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Tempeh, Tofu, Seitan...Does it Matter Which One You Eat?

tempeh tofu Apr 01, 2021
tempeh dish

Tofu or not tofu?

That is the question…and what about tempeh and seitan?

Contrary to popular belief, vegans are spoilt for choice with plant-based sources of protein. Tempeh, tofu, and seitan are three of the most popular, making an appearance in plenty of vegan recipes.

But not all plant-based protein sources were created equal.

What’s the difference between tofu and tempeh? How does tofu compare to seitan? And what’s the best source of protein?

We’ll answer these questions and more, so read on to learn everything you need to know about these delicious and nutritious vegan foods.

Have you read our Ultimate Guide on How to Cook Vegan yet?

What’s Tofu?

Similar to the process of making cheese, tofu is made from condensed soy milk (bean curd) that is pressed together into blocks. Tofu originated from China but plays an integral role in many Asian cuisines and can be eaten raw, steamed, fried, or baked.

What’s Tempeh?

Tempeh is an Indonesian food made by fermenting soybeans. The microorganisms break down the beans, releasing nutrients and they are then compacted into a cake to be steamed, fried, or baked.

What’s Seitan?

Unlike tofu and tempeh, seitan is not made from soybeans. Instead, it is made from gluten (otherwise known as vital wheat gluten), which is the protein found in wheat. To extract the gluten, wheat is ground into flour and the starch and bran are removed. The resulting powder is then mixed with various ingredients to make a stretchy and elastic dough that can be kneaded and cooked to produce all sorts of delicious meat alternatives.

What’s the Difference Between Tofu and Tempeh?

While both of these plant-based proteins are processed soy products, tofu is made from coagulated soybean milk and tempeh is made directly from soybeans. Not only do they have entirely distinct textures, but they also differ in flavor and nutrient content.

Where plain tofu is relatively bland and soft, tempeh has a more earthy flavor with a chewier texture. And, although they are both made from the same ingredient and offer similar health benefits (they’re both fantastic sources of isoflavones, for example), tempeh arguably has a better nutritional profile.

Tofu Vs. Tempeh Nutrition

In addition to a significant protein and mineral content, tempeh also contains small amounts of B vitamins, including riboflavin, niacin, and vitamins B6 and B12. Moreover, tempeh provides non-digestible fibers known as prebiotics, which promote a healthy gut microbiome.

Depending on the coagulant used, tofu can also boast high levels of specific minerals. For example, if prepared with nigari (seawater after the salt has been extracted), the magnesium content rises, if prepared with calcium sulfate, the calcium content is increased.

In the comparison table below, you can find some of the key nutritional similarities and differences of tofu vs tempeh:

 

Extra-firm tofu (prepared with nigari)

Per 100g (3.5 ounces)

Tempeh (cooked)

Per 100g (3.5 ounces)

Nutrient

Amount

DV (Dietary Value)

Nutrient

Amount

DV (Dietary Value)

Calories

91 (381 kJ)

5%

Calories

196 (821kJ)

10%

Carbohydrate

2g

1%

Carbohydrate

9.4g

3%

Fat

5.8g

9%

Fat

11.4g

18%

Protein

9.9g

20%

Protein

18.2g

36%

Manganese

0.8mg

38%

Manganese

1.3mg

64%

Selenium

13mcg

19%

Selenium

-

-

Calcium

175mg

18%

Calcium

96mg

10%

Phosphorus

136mg

14%

Phosphorus

253mg

25%

Magnesium

53mg

13%

Magnesium

77mg

19%

Iron

1.8mg

10%

Iron

2.1mg

12%

Copper

0.2mg

10%

Copper

0.5mg

27%

Zinc

1.1mg

7%

Zinc

1.6mg

10%

Potassium

132mg

4%

Potassium

401mg

11%

Nutrient profile source: SELF Nutrition Data

Tofu Vs. Tempeh Antinutrient Content

One of the reasons you might want to choose tempeh over tofu is because of the lower antinutrient content.

Similar to many other plant-based foods, soybeans contain antinutrients, including phytates and trypsin inhibitors, which can block the digestion and absorption of protein and minerals.

Don’t worry, antinutrients aren’t as awful as their negative name makes them sound and you’d have to eat a significant amount of tofu for them to have any adverse impact on your health. However, by inactivating or even eliminating these antinutrients, you can increase your uptake of protein and minerals...and that’s no bad thing!

One easy way to do this is through fermentation, which is why you might want to eat more tempeh as opposed to tofu.

Soaking and cooking are two more effective methods to reduce antinutrient content so, if you’re making your own tofu, you could soak the soybeans beforehand. Or why not try your hand at fermenting some tofu?

Is Seitan Better Than Tofu?

Otherwise known as wheat meat, seitan is swiftly growing in popularity due to its meaty texture, high protein levels, and low carbohydrate content (since most of the starch is washed away during the seitan-making process).

Of course, if you’re gluten intolerant, then you’ll probably want to choose tofu or tempeh instead. But if you’ve got a soy allergy, then seitan is a great alternative!

Although it contains lots of protein, bear in mind that seitan is processed, so it’s not recommended for those who have a diet already high in processed foods. However, if your diet is full of whole foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruit, nuts, and grains, then you should be able to consume seitan without concern.

Seitan Nutrition

In addition to protein, seitan also provides plenty of iron, selenium, and other minerals. It doesn’t contain sugar and is almost fat-free. Seitan can be made entirely of vital wheat gluten and water or with added ingredients, like soy and legumes, which can boost the nutritional value.

 

One serving of seitan

Made from 28g (1 ounce) of vital wheat gluten

Nutrient

Amount

DV (Dietary Value)

Calories

104 (435 kJ)

5%

Carbohydrate

3.9g

1%

Fat

0.5g

1%

Protein

21g

42%

Selenium

11.1mcg

16%

Iron

1.5mg

8%

Phosphorus

72.8mcg

7%

Calcium

39.8mg

4%

Nutrient profile source: SELF Nutrition Data

Tempeh, Tofu, or Seitan...What’s the Best Source of Plant-Based Protein?

As you can see from the nutrition tables above, seitan contains a significantly higher amount of protein than tofu or tempeh. However, its lysine levels are relatively low.

What’s lysine?

Lysine is an essential amino acid that can only be obtained through the diet. Therefore, because seitan contains so little of this amino acid, it’s not considered a ‘complete protein’. It does contain plenty of methionine though, which tofu and tempeh lack.

What’s methionine?

Another essential amino acid. Both lysine and methionine are more challenging (compared to the other essential amino acids) to consume as part of a plant-based diet. So, where seitan falls short, tofu and tempeh make up for it and vice versa.

Of course, there are many other sources of plant-based protein that can be used to complement these protein sources to boost your ‘complete protein’ intake, including beans, lentils, and nuts.

As always, variety is key.

We recommend that you eat multiple sources of protein to make up for any lacking essential amino acids.


Hail Seitan! (And Tempeh and Tofu…)

>> Learn how to make German schnitzel using seitan on our Vegan German Classics course <<


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