Tempeh is a soy product that is popular in Southeast Asia. People following a vegan or vegetarian diet also commonly consume tempeh as a protein source. Tempeh is made by fermenting cooked soy beans and may also contain grain products.
Compared to tofu, tempeh is more firm, dense and has a subtle nutty flavor. Tempeh can make a good meat substitute as a burger or in a stir fry dish.
Is tempeh healthy?
According to a 2015 TIME article (1), four out of five experts that were polled suggest tempeh is healthy.
Tempeh is minimally processed compared to other soy products, and it is a source of many nutrients including fiber, protein, iron, magnesium and calcium.
There may still be some fear of consuming soy and increasing cancer risk, but actually research suggests eating whole soy foods, like tempeh, as part of a healthy diet does not appear to increase risk for certain cancers.
In fact, some research suggests eating whole soy foods may offer some protection against certain types of cancers.
Good protein source
When you think of foods that are high in protein, you typically think of animal foods like meat, eggs and dairy.
They provide the body with all nine essential amino acids the body needs to build proteins. Plant foods also provide essential amino acids, but most plant foods have a limiting essential amino acid and lower protein amount.
This means it is important to eat a variety of plant foods to get adequate amounts of essential amino acids.
However, soy is high in protein and is one vegetarian food source that is a complete protein providing all essential amino acids.
A 100 gram serving of tempeh provides 19 grams of protein which is approximately 38% DV needs.
Fermenting food has been used as a food preservation technique for centuries. Recently, fermented food has also been shown to provide some unique health benefits.
The fermenting process provides beneficial bacteria probiotics. Researchers are continuing to understand all the health benefits probiotics can provide the body.
According to Tufts University (2), consuming fermented foods can be beneficial for digestive health, possibly for allergies and possibly weight loss.
Vitamins and minerals
Tempeh provides many important minerals such as: calcium, iron and magnesium. These nutrients can be challenging for many people to get adequate amounts in their diet.
Incorporating more tempeh into your diet is one way to help get more of these nutrients.
A 100 gram serving of tempeh provides: 11% DV calcium, 15% DV iron and 20% DV magnesium.
Vegans/vegetarians may especially want to incorporate foods like tempeh in their diet because they eat no or limited animal foods.
Animal based foods are good sources of calcium and iron. Besides these minerals, tempeh is also a source of vitamin B6 and B12.
Incorporating soy into your diet may be beneficial for heart health. Some research suggests soy can help lower blood cholesterol levels.
Soy isoflavones also contain a compound that acts as an antioxidant and protects LDL cholesterol from oxidation.
Oxidized LDL is considered more harmful for heart health, so preventing LDL oxidation is beneficial for lowering risk of cardiovascular disease.
You don’t need much soy for heart health benefits. Only five grams of soy protein per day as part of a low saturated and cholesterol diet may help reduce risk of heart disease.
According to assistant professor Dr. Robert Sorge from University of Alabama at Birmingham in a 2015 TIME article suggests tempeh may have anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor effects.
The compound in soy called isoflavone genistein is associated with providing these anti-inflammatory benefits.
Soy and cancer risk
Soy is considered a phytoestrogen which means in the body soy compounds can have similar functions as the hormone estrogen.
Because of this, there is concern that consuming soy may promote cancer risks associated with estrogen.
However, according to American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) (3), there is no evidence to suggest this is true.
A 2014 review (4) analyzed results from 35 studies with soy and breast cancer risk. Researchers concluded for women in Asian countries soy intake could lower risk for breast cancer in pre-and post menopausal women.
However, soy intake for women in Western countries, there was no association between soy intake and breast cancer risk in pre and post menopausal women.
This and other research suggest soy intake may not increase risk for certain cancers and may even be protective in certain populations.
If you have questions regarding soy intake and cancer risk, speak with your healthcare team for individualized recommendations.
Conclusion: fitting tempeh into your diet
Tempeh can be a healthy addition to a balanced diet. It is a rich protein source that is naturally low in fat and provides iron, calcium and iron. It is also considered a probiotic source because tempeh is fermented.
Eating foods that are probiotic sources can have many health benefits ranging from digestive health, immune health and possibly even weight regulation.
Soy has been shown to have positive benefits on heart health and may even be considered anti-inflammatory.
Soy has received some negative attention as possibly increasing risk for certain cancers related to estrogen, but more recent research results have not shown this association.
In fact, in Asian women, soy intake has been associated with lowering risk for breast cancer. If you have questions about soy intake and cancer risk, speak with your healthcare team for individualized recommendations.
Tempeh can be a nutrient dense protein source in your diet. However, as with anything, tempeh should be just one part of your diet.
It is always recommended to eat a variety of foods and a high intake of fruits and vegetables. When choosing which tempeh to buy, opt for tempeh that has minimally added preservatives, salt or sugar.