Tempeh: A protein and fibre powerhouse

23 Jun 2023

Tempeh is a hidden gem brimming with culinary potential and nutrition! Recognised as a staple and affordable protein source for centuries, it provides various health-promoting compounds. Let's spread the tempeh love!

In a Nutshell

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But first… what actually is it? Tempeh is typically made from soybeans soaked, boiled and fermented with a starter culture of the fungus Rhizopus oligosporus – much in the way yoghurt is fermented with bacteria. It can be made using various grains, nuts or beans to form firm patties with a nutty, savoury flavour.

Tempeh vs Tofu: While both start with soybeans, tempeh uses whole beans, making it less processed and much higher in protein (2x) and fibre (10x) than tofu. Fermentation enhances the bioavailability of nutrients and gives it a savoury meatiness. 

History & Environment

Where It All Began: Tempeh has been a staple source of protein for more than 300 years, especially on the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. The earliest reference was found in a manuscript written in the 1600s – a compilation of Javanese legends, traditions and teachings, in which the word “tempe” and a tempeh dish called “sambal lethok” were mentioned.

Discovered by Accident! It’s thought that tempeh was first made accidentally when soybeans were wrapped in banana or teak leaves and unexpectedly fermented by fungi on the leaf surface.

A Global Journey: Later on, in the 1900s, a new wave of worldwide interest in tempeh began, sparked largely by academic research.

Sustainability: Tempeh has a much better efficiency in terms of energy and greenhouse gas emissions than animal-based sources. Compared to beef, it delivers 22x more protein per greenhouse gas emitted, and 3.76x more than eggs. This suggests tempeh is a good food for diversifying our protein sources and contributing to a more sustainable future. (Ahnan‐Winarno et al. 2021)

Research Digest

Tempeh is a source of:

  • Protein – Fermentation increases protein amount, digestibility and levels of essential amino acids. The protein content is comparable to that of beef, with 20.7g per 100g of tempeh vs 19.7g per 100g of beef mince. But it also provides other health-promoting compounds with little saturated fat. (CoFID)
  • Fibre, B vitamins and minerals, especially calcium, potassium and iron.
  • Bioactive compounds, especially isoflavones, known for their antioxidant properties.

The probiotic debate: The process of making tempeh forms live microorganisms that are referred to as probiotics because they show beneficial effects on health. But tempeh is cooked before eating? Which can inactivate or reduce the number of live microorganisms. However, a recent review reports that some probiotic bacteria can still produce beneficial effects in their heat-inactivated form – referred to as ‘paraprobiotics’.

Fermentation Magic: The fermentation process improves the nutritional profile of the base ingredient by increasing nutrients, improving the bioavailability of proteins and decreasing anti-nutrients.

As part of our diet: Small human studies looked at the effects of eating tempeh on various areas of health.

  • Gut health 🦠: Tempeh improved markers for gut microbiota development and diversity, specifically the presence of Bifidobacterium and A. muciniphila, in two small trials. (Stephanie et al. 2017, 2019)
  • Cognitive health 🧠: Consumption of tempeh was associated with improved cognitive function in a small trial and improved memory recall in a cohort study. (Handajani et al. 2021; Handajani et al. 2022)
  • Muscle recovery 💪: Post-exercise tempeh drink supplementation lowered a marker for muscle damage and increased maximal strength in a small trial. (Jauhari et al. 2013)
  • Heart health 🫀: Consumption of tempeh improved markers of cardiovascular health, including decreased total cholesterol and blood pressure, as per 2 small trials. Stronger evidence also suggests beneficial effects of soy isoflavones on cholesterol levels. (Wirawanti et al. 2017; Ansarullah et al. 2017)

More research is needed: Human studies on tempeh are small and lacking. To date, most research focuses on unfermented soybeans. Larger, controlled studies are needed to establish the effects of tempeh on various aspects of health like gut microbiota composition.

Tasty Tips

Buying tempeh: You’ll find it in most large stores, online retailers and health food shops. It comes in various types and brands, made from different beans, legumes, grains, or seeds, and can be plain or pre-marinated. So how to pick?

  • Check the ingredient list: If you can, prefer plain tempeh with minimal ingredients – primarily soybeans and a starter culture (usually Rhizopus). Avoid tempeh with added fillers, preservatives, artificial flavours or colours.
  • Consider the source: Choose tempeh from reputable brands or local producers known for their commitment to quality. Good quality tempeh requires a quality starter with a very high count of Rhizopus spores.

Tempeh Transformation: 3 Tips for learning to love tempeh

  1. Pair with flavours you like: Tempeh is like a flavour sponge! Try different seasonings, sauces and pairings to modify its flavour and cook it the way you like. It’s a versatile ingredient that shines based on how you prepare it.
  2. Find the right texture: Grill or fry crumbled or roughly grated tempeh for a crispy ground meat texture. Cook into stews, sauces, stir-fries and tacos.
  3. Give it multiple chances! Try different brands, recipes and preparations until you find the ones that win you over.

Non-recipe ways to enjoy tempeh

  • Go-to marinade: Coat tempeh with sesame oil, tamari, maple syrup or honey and paprika.
  • Noodle Salad: Marinate and bake until crispy and mix with rice noodles, pickled cucumbers, fresh mint, peanuts, chopped cabbage and a peanut lime dressing.
  • On Toast: With tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, salad leaves, fresh herbs and lime juice.
  • Bolognese: Crumble or grate and add to your favourite tomato sauce.
  • Lunch bowls: Marinate and add to a bowl with mixed greens, shredded cabbage, whole grains, fresh herbs, green onions and your favourite dressing.

4 recipes to try

Dive Deeper

History & compounds: Ahnan‐Winarno et al. 2021

Gut health: Stephanie et al. 2017. Microbiology Indonesia – Stephanie et al. Food Res. 2019

Cognitive health: Hogervorst et al. 2011 – Handajani et al. Geriatr. Cogn. Disord. 2021 – Handajani et al. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience. 2022

Muscle recovery: Jauhari et al. Pakistan Journal of Nutrition. 2013

Cardiovascular health: Afifah et al. Current Nutrition & Food Science. 2020 – Wirawanti et al. 2017. Jurnal Gizi Dan Pangan – Ansarullah et al. Jurnal Gizi Dan Pangan. 2017



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