A Field Guide to Tofu, Tempeh, and Seitan: Everything You Need to Know

​Tofu, tempeh, and seitan are meat-textured alternative staples that are used very often in vegan/vegetarian food ​products, but what exactly are they?

They are popular go-to's for new vegans who are concerned with either sustaining their protein intake, or their desire to have a firm and chewy meat-type ingredient in their diet.  

There isn't much trouble in finding where to buy them because they are available at all health-food stores and most  grocery chains.

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Tofu, Tempeh, and Seitan

Tofu, Tempeh, and Seitan. (From left to right)

"What are these ingredients and how do ​I use them?"

Aside from being considered substitutes for meat; tofu and tempeh are derived from soybeans, and seitan comes from wheat gluten.  They have firm consistencies and the ​dishes they ​could transform into are unlimited.

Understanding what these ingredients are and what your recipe calls for will merit the best results.  

In this comprehensive article, we will take a look at these three ingredients, talk health, and also provide you with some tasty recipes to try out from the comfort of home.

Enjoy! And do remember to share this article on social media if you find it helpful.

​Discovering These Versatile Vegan Staples

Tofu

What is it?

A protein that is made by concentrating the milk made from soybeans by removing extra moisture which results in curds.  Depending on the amount of water remaining and thickeners used, this will produce soft to firmer textures.  The curds are then pressed into blocks.

Where does it come from?

The first recordings of tofu-making are seen on an ancient Chinese mural over 2000 years ago and it was written about in a poem called, "Ode to Tofu" by Su Ping, around 1500 A.D.

Varieties

Extra soft, silken, firm, and extra firm

What does it taste like?

Depending on the way it is processed, it can have a beany or bland/neutral flavor.  So it may be eaten as is or made into any flavor desired.

How to cook it

Tofu is highly versatile and can be fried, baked, sauteed, steamed, grilled, or eaten raw.

Recipes

​Below are three great recipes we have found that utilize tofu.

Tofu Breakfast Scramble by Minimalist Baker

Barbecue Tofu and Collard Green Empanadas by Sweet Potato Soul

Vegan Chocolate Silk Pie by Minimalist Baker

​Tempeh

What ​is it?

(pronounced "Tem-pay")

It is fermented soybeans that are pressed into flat cakes, then baked or fried.

Where does it come from?

Originating in  Java, Indonesia,  the word "tempeh" was first recorded around 1815 in a manuscript called Serat Centhini.

This  manuscript contains Javanese tales and teachings based around real descriptions and characters living in the early 1600's, so it is possible tempeh existed in Java around that time.

Varieties 

Tempeh is typically made from soybeans, but can be made with any type of bean.  The fermentation process is what turns it into tempeh.

What does it taste like?

It is described to have an earthy or nutty flavor that gets stronger as it ages.

How to cook it

It can be marinated, then grilled or baked.  It can also be fried or dried.

Recipes

​Below are three great recipes we have found that utilize ​tempeh.

Vietnamese tempeh noodle salad by Lazy Cat Kitchen

Tempeh, Broccoli, and Red Bell Pepper Stir Fry by Kevin Schuder

Vegan BLTA Texas Toast Grilled Cheese by The Veg Life

​Seitan

What is it?

(pronounced "Say-tahn")

It is a protein that comes from the gluten of wheat flour.  The flour is rinsed until all of the starch is washed away, leaving behind a sticky, stretchy substance which is then cooked resulting in a chewy, slightly rubbery texture that resembles meat. It is nicknamed "Wheat Meat".

Where does it come from?

It's not exactly known when seitan was first produced, but it is recorded, from several sources, that it had been a staple in the traditional diet of Chinese Buddhist monks.  It was introduced to the U.S. in 1970, in the natural foods industry, as a specialty food imported from Japan.  The word "Seitan" is Japanese from the method of cooking it in soy sauce.

Varieties

Seitan's texture can become anything from a spongy, bread-like quality, to chewy with a meaty feel.

What does it taste like?

Seitan is popular because of the unique texture that it provides.  After the process of making it, the taste is bland and doughy, but it is typically not eaten this way.  The possibilities are endless in flavor and it can be prepared to taste like anything you want it to.

How to cook it

It can be fried, baked, sauteed, smoked, steamed, etc.

Recipes

​​Below are three great recipes we have found that utilize ​seitan.

Vegan Seitan BBQ Ribs by Delightful-Delicious-Delovely

Seitan Sausage by Rich Bitch Cooking

Grilled Vegan Seitan with Honey Lime and Chipotle Sauce by PETA

​Let's Talk Nutrition

A common, but uninformed, argument against veganism is that you can't get enough protein.  There are many different ways to get protein on a vegan diet and tofu, tempeh, and seitan are three good sources.

Soy is a desirable source for many vegans because it provides a sufficient amount of all nine essential amino acids necessary for humans, making it a complete protein.

Tempeh is also derived from soy, but its nutritional value is increased due to its fermentation process, resulting in better digestive health, disease reversal, and better nutrient absorption. Coming from soy, it is also a complete protein. 

Gluten-free foods are a huge trend right now, but the benefits of seitan are its significant amount of protein and micro minerals such as iron and zinc, which help with increasing metabolic energy and immune system support.

