How Tempeh Works

By: Melanie Radzicki McManus

Tempeh vs. Tofu

Tempeh is typically sold in cake or patty form.
Tempeh is typically sold in cake or patty form.

Tempeh may remind you of tofu, since they're both soy-based products used in all kinds of cooking. But that's where the similarities end. Tempeh has 160 calories per half-cup (113 grams) compared to just 97 for tofu and that might be its only negative. Simply put, tempeh is a healthier, more nutritious option than tofu. In that same half-cup serving, tempeh has a whopping 15.4 grams of protein compared to 10.1 for tofu, and 3.5 grams of fiber versus tofu's 0.5.

Tempeh is also fermented, while tofu is not. Why is that an important consideration? Many people's tummies aren't happy when they eat a lot of beans and other, um, gas-inducing foods, such as tofu. But the fermentation process creates enzymes that pre-digest carbohydrates, protein and fat. This makes a fermented food like tempeh very easy to digest. Tempeh is also less processed than tofu. And the less processed a food, the better [sources: Benitez-Eves, Sugar].


So what about meat versus tempeh? The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA's) 2010 dietary guidelines say the average 2,000-calorie-per-day diet should include 5.5-ounce (155-gram) equivalents of protein. Lean meats, poultry, seafood and eggs, as well as tempeh, all meet this requirement. Since the USDA also recommends we eat a variety of protein foods, you may want to alternate some tempeh with your meat and fish.

If you are vegetarian or vegan, adding tempeh to your diet is especially wise. On the micronutrient level, tempeh scores far better than meat in its manganese content. Manganese is critical for your bones, brain function and ability to heal after an injury. Four ounces (113 grams) of tempeh have 1.47 milligrams of manganese compared to a wispy 0.02 milligrams in a 4-ounce chicken breast or a 3-ounce strip steak. Meat does have a healthy dose of vitamin B-12, though, which is lacking in tempeh [sources: Tremblay].

What all this means is that if you love meat, go ahead and eat it (the lean varieties, and in moderation). But try trading it out for tempeh now and then. If you normally eat tofu, tempeh could be an excellent substitute, too.