From better gut health to lower cholesterol levels, the potential tempeh benefits are endless.
If you’re just getting started with plant-based eating, there’s a good chance you may not have tried tempeh, let alone even heard of it before. However, this delicious ingredient doubles as a versatile vegan food and a great source of protein, prebiotics, vitamins, and minerals. Plus, it’s super flavorful, easy to prepare, and linked to a long list of health benefits.
So what exactly is tempeh? And is tempeh good for you? Keep reading for everything you need to know about this power-packed protein source.
What is Tempeh?
Tempeh is a plant-based protein food that originates in Indonesia. Traditional tempeh is made from soybeans that have undergone fermentation, which is a process in which carbohydrates are broken down by bacteria and yeast. The soybeans are then pressed and bound together to form a dense, cake-like patty. In addition to soy-based tempeh, there are several other variations of tempeh available as well, including tempeh made from beans, flax, barley, or wheat.
Tempeh has a firm texture and nutty yet earthy taste. Like other soy products such as tofu, it also easily takes on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with and can be marinated and seasoned to help easily boost the flavor. It’s often sautéed, roasted, baked, steamed, or grilled and swapped in for meat or other protein foods as part of a well-rounded, meatless meal.
Thanks to its versatility and nutrient profile, tempeh is a staple protein source on many vegetarian and vegan menus. From crispy tempeh tacos to peanut tempeh skewers, there are limitless ways to enjoy this incredible ingredient and all the tempeh benefits that it has to offer.
Tempeh Nutrition Facts
Each serving of tempeh is packed with protein, plus an extensive array of important vitamins and minerals.
A 3-ounce serving of tempeh contains the following nutrients (1):
- 162 calories
- 15 grams of protein
- 9 grams of fat
- 9 grams of carbohydrates
- 1.2 milligrams manganese (54% of the RDI)
- 0.6 milligrams copper (24% of the RDI)
- 224 milligrams phosphorus (21% of the RDI)
- 68 milligrams magnesium (18% of the RDI)
- 0.3 milligrams riboflavin (18% of the RDI)
- 2.4 milligrams iron (12% of the RDI)
- 93 milligrams calcium (9% of the RDI)
- 345 milligrams potassium (9% of the RDI)
Tempeh also contains several other key vitamins and minerals, including zinc, folate, thiamin, and pantothenic acid.
Top 7 Tempeh Benefits
There are plenty of reasons you may want to consider adding this plant-based protein into your weekly dinner rotation. Let’s take a closer look at how tempeh can impact your health by exploring a few of the top tempeh benefits.
1. Rich in Nutrients
Tempeh is a great source of several important nutrients, earning it a well-deserved spot on your next healthy shopping list. In particular, tempeh is a great source of protein, providing a whopping 15 grams in each 3-ounce serving. It’s also an excellent source of micronutrients such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and riboflavin. Plus, it contains calcium and iron, both of which are essential nutrients that can be hard to obtain on a vegetarian or vegan diet (1).
2. Supports Weight Management
Whether you’re looking to lose weight or simply stay in shape for summer, you should definitely consider giving tempeh a shot. It’s especially high in protein and contains 31 grams of protein in each cup, putting it right on par with animal-based sources of protein like chicken or fish (1). Upping your protein intake is a must when following a diet for weight control; studies show that protein can help promote feelings of fullness, reduce appetite, and increase metabolism to support weight control (2).
A study in 2014 actually compared the effects of a high-protein diet containing either soy protein or meat-based protein. Interestingly, they found that both diets produced similar results in terms of weight loss and appetite control, suggesting that vegetarian diets can be just as effective when it comes to weight management (3).
3. Promotes Heart Health
Tempeh is rich in soy isoflavones, which are a class of compounds that have been extensively studied for their beneficial role in heart health. According to one review of 11 studies, soy isoflavones can reduce total and LDL cholesterol levels, both of which are major risk factors for heart disease (4). Another study conducted at the Macdonald Campus of McGill University had similar findings, reporting that soy protein not only reduced cholesterol but helped lower triglyceride levels as well (5).
4. Good Source of Antioxidants
Another one of the top tempeh benefits is its stellar antioxidant content. Antioxidants are powerful compounds that can help fight free radicals and prevent oxidative damage to the cells. Some research has found that antioxidants could play a key role in health and wellness, noting that free radicals can contribute to chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders (6).
