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4th March, 20214 min read

What is tempeh and what are its health benefits?

Medical reviewer:Dr Ann Nainan
Author:Ceri Moorhouse
Last reviewed: 03/03/2021
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

You may be interested in tempeh if you’re following a vegetarian, vegan or ‘flexitarian’ diet (when you occasionally eat animal products) and are looking for something to try as a meat replacement. Or you may just be searching for new healthy foods to enjoy.

Tempeh is vegan and very nutritious – not only is it high in protein, but it’s also a good source of some important vitamins and minerals.

And as it’s easy to cook and tasty to eat, it’s a great ingredient to keep in your store cupboard for a quick lunch or dinner.

Read on to discover more about what tempeh is, its health benefits and how to cook it.

What is tempeh?

Tempeh is a traditional food that originally comes from Indonesia. It’s made from soya beans, which are chemically changed or ‘fermented’ by mould (usually one called ‘rhizopus’).

The soya beans are then pressed into a compact block or cake. If you look at a block of tempeh, you’ll see the beans are held together by a fuzzy white substance a bit like cotton wool. This is ‘mycelium’, a safe-to-eat byproduct of the fermentation process.

While tempeh is usually made from soya beans, you can also find it made from other beans or grains.

Tempeh is a plant-based food that’s free from animal products and byproducts, so it’s vegan-friendly.

Tempeh nutrition

Tempeh contains a number of important nutrients, including 3 that are commonly thought of as being mainly in meat and dairy products:

  • protein – for growth and repair
  • calcium – for strong bones and teeth
  • vitamin B12 – for releasing energy from food

Tempeh is high in protein and foods high in protein may make you feel fuller than foods high in fat or carbohydrate. This, in turn, may help you control how much food you eat.

What are the health benefits of tempeh?

You may have read that fermented foods contain ‘good bacteria’ called probiotics. But while tempeh is a fermented food, it probably only contains small amounts of probiotics. This is because it’s usually pasteurised (heated) before it’s sold, and cooked before it’s eaten – both of which kill bacteria.

However, tempeh does contain ‘prebiotics’, which are a type of fibre that helps the good bacteria in your digestive system to grow.

What’s more, tempeh is made from soya beans, which contain plant-based chemicals called ‘isoflavones’ that have been linked to lower cholesterol levels. Some studies have also suggested that isoflavones may help to reduce hot flushes caused by the menopause – though more research is needed.

How to cook tempeh

As well as being vegan-friendly and nutritious, tempeh is easy to cook and tasty to eat. It’s described as having a slightly nutty taste and a chewy texture.

Tempeh can be fried, baked or steamed. You can find many tempeh recipes with an Indonesian flavour. Try it sliced and fried in a stir-fry or salad, or baked and crumbled into a pasta sauce or soup.

Is tempeh safe?

Tempeh is safe for most people to eat. However, there are some exceptions.

Because tempeh is made with soya beans, you shouldn’t eat it if you have a soya allergy. And if you have a different food allergy, you should check the label – tempeh is sometimes made with other ingredients, such as wheat. You’ll also need to check the label if you’re looking for gluten-free tempeh.

Common symptoms of food allergy include:

  • itchiness in your mouth, throat or ears
  • a rash that’s raised, itchy and red
  • swelling of your face, around your eyes, lips, tongue or roof of your mouth
  • being sick

Symptoms of a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) include:

  • trouble breathing
  • difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • feeling dizzy or faint

If you think someone is having a severe allergic reaction, you should call for emergency medical help immediately.

If you have a thyroid condition, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider before eating soya. This is because it contains a substance called goitrogen, which can interfere with how the thyroid gland works.

Key points

  • tempeh is a traditional Indonesian food that’s usually made from fermented soya beans
  • it’s vegan-friendly and high in protein
  • it also provides calcium and other important nutrients
  • it’s a versatile and easy-to-use ingredient
  • it’s safe for most people to eat, but check if you’re allergic to any of the ingredients
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