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A Guide to Tempeh

Tempeh is a traditional soy product originally from Indonesia. Like tofu, it is made from soybeans, but with much different nutritional and textural qualities. It’s made by a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that binds the soybeans into a very firm cake. This process gives it a higher content of protein, dietary fiber, and vitamins.

It has a strong, earthy flavor that becomes more pronounced with age. Because of its firm texture, tempeh is perfect for grilling and frying. It can be crumbled and used in scrambles or sandwich fillings. It can even be made into vegan bacon.

Tempeh is an incredibly versatile, highly nutritious addition to any diet.

Shopping Guide

Vegan Tempeh Brands

It used to be that you could only find tempeh in select all-natural grocery stores, but that is no longer the case. Today, tempeh 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.

tempeh guide

A Note About Hexane & GMOs

Hexane

Hexane is a known neurotoxic petrochemical solvent that is purified from crude oil. It is used to extract edible oils from seeds and soy protein isolates or texturized soy protein (TVP) from soybeans. The vast majority of soy protein ingredients in meat analogs have undergone hexane processing. You’ll see them listed on the label as soy protein isolate, soy protein concentrate, or textured vegetable protein. Classified as an air pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and as a neurotoxin by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), exposure to high amounts of hexane carries risks:

Acute (short-term) inhalation exposure of humans to high levels of hexane causes central nervous system effects such as dizziness, giddiness, slight nausea, and headache. Chronic (long-term) exposure to hexane in air is associated with polyneuropathy- damage or disease affecting peripheral nerves in roughly the same areas on both sides of the body. Symptoms can include numbness in the extremities, muscular weakness, blurred vision, headache, and fatigue. (1)

But how much hexane, if any, remains in the food after processing and are consuming these trace amounts a health hazard? According to the University of California, probably not- but it’s hard to know for sure. Not only does the FDA not monitor hexane in foods, the US has yet to even set limits for allowable hexane residue levels in soy foods. The industry has stated that hexane is only used in the initial steps of soy processing, and virtually all of it is eliminated by the time the soy ingredients are incorporated into other products. Critics point to a study which found trace amounts of hexane in soy oil as evidence to avoid soy products.

This vegan dietitian says the occasional hexane-processed soy food is fine when consumed in moderation.

If you want to avoid hexane-treated soy foods, there are a couple of things you can do. Since hexane has been banned in organic food production, look for “100% organic” products that also contain the USDA seal. Keep in mind that this is different from a label that just says “made with organic” ingredients. You can also look for expeller-pressed or other physical extraction methods for oils that do not involve a solvent. (2) Tempeh is made from whole soybeans and typically does not undergo hexane processing. Check the label to be certain.

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO)

A genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been artificially manipulated in a laboratory using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists alter genes with DNA from different species of living organisms, bacteria, or viruses to get desired traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of pesticides and herbicides.

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 production and sale of genetically modified organisms. Here in the US, the government has approved the use of GMOs based on information contained in studies conducted by the same corporations who created them (and profit from their sale). (3)

Learn more about GMOs at The Non GMO Project.

When looking at soy tempeh, unless the product is specifically labeled as GMO-free, then there’s a good chance the product was made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Look for organic products or products specifically labeled as using non-GMO ingredients.

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Recipes

Vegan Tempeh Recipes

Tempeh

Photo: Fork & Beans | Spicy Chipotle Tempeh Wraps

Do you have a tempeh product or recipe that I should know about? Please contact me.

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Your Daily Vegan is committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. The information and data presented in this article has been meticulously researched, and is based on the information available to me at the time of publication. Each guide is periodically reviewed for accuracy and updated as necessary. You can find the update date listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

1. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “Hexane Summary.” Retrieved June 5, 2014

2. University of California. “Should I Worry About Hexane in Soy Burgers and Other Processed Soy Foods?” Retrieved June 29, 2016

3. Non GMO Project. “Learn About GMOs.” Retrieved May 23, 2015

5. Wikipedia. “Tempeh.” Retrieved May 22, 2015

 

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update June 2016

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