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What’s the Difference Between Tempeh and Tofu?

Health + Wellness
What’s the Difference Between Tempeh and Tofu?
Left: Tempeh. Ella Olsson / Flickr / CC BY 2.0. Right: Tofu. Pexels

By Kaitlyn Berkheiser

Tofu and tempeh are increasingly common sources of plant-based protein. Regardless of whether you're vegetarian, they can be nutritious foods to include in your diet.


While both of these soy-based foods offer similar health benefits, they diverge in appearance, flavor, and nutrient profiles.

This article explores the main similarities and differences between tempeh and tofu.

What are Tempeh and Tofu? 

Tempeh and tofu are processed soy products.

Tofu, which is more widespread, is made from coagulated soy milk pressed into solid white blocks. It's available in a variety of textures, including firm, soft, and silken.

On the other hand, tempeh is made from soybeans that have been fermented and compacted into a firm, dense cake. Some varieties also contain quinoa, brown rice, flax seeds, and spices.

Tempeh is chewy and bears a nutty, earthy taste, while tofu is more neutral and tends to absorb the flavors of the foods it's cooked with.

Both products are commonly used as a nutritious meat replacement and can be cooked in numerous ways.

Summary

Tofu is made from condensed soy milk while tempeh is made from fermented soybeans. Tempeh's nutty flavor contrasts with tofu's mild, flavorless profile.

Nutritional Profiles 

Tempeh and tofu deliver a wide variety of nutrients. A 3-ounce (85-gram) serving of tempeh and tofu contains:

While their nutrient content is similar in some ways, there are some notable differences.

Because tempeh is usually made with nuts, seeds, legumes, or whole grains, it's significantly richer in calories, protein, and fiber. In fact, just 3 ounces (85 grams) provides 7 grams of fiber, which is 28% of the DV.

While tofu is lower in protein, it has fewer calories and still offers significant amounts of iron and potassium while boasting more than double the calcium found in tempeh.

Both soy products are generally low in sodium and free of cholesterol.

Summary

Tempeh and tofu are both nutritious. Tempeh provides more protein, fiber, iron, and potassium per serving, while tofu contains more calcium and is lower in calories.

Key Similarities

In addition to their nutritional commonalities, tofu and tempeh provide similar health benefits.

Rich in Isoflavones

Tempeh and tofu are rich in phytoestrogens known as isoflavones.

Isoflavones are plant compounds that mimic the chemical structure and effects of estrogen, a hormone that promotes sexual and reproductive development.

Many of tofu and tempeh's health benefits, which include a reduced risk of certain cancers and improved heart health, have been attributed to their isoflavone content.

Tofu offers approximately 17–21 mg of isoflavones per 3-ounce (85-gram) serving, while tempeh provides 10–38 mg in the same serving size, depending on the soybeans used to prepare it.

May Reduce Your Risk of Heart Disease

Research associates increased soy intake with a decreased risk of heart disease because of its effects on cholesterol and triglycerides.

Specifically, one mouse study found that nutrient-enriched tempeh decreased both triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

Tofu appears to have the same effects.

For example, a rat study demonstrated that tofu and soy protein significantly lowered triglyceride and cholesterol levels.

Additionally, a study in 45 men noted that total cholesterol and triglyceride levels were significantly lower on a tofu-rich diet than on a diet rich in lean meat.

Summary

Tofu and tempeh are rich sources of isoflavones, which have been linked to benefits like cancer prevention and improved heart health.

Key Differences

One distinct difference between tofu and tempeh is that tempeh provides beneficial prebiotics.

Prebiotics are natural, non-digestible fibers that promote the growth of healthy bacteria in your digestive tract. They're linked to regular bowel movements, reduced inflammation, lower cholesterol levels, and even improved memory.

Tempeh is particularly rich in these beneficial prebiotics because of its high fiber content.

In particular, one test-tube study found that tempeh stimulated the growth of Bifidobacterium, a type of beneficial gut bacteria.

Summary

Tempeh is particularly rich in prebiotics, which are non-digestible fibers that feed the healthy bacteria in your gut.

Culinary Uses and Preparation 

Tofu and tempeh are widely available in most grocery stores.

You can find tofu canned, frozen, or in refrigerated packages. It typically comes in blocks, which should be rinsed and pressed prior to consumption. The blocks are often cubed and added to dishes like stir-fries and salads, but they can be baked as well.

Tempeh is equally versatile. It can be steamed, baked, or sautéed and added to your favorite lunch or dinner dish, including sandwiches, soups, and salads.

Given tempeh's nutty flavor, some people prefer it as a meat replacement over tofu, which is blander in taste.

Regardless, both are simple to prepare and easy to add to a balanced diet.

Summary

Tofu and tempeh are easy to prepare and can be used in a variety of meals.

The Bottom Line

Tempeh and tofu are nutritious soy-based foods that are rich in isoflavones.

However, tempeh is rich in prebiotics and contains significantly more protein and fiber, while tofu boasts more calcium. Additionally, tempeh's earthy taste contrasts with tofu's more neutral one.

Regardless of which one you choose, eating either of these foods is a great way to increase your isoflavone intake and promote your overall health.

Reposted with permission from Healthline.

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