​The Natural Probiotic

Tempeh is a fermented food that helps the digestive system.  It prevents the excessive growth of harmful bacteria, which, if introduced into the bloodstream, causes inflammation in various parts of the body.  

It is preventative against allergies and environmental toxins.  

Eating these foods is linked to overall health and better brain function.

​Below is a chart that shows the nutrition facts of 100 grams of tofu, tempeh and seitan:

Tofu (per 100g)

Tempeh
(per 100g)

Seitan (per 100g)

Protein (g)

​8

19

75

Soluble Iron (%)

​29

15

28

Vitamin B-12 (%)

0

1

0

Calcium (%)

​34

11

14

Potassium (%)

​3

11

2

​A Reduction of Prostate Cancer Risk In Men?

There is an intriguing meta-analysis by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, designed to find the relation between soy consumption and prostate cancer risk in men.

Here is a quote discussing the results of the meta-analysis:

"​The results of the present analysis of 14 studies showed that consumption of soy foods was associated with a reduction in prostate cancer risk of ≈26% in men when the highest reported intake was compared with the lowest reported intake."

That is significant! Soy cosumers could have up to a 26% reduced risk for prostate cancer.

​The Downside

​Male readers might feel concerned about consuming soy.  There are many myths around it all the way from simply increasing estrogen levels to growing you your own breasts. However, there hasn't been credible research to prove feminizing effects of soy on men.

Here is a quote from a 2010 School of Public Health meta-analysis:

"[The findings from these studies] show that neither isoflavone supplements nor isoflavone-rich soy affect total or free testosterone (T) levels. Similarly, there is essentially no evidence from the nine identified clinical studies that isoflavone exposure affects circulating estrogen levels in men."

The conclusion of the ​analysis is as follows:

"The intervention data indicate[s] that isoflavones do not exert feminizing effects on men at intake levels equal to and even considerably higher than ​[what is] typical for Asian males."

Seitan is derived from wheat gluten.  

Vital wheat gluten is different from gluten flour as in gluten is added to flour to make foods like bread chewier and to raise the protein content.  

Gluten-free diets ​have been​ gaining popularity, but does everyone need to avoid it?  

The spotlight on gluten came about after the release of "Wheat Belly" and the popularization of low carb diets.  There are theories on the effects of gluten and chronic diseases (Inflammation, asthma, etc.), but not enough evidence to show that it should be restricted from our diets.  

Gluten is harmful to those who have Celiac disease because they suffer significant health detriments when exposed to the ingredient. 

Genetically modified soy (or GMO soy) can be really harmful to a person who is sensitive to it.  

Soy is one of the top eight allergens that cause immediate reactions according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  This is strongly connected to specifically GMO soy intake.  

A GMO food is produced from a plant that has had changes introduced to its DNA. These changes are made to plants so that they can survive pesticide treatments.

"The FDA also warns that genetic engineering could transfer new and unidentified proteins from one food into another, triggering allergic reactions"- Sierra Club

"A study by the UK’s York Nutritional Laboratory, Europe’s leading specialist on food sensitivity, revealed a 50 percent increase in soy allergies in 1998, a period in which the percentage of genetically engineered beans in the total soy crop jumped dramatically."- Sierra Club

When at all possible, eat organic, non-gmo soy.

​​Protein

So, how much protein do we really need?  

Protein intake tends to be a common concern for those who choose a plant-based diet.  

It varies drastically between individuals and there are ​​​calculators that will help you determine the amount of protein you need based on your physical activity, weight, and other factors.

According to the American Dietetic Association, most active adults will only have to consume​ 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram​ of their own body weight ​a day.

Example:

  • ​Ted ways 150 pounds.
  • ​First, he converts his weight from pounds to kilograms.
  • ​Ted ​weighs approximately 68.04 kilograms
  • Now, he multiplies his weight in kilograms by our magic number, 0.8.
  • ​Ted must consume 54.4 grams of protein every day.

Vegans are most likely getting enough protein.  In the case of non-plant-based diets:

  • 1 cup of 1% milk has 8g of protein.

  • 1 cup of low-fat yogurt has about 11g of protein.

  • 1.5 oz of natural cheese has 10g of protein

So when you add the dairy in, the average person is getting about 27 more grams of protein from the milk group, on top of the protein foods group.

Are high-protein diets bad news?

A review article by Ioannis Delimaris​, University of Thessaly, revealed some interesting effects of a high protein diet.

​"Extra protein is not used efficiently by the body and may impose a metabolic burden on the bones, kidneys, and liver. Moreover, high-protein/high-meat diets may also be associated with increased risk for coronary heart disease due to intakes of saturated fat and cholesterol or even cancer"

This affects anyone who consumes a high amount of meats and also really takes a toll on the bodybuilding community and anyone that is using a lot of protein powders.

Modern Meals

Now that we know soy and gluten are generally safe, here is a short list of comfort foods, party appetizers, and kid-friendly meals that barely begin to show all of the cool things you can do with these ingredients.

There are a ton of recipes for every palate and occasion.

​Final Notes

A few other nourishing replacements and possibilities for meat/protein are lentils, walnut meat, pea plant protein, and jackfruit all with great health benefits of their own.

Tofu, tempeh, and seitan, have infinite possibilities.  You can still have all of your favorite classic recipes and some new ones as well.

What's your experience with these ingredients?
Do let us know if you have any questions by commenting below!

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