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The Great Big Vegan Guide to Tempeh

By KD Angle-Traegner on January 12, 2018

Although tempeh goes back ages in Indonesia, many people are still have never heard of the earthy mushroom plant protein that is a staple for vegans everywhere.

Like tofu, tempeh comes from soybeans but with a much different nutritional and textural qualities. It’s a fermented soy product; a cultured cake of soybeans and/or grains made by a culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds the soybeans into a very firm cake. Other types of tempeh use barley, flax, oats, brown rice, or other grains.

The fermentation process and its retention of the whole bean give tempeh a higher protein content, dietary fiber, and vitamins compared to other soy foods like tofu, as well as a much firmer texture. Because of this firm texture, tempeh is perfect for grilling and frying. This high-protein plant food makes perfect sandwich fillings, crumbled into soups or chili,  or even as a tasty smoky, salty vegan bacon.

Delicious possibilities are limitless.

The Origins of Tempeh

Tempeh originated in Indonesia where it could be considered the oldest food technology in the history of the Javanese people. The book Serat Centhini — a twelve-volume compilation of Javanese tales and teachings written in 1814 — mentions it, indicating that tempeh had been produced and eaten by the time of its publication. 

Food historians believe tempeh may have come by the Chinese who were making a similar product, soybean koji; soybeans fermented with Aspergillus molds. The Rhizopus starter that tempeh uses could have been due to its better adaptation to the Indonesian climate.

In Europe, this versatile plant protein came by way of the Dutch who once colonized Indonesia. Here in the US, it’s only been known since 1955 when it appeared in Possible Sources of Proteins for Child Feeding in Underdeveloped Countries published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

How is Tempeh Made?

The traditional process begins with cracking whole dried soybeans with a grain mill. Next, the beans are soaked overnight and dehulled to remove the outer covering. After they’re drained and rinsed, the soybeans are placed in a large pot to cook until tender.

Once they’re cool, it’s time to inoculate the soybeans with the Rhizopus oligosprorus starter. When complete, the inoculated soybeans incubate for 24 – 48 hours. This time allows the fermentation process to take place and a thick layer of white mycelium mold binds the soybeans into a firm cake.

Don’t worry, the mold (Rhizophus) that is used is considered GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Actually, foods fermented with Rhizophus can be beneficial. The species have been used as a detoxifying agent against food toxins and increase the digestibility of certain legumes. (1, 2)

Finally, the finished fermented cakes are steamed, packaged, and refrigerated ready for a variety of cooking methods.

Is Soy Healthy to Eat?

Let’s talk soy and our health. Long recognized as a nutrient-dense food by registered dietitians and medical doctors, soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids as well as an impressive list of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, selenium, B vitamins, and zinc. Soy also contains fiber, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids, and is an excellent source of protein.

Not too shabby, nutritionally speaking. But don’t take my word for it, I’m not a dietitian, that’s why I turned to an expert on vegan nutrition, Anya Todd MS, RD, LD to get her thoughts on soy.

According to Todd, the nutrition in soy foods can vary among different preparations, so she recommends consuming whole soy foods like tempeh to guarantee the highest amount per serving. “Bottom line, soy is perfectly healthy in moderation. Two to three servings of whole soy foods a day is a safe recommendation.” In fact, research shows that people who eat one to two servings of soy foods per day gain many health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and specific forms of cancer. (3, 6)

But what about those other scary soy articles about soy isoflavones, cancer, and genetically modified soy? Glad you asked.

Soy Isoflavones

Soybeans contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones. Some people claim that these soy isoflavones act like the female sex hormone estrogen in the body and can potentially increase the risk of cancers — especially breast cancer — as well as reduce the testosterone levels in men.

But concerns about adverse effects are not supported by the clinical or epidemiologic literature available at the time of this writing. Soy is one of the most researched foods — nearly 2,000 soy-related papers published annually — and based on the health benefits in these epidemiologic studies along with the benefits noted in clinical trials soy is not only safe to eat, but it’s also beneficial when eaten in moderation. (3, 4)

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Some people will avoid tempeh because they are afraid to consume GMOs. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been manipulated in a lab using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists alter genes using DNA from different species of living organisms like bacteria or viruses to get specific traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of herbicides or pesticides. (5)

Soybeans are the second-largest crop grown in the US after corn, and they’re also one of the top genetically-modified crops. These numbers are significant because even if you’re not eating soy foods directly — if you’re eating animals — you’re most likely still consuming soy. Currently, 85 percent of all GMO soybeans end up in animal feed for farmed animals where it eventually ends up on your plate.

