggie burgers or an umami-bomb Bolognese for pasta night. Cut it into cubes and pair it with colorful vegetables for a vegan kabob.
Once you’ve opened a package, wrap the tempeh tightly and store it in the fridge for no more than five days. But unopened tempeh can last a few months in the fridge or freezer.
If you’re ready to dive in and enjoy all of the nutritional benefits tempeh can offer, you can use this versatile plant-based ingredient in many ways. We like turning it into a taco filling in our Tempeh Tacos with Pumpkin Seed Tomatillo Sauce, using it as a sandwich “meat” in our Tempeh BLT with Cashew Ranch Sauce or mixing it into a salad like our Crunchy Napa Tempeh Salad.
Or, you can start with this delicious soup recipe – it’s a plant-based spin on a classic!
Tempeh Tortilla Soup
- 1 tablespoon avocado, canola or grapeseed oil
- 1 medium yellow onion, chopped
- ½ teaspoon salt
- 1 package (8 oz) tempeh, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 large sweet potato, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 1 large red bell pepper, chopped
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 jalapeño peppers, seeded and finely chopped
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 teaspoons dried oregano
- 1 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
- 3 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
- 1 can (15 oz) pinto beans, drained and rinsed
- 1 cup frozen corn kernels
- Juice of ½ lime
- 1 avocado, cubed
- 1 ½ cups crumbled baked tortilla chips
- ⅓ cup cilantro
- Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and salt; heat, stirring occasionally, until onion has softened and begun to brown, about 5 minutes. Add tempeh pieces to pan and heat 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Place sweet potato, red pepper, garlic and jalapeno in pan; heat 2 minutes. Add tomato paste, oregano and cumin to pan; heat 30 seconds.
- Place tomatoes, broth and pinto beans in pan. Bring to boil , reduce heat to medium-low and simmer covered for 20 minutes, until potato is tender. Stir in corn and lime juice; heat 1 minute.
- Serve soup garnished with avocado, tortilla chips and cilantro.