Tempeh and tofu are two healthy, high-protein plant-based foods, but they differ in appearance, flavour, texture, and nutrition.
What’s old is new again. We’re not talking about mom jeans. Both tempeh and tofu have been around for hundreds of years, and their popularity is skyrocketing today.
In 2020, tempeh and tofu sales jumped 41 percent, according to the Plant Based Foods Association. They’re great sources of healthy plant-based protein, and unlike, say, Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, tempeh and tofu have short, simple ingredient lists. Nutritionists love them because they’re incredibly healthy, versatile, and surprisingly inexpensive. But when it comes to tempeh vs. tofu, which is the best bet? Here’s how they compare nutritionally and the potential health benefits they can offer.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh originated in Indonesia in the 1600s. Since then, it has spread worldwide, arriving in the United States in the late 1950s. It might sound exotic, but it’s basically a fermented soybean cake. It’s made by soaking, boiling, and draining whole soybeans. After that, the beans are inoculated with mold spores (usually Rhizopus oligosporus) and then fermented to produce a firm, plant-based protein. Even though tempeh is traditionally made from soybeans, it can also be made with beans, lentils, whole grains, or seeds.
Tempeh’s flavour and texture
“Tempeh has a tangy, fermented flavour, compared to tofu, which is very bland,” says Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Ojai, California, and author of California Vegan. The texture makes it an A-plus meat alternative. “Tempeh has a rough surface and hearty, chewy, dense texture that varies depending on which grains or legumes are used,” says Michele Redmond, registered dietitian nutritionist, chef, and flavour specialist at The Taste Workshop, which teaches food culture and how to taste and cook food.
What is tofu?
Tofu and tempeh may both start with soybeans, but that’s where the similarities in their production ends. Making tofu is entirely different than making tempeh. “Tofu is made from turning soybeans into a cheese-like liquid that forms into silky blocks of soft, medium, firm, or extra-firm textures,” says Redmond.
Like tempeh, tofu hails from Asia, just a different corner of the continent. Its origins date back to 220 BC China, although it has since become a staple of Japanese, Korean, and Southeast Asian cuisines.
Tofu’s flavour and texture
Tofu has a mild, bland flavour. That may sound like a negative, but that’s part of its beauty. Because it’s like a blank canvas, tofu can readily soak up the flavours of any spice, sauce, or marinade. Another nice thing about tofu is that its texture can range from soft and silky to extra firm, depending on the type you choose. So whether you’re making salad dressings, smoothies, egg scrambles, sandwiches, or stir-fries, there’s a variety that’s perfect for the job, says Redmond.
(Related: 8 Tofu Health Benefits You Should Know)
How do tempeh and tofu compare nutritionally?
Nutritionally speaking, tempeh and tofu are similar. Here’s how they stack up:
One cup (166 grams) of tempeh contains:
- Calories: 319
- Total fat: 18 g (23 percent recommended daily value, or DV)
- Cholesterol: 0 g
- Protein: 34 g (68 percent DV)
- Carbohydrate: 13 g (5 percent DV)
- Fibre: 10 g (36 percent DV)
- Sodium: 15 mg (1 percent DV)
- Tofu nutrition
One cup (248 grams) of tofu contains:
- Calories: 188
- Total fat: 12 g (18 percent DV)
- Cholesterol: 0 g
- Protein: 20 g (40 percent DV)
- Carbohydrate: 5 g (2 percent DV)
- Fibre: 1 g (less than 1 percent DV)
- Sodium: 18mg (1 percent DV)
They’re protein powerhouses
One big selling point of both foods is their complete plant protein. Typically, plants contain incomplete protein. That means they lack one or more of the essential amino acids our bodies need for protein building. But soy foods deliver complete protein, usually only found in meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and dairy. When it comes to protein, you really can’t go wrong with either of these soy foods. If you’re looking for an edge, go with tempeh. Because it’s more concentrated, it’s higher in protein, explains Palmer.
They contain fat, but it’s the healthy kind
Steak, cheese, and chicken thighs may get winning marks for protein. But their protein comes with a side of saturated fat and cholesterol, so they’re not the best picks for heart health. This isn’t true for tempeh or tofu. The bulk of their fat is from heart-healthy mono- and polyunsaturated fats. Plus, they’re cholesterol-free.
The fibre content isn’t similar
Even though soybeans are naturally rich in fibre, tofu isn’t. Since it’s essentially made from soy milk, it doesn’t contain much roughage at all. Tempeh is a different story. Made from whole soybeans, legumes, or whole grains, it may contain as much as 10 grams of fibre per cup.
Thumbs up for isoflavones
Both tempeh and tofu are rich in isoflavones, plant compounds in soy believed to decrease inflammation and improve heart health. Soy isoflavones are phytoestrogens, substances in plants that can act like weak estrogens. Because estrogen may fuel breast cancer development, myths abound that soy food might have the same effect. However, research reveals that women who eat a diet containing more whole soy foods, and less red and processed meat, are less likely to develop breast cancer.
Tempeh contains slightly more isoflavones than tofu, with roughly 30 to 50 milligrams of isoflavones per three-ounce serving. A similar-sized serving of tofu will net you about 20 milligrams of isoflavones. To put those numbers into perspective, that’s more than three times the amount of isoflavones in a cup of soy milk.
The fermentation factor
One slight advantage that tempeh has over tofu is fermentation. The process provides gut-supporting probiotics. But there’s a big caveat: tempeh’s beneficial bacteria are usually killed during cooking. It isn’t a very good probiotic source compared with other fermented foods, such as yogurt or kefir. On the upside, the fermentation process increases the availability of some of tempeh’s nutrients, especially B vitamins and iron, according to a 2021 study in Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.
(Related: How to Eat a Whole Food, Plant-Based Diet)
Soy foods, including tofu and tempeh, are a win for heart health, thanks to their isoflavones and their ability to lower total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol—the bad stuff. And as mentioned, because they contain healthy fats, they’re a healthier source of protein than meats like beef. Tofu is so effective that a 2020 study in the journal Circulation found that women who ate tofu once a week or more were 18 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease than women who downed tofu less than once a month.
They may boost bone health
Tempeh and tofu are both rich in bone-building calcium. One cup of tempeh contains 184 milligrams of this mineral. Tofu may provide an even better calcium bang, depending on the type you choose. Calcium-set tofu packs a whopping 434 milligrams of calcium per cup (that’s more than a cup of milk). Since calcium can vary from brand to brand, be sure to check out the nutrition label.
Risks or side effects
Since tempeh and tofu are made from soy, they’re not a good fit for anybody with a soy allergy. You’ll also want to avoid tempeh if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, as it can occasionally contain grains. Palmer says it’s perfectly safe to eat two to three servings of soy foods, like tempeh and tofu, daily.
Now that you know about tempeh and tofu, here are 24 plant-based dinner recipes to try.