There are criticisms about the practice surrounding the bioengineering and the production of genetically modified organisms. In more than 60 countries around the world, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the manufacture and sale of genetically modified organisms. Here in the US though, the government has approved the use of GMOs. (5)

When looking at soy tempeh, unless the product has a specific GMO-free label, then there’s a good chance the product is genetically modified. Look for organic tempeh or tempeh labeled explicitly as using non-GMO ingredients.

Medical Disclaimer

The content of the Web Site including without limitation, text, copy, audio, video, photographs, illustrations, graphics and other visuals, is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, treatment or recommendations of any kind. Read the full Medical Disclaimer.

Tempeh Brands Shopping Guide

It used to be that you could only find tempeh in select all-natural grocery stores, but that is no longer the case. Today, it can be found alongside tofu in the refrigerated section of your local supermarket. There are a variety of flavors, styles, and brands to choose from.

Buyer’s Note: Tempeh is a fermented product that incubates for several hours. During this time, it is common for black and white areas to develop- they are edible and perfectly normal. The dark areas are purely cosmetic and will not affect the flavor, texture, or shelf life. If you notice any spots of any color other than black or white, do not eat the product.

Vegan Tempeh Brands

  • Lightlife
    Products: Organic Soy, Organic Flax, Organic Garden Veggie, Organic Three Grain, Organic Fakin’ Bacon
  • Tofurkey
    Products: Original Soy, Organic Five Grain, Sesame Garlic, Smoky Maple Bacon
  • SoyBoy
    Products: Soy, 5 Grain 
  • Barry’s Tempeh
    Products: Classic Soy, White Bean & Brown Rice (Soy-Free), Adzuki Bean & Brown Rice (Soy-Free)
  • Impulse Foods Tempeh (UK)
    Products: Organic Plain, Organic Herb & Garlic, Organic Hemp, Organic Sea Vegetables, Organic Smoky with Shoyu

Do you make a vegan tempeh that isn’t listed here? Please contact me.

Vegan Tempeh Recipes

Are you ready to get cooking with this nutritional powerhouse? Here is a selection of vegan recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner inspiration.

15-Minute Tempeh Tuna Recipe | The Great Big Vegan Tempeh Guide | Your Daily Vegan

Tempeh Tuna Salad Sandwich | Your Daily Vegan

Recipes to Try

Do you have a vegan recipe that isn’t listed here? Please contact me.

Vegan Tempeh Guide | Your Daily Vegan

Truth in Advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. To that end, I have meticulously researched each topic presented in Your Daily Vegan. These guides contain the information available at the time of publication and are reviewed and updated when needed.

Changes to the guides are dated and listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

References

  1. Varga, J., & Péteri, Z., & Tábori, K., & Téren J., & Vágvölgyi, C. (2005). Degradation of ochratoxin A and other mycotoxins by Rhizopus isolates. International Journal of Food Microbiology, Volume 99, Issue 3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijfoodmicro.2004.10.034
  2. Marshall, A., & Fretzdorff, B., & Buening-Pfaue, H., & Betsche, T. (2007). Comparative effect of boiling and solid substrate fermentation using the tempeh fungus (Rhizopus oligosporus) on the flatulence potential of African yambean (Sphenstylis stenocarpa L) seeds. Food Chemistry, Volume 103, Issue 4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodchem.2006.10.058
  3. Messina, M., & Messina, V. (2010). The Role of Soy in Vegetarian Diets. Nutrients, Volume 2, Issue 8. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu2080855
  4. Norris, J. (2010). Soy: What’s the Harm? VeganHealth.org. http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soy_wth
  5. (2018) Learn About GMOs. Non GMO Project. https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/
  6. Todd, A. (2018) Personal Interview. http://www.anyatodd.com/

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update January 2018

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The Great Big Vegan Tempeh Guide - What is tempeh? Get the answer along with nutritional information, a shopping guide, and recipes to try in this great big vegan food guide.

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