When it comes to eating soybeans, you have 2 main options: tofu and tempeh.
Both are known as some of the best vegan protein sources, but when it comes to taste and nutrition, there are some significant differences.
The only one that’s arguably better is seitan.
I’m going to break down the main similarities and differences between tempeh and tofu for you so that you can decide which one fits best in your diet.
If you’d also like to see how seitan compares at the same time, see my seitan vs tempeh vs tofu post.
Tempeh vs Tofu: Taste Comparison
Let’s start with a basic overview:
|Tofu||Soybeans||Very smooth, also jiggly. Firmness depends on the one you buy.||Plain, no distinct flavor|
|Tempeh||Fermented soybeans||Hard, crumbly texture.||Nutty taste, and fairly chewy.|
I can’t stand plain tofu or tempeh.
However, both absorb flavors really well. Add some spices, maybe some soy sauce or hot sauce, and now you have something that tastes good.
The taste of tofu also varies a lot based on the firmness of it. As a kid I tried soft tofu and was grossed out, I still don’t like it to this day. But firm and extra firm tofu is great, and more comparable to meat proteins (still a lot softer though).
One final difference is that tofu is easier to find in grocery stores. I doubt you’ll be making tempeh or tofu from scratch, so your options will be limited to what you can find in local grocery or health food stores. If you have a nearby Whole Foods, you’re in luck.
Most stores have multiple tofu options, but tempeh isn’t common in all cities.
What About Estrogen?
The big concern about soy products in general is that they contain estrogen, which will cause issues for men (like “man-boobs”).
This is a myth that is taking forever to die.
Long story short, some studies in rats found that the phytoestrogens (not the exact same as estrogen as our bodies use it) from soy caused hormone disruption, which had consequences like lower sperm quality.
But people are not rats, and men don’t process the isoflavones (phytoestrogens) from soy the same way that rats do.
There have been a few studies where men consumed a ridiculous amount of soy (e.g. 3 liters of soymilk per day), and there were sex hormone changes.
However, every meta study has shown that soy will not affect your estrogen levels significantly, unless you’re eating a crazy amount.
Here’s a quote from one such meta study that summarizes it up nicely:
The intervention data indicate that isoflavones do not exert feminizing effects on men at intake levels equal to and even considerably higher than are typical for Asian males.
Basically, don’t worry about it, you have nothing to fear from soy.
Tempeh vs Tofu: Protein Content and Nutritional Value
Tofu has a lot more water than tempeh, so it’s a lot less caloric dense.
So in order to compare them fairly, we’ll have to look at the macro nutritional values both per 100 grams, and per 100 calories.
Let’s start with the macros per 100 grams of each food. I chose firm tofu, since it’s arguably the most popular form of tofu and easiest to find.
|Tempeh (100g)||Tofu (100g Firm)|
|% calories from protein||33.3%||40.6%|
Notice that 100 grams of tempeh has almost 3 times more calories than 100 grams of tofu. Being more calorically dense makes tempeh better if you’re trying to gain weight, while tofu is better if you’re trying to lose weight.
Now let’s ignore calories and weights and just look at the percentage of each main macro:
Both have a very similar amount of fat, but while tempeh has a good amount of protein, tofu has more protein and only about half the carbohydrates.
If I had to pick a winner here, I’d say that tofu edges out tempeh.
Nutrient Profile Comparison (Vitamins and Minerals)
The other part of nutrition is the micro profile.
Both tempeh and tofu have a decent amount of several vitamins and minerals. Here they are in terms of the percent of the recommended dietary allowance (RDA).
|Tempeh (100g)||Tofu (100g)|
|Nutrient||% of RDA||% of RDA|
Again, they are compared on a 100 grams basis. So if you’re planning on eating the same total calories from either, you’d need to multiply the values for tofu by about 3.
On a per calorie basis, Tofu has significantly more calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and manganese.
Tempeh only has a significant amount more of riboflavin and niacin, which aren’t particularly hard to get compared to nutrients like iron and magnesium.
Tofu clearly has the better nutritional profile when it comes to vitamins and minerals.
Comparing Amino Acid Profiles of Tofu and Tempeh
Modern nutritional science has shown that it typically doesn’t matter if a protein source is “complete” (has all the essential amino acids) or not, as long as you’re eating diverse foods.
The amino acids will typically balance out from the different protein sources you eat.
However, if you’re eating a lot of one protein source, being mostly complete could prove to be a good thing.
So let’s take a quick look at the amino acid profiles of both tempeh and tofu.
|mg per kg||for 70 kg person||%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.
Since soybeans have the best amino acid profile of all beans, it’s no surprise that both tempeh and tofu both have strong amino acid profiles.
It’s pretty common to eat a few hundred calories of each during a meal, which will put you close to the RDA or over for all essential amino acids other than methionine.
But while both have good amino acid profiles, tofu has more of all essential amino acid profiles, making it the winner here as well.
Tofu vs. Tempeh: Which is Better?
If you had to pick one over the other, tofu is likely better.
Tofu has more protein, more nutrients, and a better amino acid profiles. Not by a huge amount, but by a significant amount.
That being said, tempeh is still a great protein source, and there’s no reason you can’t eat both tofu and tempeh. The one thing that tempeh really has going for it is that it’s a fermented product, which should make it easier to digest. If tofu gives you gas, try tempeh instead.
To continue on that note, if tofu is giving you stomach problems, buy sprouted tofu if you can (although it can be hard to find). Sprouting has similar effects to fermentation, and removes oligosaccharides from beans, which are responsible for most of the gas they cause.
If soy in general gives you issues, I strongly recommend looking at seitan (although wheat gluten can give some people stomach issues as well). I’ve created posts comparing tofu vs seitan and tempeh vs seitan if you’d like to see how they compare.