Whether you’re vegan or just looking to eat more plant-based foods, tempeh, seitan, and tofu are among the best plant-based sources of protein.
This post will look at 2 main things: taste and nutrition (mainly protein content and quality).
Obviously taste is subjective, but I’ll go over the texture to expect, and which recipes each work best in.
For the nutrition, we’ll compare some actual numbers and look at the amino acid profiles of each protein source.
Tempeh vs Seitan vs Tofu: How Do They Taste?
None of the 3 have particularly strong tastes by themselves, but they do have a taste and texture:
|Tempeh||Fermented soy beans||Perfectly smooth. Firmness depends on the one you buy.||Bland, no real flavor (seasoning is important)|
|Tofu||Soy beans||Hard, crumbly texture.||A bit nutty and sour. Some people like adding sauce to it, some don’t.|
|Seitan||Vital wheat gluten||Smooth, but chewy texture. Most similar to real meat (think a chewy chicken breast).||Depends on the recipe you use, is very versatile.|
All 3 of these foods need to be prepared.
The difference is that tofu and tempeh are easy to find in grocery stores.
Seitan on the other hand won’t be called “seitan”, but many mock meats in the vegan/tofu section of stores have meat substitutes that are made from vital wheat gluten (the main requirement of being called seitan).
However, most people make their own seitan. It’s a lot easier than making your own tofu or tempeh. Here’s the simplest seitan recipe that I’ve used, once you’re used to making it, you can make fancier things like seitan “brisket”.
Is seitan good or bad for you?
This is one question I’d like to address before moving on because it’s so common if you’ve never heard of seitan.
The only required ingredient in seitan is vital wheat gluten. Yes, that gluten, the protein from wheat.
Some people cannot tolerate it at all, so obviously seitan is not a good food for them.
But if you don’t have any gluten sensitivity, vital wheat gluten is just protein (and we’ll look at the quality later), and whether or not seitan is good for you will depend on the recipe you use.
For the most part, recipes consist of nutritional yeast (arguably healthy) and spices. As long as you don’t add too much sugar, I’d say that seitan is generally healthy for you.
Tempeh vs Seitan vs Tofu: Nutrition and Protein
It’s tough to compare them directly because the water content (and therefore caloric density) is so different for each of them.
So first we’ll look at a table of macros for each food per 100 grams of that food.
Second, we’ll look at the macros per 100 calories.
After that we’ll move onto looking at protein quality by breaking down the amino acid profiles of tempeh, tofu, and seitan.
*Important note about seitan: Since all seitan recipes differ, there’s no single nutritional profile for it. Instead I grabbed the nutritional info for vital wheat gluten. Obviously you’ll add other ingredients to it, so your actual seitan will have a higher percentage of fats/carbs. This applies to all the data from here on.
To start with, the macros per 100 grams:
|Tempeh (100g)||Tofu (100g Firm)||Seitan* (100g)|
|% calories from protein||33.3%||40.6%||81.3%|
Vital wheat gluten by itself is essentially protein powder, so it’s no surprise that its protein content is so high.
Notice that tofu is very low in calories per typical serving volume. So if you’re on a cut trying to lose weight (and limiting your calories), tofu is the best protein source of these 3.
Now let’s look at the nutritional information per 100 calories:
If you care more about macros, this is more relevant. You’ll have to eat more servings of one food than another, but the percentages are what matter.
They all have a relatively low amount of carbohydrates, although tofu is best for low carb diets.
Past the macros we have the vitamins and minerals.
All 3 of these protein sources don’t have much in the way of vitamins, but have a decent amount of minerals.
The chart below shows the percent of RDA for each nutrient for tofu, tempeh, and seitan per 100 grams. I only included nutrients where there was a significant amount.
|Tempeh (100g)||Tofu (100g)||Seitan (100 g)|
|Nutrient||% of RDA||% of RDA||% of RDA|
Most of those nutrients aren’t particularly important or hard to get elsewhere, but I did highlight iron.
Since most of the people on this page are likely vegetarian of some kind, it can be hard to get enough iron.
Keep in mind that this is per 100 grams of each food (and seitan may have less when you add ingredients to vital wheat gluten).
Per calorie, tofu is the best for iron, and just about every other nutrient other than riboflavin and niacin.
Protein Quality (Essential Amino Acid Profiles)
Protein quality comes down to how “complete” a protein is.
If you have a diverse set of protein sources in your diet, you don’t really need to worry about this, as they’ll balance each other out.
However, if you rely heavily on a single source of protein, knowing which essential amino acids (the ones our bodies can’t make) it’s lacking can help you pair it with the best other protein sources.
You won’t find amino acid information for seitan of course, but you can find it in studies for wheat gluten. Your seitan’s amino acid profile should be very close to the same.
|RDA||RDA||Tempeh||Tofu||Wheat Gluten (Seitan)|
|mg per kg||for 70 kg person||%RDA per 100 cal||%RDA per 100 cal||%RDA per 100 cal|
Note that all the data for each food is in terms of the percent of the RDA per 100 calories.
For tofu, this would be just over 1 serving, while for tempeh it would be about 0.5 servings, and about a quarter of a serving for vital wheat gluten, as we looked at above in this post.
Overall, they all have solid amino acid profiles. It won’t take much more than a few servings to exceed 100% of your RDA for most essential amino acids.
However, I highlighted the biggest limiting amino acids of each because a few are quite low.
For tempeh and tofu it’s methionine. While for seitan the limiting essential acid is lysine.
Is There a Winner?
Objectively, tempeh, seitan, and tofu are great plant-based protein sources.
There’s nothing major between them, but there are some differences (aside from taste) that may make one better than another in a certain situation:
- Tofu – Fewest calories per serving, so good if limiting calories. Also has the most minerals per calorie. Better amino acid profile than tempeh (comparable to seitan).
- Tempeh – Fermented, and may digest better than tofu if it’s giving you stomach problems. More caloric dense than tofu, which could make it a better option than tofu for gaining weight.
- Seitan – Highest protein content of the 3, and a strong amino acid profile. Very caloric and protein dense, so very good for gaining weight.
If you don’t have a gluten sensitivity, seitan probably wins overall, but all 3 have a place in a healthy diet that needs a lot of protein.