October 18, 2018 at 09:25AM
While food innovation has gifted plant-based, vegan, and vegetarian eaters with an array of meat-like options (looking at you, “bleeding” burger patty), there’s no denying that when it comes to plant-based protein options, tempeh and tofu still reign supreme as the most popular substitutes.
While both meatless options are essentially super-versatile soy, there are key differences in texture, taste, and health benefits. Considering even meat-eaters could benefit from regularly eating meatless meals, I asked plant-based specialist Lori Zanini, RD, CDE and author of the Diabetes Cookbook and Meal Plan for the Newly Diagnosed and Reema Kanda, RDN at Hoag Orthopedic Institute, Irvine CA to break down health differences between the two vegan proteins that get the most love.
Below, Zanini and Kanda explain these two meatless faves and then answer which ultimately wins out in the plant-based protein battle of tempeh vs. tofu.
What is tempeh, exactly?
Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans that have been soaked, hulled, cooked, and then molded into a patty-like shape. Of course, there’s some variation in the shape the cooked soy beans get molded into, like tempeh sold in bacon-like strips.
While fermented soybeans are the main ingredient, tempeh often contains any or all of the following: quinoa, barley millet, flax seed, brown rice, sesame seeds and spices. This means sometimes tempeh is gluten-free, but other times it is not; it ultimately comes down to the manufacturer. Most tempeh products will say either “gluten-free” or “contains wheat” on the package, so if you’re Celiac make sure to do your label-reading before adding it to your grocery cart.
The taste of tempeh is often described as “earthy,” “hearty,” or “nutty,” and when cooked, it’s a bit chewy. Tempeh is a little like mushroom lattes— you either love it or hate it.
And what’s tofu?
“While both tofu and tempeh are high quality sources of plant-based protein and would make a great post-workout meal, they couldn’t be more different in their production process,” says Kanda. Tofu is also a soybean product, but while tempeh is made directly from cooking and fermenting soybeans, tofu is made from condensed, unfermented soy milk that’s been processed into solid white blocks.
It can be a little hard to visualize, so think about it this way: You know the pulp that’s left over when you make almond milk? Tofu is essentially made by combining this “pulp” with a thickening coagulant (and water). That’s why tofu is sometimes considered more processed than tempeh.
You can get tofu in a variety of textures such as “silky,” “firm,” and “soft,” but it usually has a Jell-o-like jiggle. And while tofu can be sold spiced, it’s generally flavorless. “Because tempeh has a heartier taste, some people prefer to use it as meat substitute. Tofu on the other hand has a more neutral flavor and absorbs the taste of the other ingredients or spices it’s combined with. It can be used in smoothies, stir-fries, soups…,” says Kanda, adding that it’s a good replacement for eggs in many dishes.
Tofu vs. tempeh: Which is healthier?
“Nutritionally, tofu and tempeh carry very similar nutrient profiles, and either would make a beneficial addition to a healthy breakfast or meal,” Zanini says, but she adds that they do have differences.
When it comes to the big nutritional players—carbs, protein, and fat—tempeh and tofu aren’t too different. One serving of cooked tempeh (100 grams) has 11 grams of fat, eight grams of carbohydrates, and 20 grams of protein. One serving of tofu (also 100 grams) has five grams of fat, two grams of carbohydrates, and 8 grams of protein. However, while tempeh has 195 calories per serving, tofu has 75.
According to the nutritional breakdown, tempeh is higher in protein. “That’s because legumes, grains, nuts, and seeds may be used to make tempeh,” says Kanda. If your goal is to incorporate more protein and healthy fats, tempeh may be the way to go.
Tempeh may have more calories and fat content, but Kanda says comparing two 100 gram servings is slightly misleading because 100 grams of tempeh will be more filling than 100 grams of tofu, thanks to its high protein and fiber. You may have to eat more tofu to feel full because one serving is so low in calories, protein, and fat.
Even in the nitty gritty nutrient-details, there aren’t a ton of differences between the two soy products. “Tofu contains 1 milligram of iron per serving and is a source of alpha-linolenic acid, the essential omega-3 fatty acids. Some brands of tofu are fortified with vitamin B12 and vitamin D, and extra calcium—of which there’s naturally a lot,” says Kanda.
Tempeh on the other hand, contains about 10 percent of your daily iron (2 grams) and calcium needs. “Because tempeh is fermented it can help your gut health and will keep you regular,” says Zanini. Both tofu and tempeh contain magnesium, potassium, sodium and zinc.
Other factors, tastes, and uses
Aside from the nutritional information, there’s the whole question about whether or not soy is actually safe to eat. While some wellness practitioners advise their patients not to eat soy due to its “estrogen like effects” in the body, the American Cancer Society says that consuming moderate amounts of soy foods is safe for everyone. Both Zanini and Kanda follow the ACS guideline, and encourage their patients to eat soy in moderation and not every day.
Of course, since both tofu and tempeh can be part of a healthy diet, a lot of the decision comes down to what you’re craving and how you cook them. “Either option would be a great meat-substitute in any meal,” says Zanini. “But when your shopping for tempeh aim for one that is as simple as possible. Flavored tempeh often has a lot of added sugar and salt.” And of course, if you’re gluten-free check the label.
While tempeh has a heartier taste that makes it optimal as a meat-replacement, tofu is essentially flavorless which means it has more culinary uses. “Either way,” says Kanda, “both offer a great complete protein option for plant-eaters.”
Try this 15-minute sweet potato and tempeh taco recipe from Thug Kitchen. If you’re not a fan of tempeh’s texture or taste and prefer tofu instead, try Chloe Coscarelli’s spicy chipotle mango tofu tacos.