Tempeh vs. Tofu: A Guide to Plant-Based Protein

With a growing interest in wellness, healthy eating, and sustainable foods, more and more people are shifting from an animal-based diet to a plant-based diet. When making this shift, one may want to choose high-quality plant-based proteins like tempeh and tofu.

These soy products provide all the essential amino acids just like animal proteins and have other beneficial nutrients like vitamins, minerals, polyunsaturated fats, and polyphenols. Though made from the same bean, tempeh and tofu differ in taste, use, and nutrient content.

What is tempeh?

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Tempeh is a fermented soybean cake-shaped product. Fermented foods use controlled microbial growth to trigger the production of beneficial microbes that may prolong the food’s shelf-life. In addition to serving as a form of food preservation, the fermentation process enhances taste and food texture and may offer nutritional benefits that can potentially support heart health and gut health.

A traditional Indonesian food, tempeh is made using a two-step fermentation process. First, dehulled soybeans are soaked with lactic acid bacteria (LAB) to limit microbial growth and then cooked.

After cooling, makers add the mold of Rhizopus spp. and incubate the beans. The mold binds the soybeans as it grows, creating the tempeh cake-shaped product. Fermentation of the soybeans gives tempeh its nutty and earthy taste and chewy texture.

What is tofu?

Sometimes called the cheese of Asia, tofu is coagulated soy milk. Tofu doesn’t taste like regular dairy cheese, but it’s made using similar methods.

First, soybeans are soaked, dehulled, and ground. The ground beans are cooked in water and strained, removing the solid pulp from the soy milk. Acids, salts, or enzymes are added to the soy milk to coagulate it.

Most tofu makers use calcium sulfate for coagulation because it helps retain the flavor of the soybean and makes a firmer soybean product. For a softer or silky product, tofu makers use magnesium chloride or calcium chloride to coagulate the soy milk.

Edible acids and enzymes are also used to make tofu, but this is an uncommon practice because it alters the taste.

After coagulation, makers press the coagulated soy into blocks, squeezing out the liquid. Soft tofu retains more liquid than firm tofu. After pressing, the soybean product is cut and packaged.

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Comparing their nutrition profiles

Tempeh and tofu have similar ingredients, but their nutrition profiles are quite different. The nutrition information provided is based on a 100-gram serving (3.5 ounces) of tempeh and tofu. It's important to note that the nutritional content of tempeh and tofu may slightly vary depending on the specific brand you choose.

NutrientTempehTofu
Calories192 kcal76 kcal
Protein20 g8 g
Fat11 g5 g
Carbohydrates8 g2 g
Fiber7 g0.3 g
Sodium9 mg7 mg
Calcium111 mg (9% of DV)30 mg (2% of DV)
Iron2.7 mg (15% of DV)5.4 mg (30% of DV)
Potassium412 mg (9% of DV)121 mg (3% of DV)
Zinc1.14 mg (10% of DV)0.8 mg (7% of DV(

Tempeh and tofu are protein-rich foods, but tempeh has a higher protein content than tofu, 20 grams versus 8 grams per serving. Tempeh is also higher in calories, carbs, and fat, but is an excellent source of dietary fiber, meeting 25% of the daily value per serving based on a 2,000-calorie diet.

You also get more calcium, potassium, and zinc with tempeh, but tofu is a better source of non-heme iron.

What are the benefits of tempeh and tofu?

Tempeh and tofu are nutrient-rich foods that may offer many of the same potential health benefits. They’re excellent vegan protein sources, providing all the essential amino acids just like animal proteins. Eating more alternative sources of protein also benefits the environment because farming soybeans may require less land and water than farming animals.

They’re also rich in isoflavones, a polyphenol with a chemical structure similar to the female sex hormone estrogen. Though researchers are still investigating the potential benefits of isoflavones, there’s some evidence that the compound may support bone health in postmenopausal people and may reduce the risk of breast and endometrial cancers. However, scientific evidence is limited and inconsistent to comprehensively support these potential benefits.

Benefits of tempeh

Tempeh is a fermented food product rich in probiotics, microorganisms that can benefit human health. However, it’s important to note that cooking tempeh inactivates the probiotics, turning them into paraprobiotics, or nonviable microbes that may still benefit human health. Eating uncooked tempeh isn’t recommended due to its unpalatable bitter taste. More on that later.

Despite the inactivation of the beneficial bacteria, there’s some scientific evidence that tempeh may still support gut health by increasing levels of beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract. The fiber in tempeh is a prebiotic serving as a source of food for the beneficial bacteria in the gut.

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Eating tempeh may also benefit brain health. A 2022 study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience found that the probiotics in tempeh may support areas of the brain that manage memory, learning, and language by increasing levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), a neurotransmitter vital for cognitive function. Though promising, the participants were given a probiotic supplement with microorganisms extracted from tempeh, not tempeh itself. Further, the scientific evidence on cognitive function and brain health is highly limited to support potential benefits.

Benefits of tofu

Tofu also offers potential health benefits. Eating more tofu may reduce the risk of breast cancer. A 2020 meta-analysis of observational studies published in PLoS One found that for every 10-gram increase in tofu intake, there was an associated 10% reduction in the risk of breast cancer. However, the data is based on case-controlled studies, and clinical trials are needed to better understand the link and confirm results.

Preliminary evidence also shows that people who eat more tofu are less likely to develop type 2 diabetes. Again, this is based on observational studies and clinical trials are needed to determine if tofu alone is responsible for lowering the risk or other factors.

Though not specific to tofu, studies show that soy protein from foods like tofu and soy milk may lower low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, the 'bad' cholesterol linked to cardiovascular disease. Researchers note that the decrease in LDL cholesterol is small, but a diet strategy including soy protein may still benefit heart health.

Tempeh vs. tofu: key differences

Nutrition and health benefits aside, tempeh and tofu have different tastes and textures. Though they both make good meat substitutes, each has its own culinary uses.

Tempeh has a nutty and savory flavor with a chewy texture. By comparison, tofu taste and texture may be more bland and smooth. You don’t have to season tempeh before eating, but you should cook it to remove the bitterness. Some tempeh brands may recommend steaming the fermented soybean product first to improve flavor, but any cooking method works.

You don’t have to cook tofu, but you may want to season it or blend it with other foods to add flavor. Both tempeh and tofu absorb flavors well. Use your favorite marinade or dry rub to season before cooking either of the soy products. You can then bake, stir fry, or grill your tempeh or tofu.

You can also crumble tempeh and add it to your vegetarian chili or use it to make tacos or 'meat' sauce for your pasta. Use crumbled tofu to make tofu scramble, a vegan take on scrambled eggs.

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Tofu may have less flavor than tempeh, but it’s a more versatile soy product. For example, you can blend soft or silken tofu in smoothies, soups, or sauces to boost protein content.

Both tofu and tempeh are sold in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. At home, you want to keep the soy foods in your refrigerator and use them within 3–5 days after purchase, or put them in the freezer and use them within five months.

Bottom line

Tempeh and tofu are plant-based proteins with unique potential nutritional benefits and uses. Tempeh has more protein and dietary fiber, while tofu is lower in calories and fat and a better source of non-heme iron.

Both tempeh and tofu are good meat replacements and pick up flavors well. Though tempeh has more flavor and texture than tofu, it has less versatility. Tempeh goes well with savory dishes, while tofu works with savory and sweet dishes.

What are your favorite ways to enjoy tempeh or tofu? Share your tips and recipes in the comments below!

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