The soy isoflavones found in tempeh act as antioxidants in the body to help fight free radical damage (7). One study actually found that the isoflavones in tempeh were more effective than those found in soybeans at scavenging free radicals, demonstrating that adding tempeh to your diet can be a great option for preventing oxidative stress (8).
5. Improves Gut Health
Tempeh is jam-packed with prebiotics, which is a type of fiber that provides fuel for the beneficial bacteria in your gut. Studies show that tempeh can help increase the concentrations of good gut bacteria, which is thought to play a central role in overall health (9). In fact, research suggests that the gut microbiome may impact everything from immune function to mental health and heart disease (10).
6. Could Help Fight Cancer Cells
Several studies show that the soy isoflavones found in tempeh could aid in cancer prevention. According to one review out of Detroit, the prevalence of breast and prostate cancer is significantly higher in the United States and many European countries compared to Japan and China. Although it’s unclear why exactly this may be, the authors of the paper note that many Asian countries consume higher amounts of soy products, such as tempeh, which may play a role (11).
More research is needed to evaluate whether tempeh itself could have any cancer-fighting properties, especially when consumed in normal food amounts. However, one study did report that supplementing with a soy protein powder high in isoflavones altered estrogen metabolism and synthesis in premenopausal women. This suggests that soy isoflavones could exert cancer-preventive effects, especially for hormone-sensitive forms of cancer (12).
7. Strengthens Bones
Tempeh is brimming with bone-building nutrients. In fact, each serving contains a good amount of phosphorus, calcium, manganese, and copper, all of which are important to bone health. Calcium, for example, serves as the key structural component of the bones, while phosphorus is important to maintaining skeletal integrity and bone development (13, 14). Low levels of copper have also been associated with decreased bone mineral density, especially in men (15). Similarly, animal studies even show that supplementing with manganese can increase bone mineral density and boost bone formation in rats (16).
Where to Find and How to Use Tempeh
Thanks to its ever-growing popularity, you can easily buy tempeh at most major grocery stores and supermarkets. Look for it in the refrigerated section; it can usually be found alongside other vegetarian products like tofu and meat substitutes. There are usually several varieties available, including flax, soy, bean, barley, or three-grain tempeh. Experiment with each to find your favorite and begin taking advantage of the many potential tempeh benefits.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can even try making tempeh at home using a tempeh starter culture. There are plenty of detailed guides available online for making homemade tempeh from scratch, but it typically involves soaking, splitting, and cooking the soybeans, and then letting them ferment for up to 48 hours.
Although you can eat raw tempeh, it’s usually lacking in flavor and not generally recommended. Fortunately, recipes like roasted tempeh, sautéed tempeh, and pan-fried tempeh are fast, easy, and delicious. From baked tempeh to BBQ tempeh to smoked tempeh and beyond, there are many different options for preparing tempeh to start enjoying it in your favorite meals.
Try adding pan-fried tempeh crumbles to your next salad for a bit of extra texture and flavor. Alternatively, try adding crispy tempeh to stir-fries, sandwiches, or wraps to bump up both the nutritional value and health benefits of your meal.
If you’re looking for some inspiration for how to begin incorporating this tasty ingredient into your meals, look no further. Here are a few nutritious and delicious tempeh recipes to help get you started with this plant-based protein food:
- Baked Citrus Tempeh
- Spicy Tempeh Stuffed Peppers
- Six-Layer Tempeh Taco Dip
- Kale Caesar Salad with Maple Pepper Tempeh
- Peanut Tempeh Stir-Fry with Soba Noodles
Not only is tempeh tasty and easy to enjoy, but it’s also loaded with protein, manganese, phosphorus, magnesium, and riboflavin along with an assortment of antioxidants. It may also help promote weight management and has been linked to a number of tempeh benefits, including improved heart health, stronger bones, and better digestion.
There are several unique ways to include tempeh in your daily diet, and it can be easily swapped in for other protein sources in a variety of different recipes. Start experimenting with tempeh to transform your favorite dishes and give them a tasty, plant-based twist.
Written by Rachael Link, MS, RDN, LDN