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Health benefits of tempeh

The many health benefits of tempeh has shot this traditional Indinesian soy food to international fame.

Not too long ago, tempeh was virtually unknown outside of Indonesia and Singapore. Even in Malaysia, which has similar culture and cuisine, tempeh was not widely eaten.

Today, tempeh recipes - usually accompanied with write-ups about the health benefits of tempeh - are featured in health and vegetarian books, cookbooks, magazines and websites published throughout the world, be it in the US, UK, Europe or elsewhere.

Tempeh is recommended as part of the macrobiotic diet, even though this diet and its underlying philosophy originated in Japan and became popular in Europe and America.

Much has already been written about the health benefits of tempeh and soy foods in general, especially the benefits of fermented soy products.

Rather than simply list out and regurgitate these benefits, this article will examine them in a broader perspective. It will explain how the health benefits of tempeh might be different from the benefits of other soy and fermented soy foods.

This article will add notes of caution, for while tempeh does offer many health benefits, there is a danger of eating too much of it - especially when vegetarians and health-conscious consumers go overboard with it.

A good meat substitute

One of the key health benefits of tempeh and other soy foods is that they are rich sources of good quality vegetable protein. Soy protein is said to be of very high quality, not as good as the protein of eggs, meat or dairy foods, but very close.

But not all soy foods are equal. Non-fermened soy foods come with some soy dangers and modern soy foods made with soy protein isolate are particularly harmful, since soy protein isolate is a highly processed and artificial food.

The best soy foods are fermented soy products. Other soy foods like tofu and soy milk are okay only if they are made the traditional way, which involves:

If any of these steps are skipped, the problems associated with soy would still be present. And with most tofu and soy milk being manufactured in factories these days, it is hard for the consumer to know if all the above steps have been faithfully followed.

In fact, traditional ways of making tofu and soy milk do not neutralise the natural toxins found in soy beans as effectively as fermentation. So fermented soy is still superior.

Tofu vs tempeh

In an article published in Dementia and Geriatric Cognitive Disoders (Vol 26 No 1, 2008) researchers examined the effects of soy foods on the memory of elderly people in Indonesia. They found that a high intake of tofu was associated with poorer memory, but the consumption of tempeh was associated with better memory.

This is where the benefits of tempeh make it stand out against all other soy foods. As a fermented soy food, tempeh:

Moreover, tempeh is the only fermented soy product that can be eaten in fairly large amounts, to provide a sense of satisfaction similar to that obtained from eating meat, beans or other protein foods.

Other fermented soy foods like miso and soy sauce are very salty and can only be used in small amounts as a food seasoning. With natto, it is theoretically possible to eat more, but you will feel quite ill afterwards if you eat too much. So tempeh is the only fermented soy food that serves as a good meat substitute, giving a similar sense of satisfaction.

The only danger here is that it is possible to eat too much tempeh. So go easy on it.

Not fully 'complete' protein

Do not be mistaken, however, into thinking that tempeh (and other soy foods) provide "complete" protein with all the essential amino acids. This is true only in theory. In practical terms, soy has very little of the amino acid methionine. This is not an issue if tempeh or other soy foods are eaten with grains, or fish broth, or other foods that contain methionine. But if a vegetarian or vegan eats, say, tempeh with vegetables, then the protein in that meal is not quite complete.

The tempeh mold

Tempeh is not just soybean, however, but also the tempeh mold used in the fermentation process. Good, "ripe" tempeh is well-covered with mold. This is where another of the key health benefits of tempeh lie and it again puts tempeh above other soy products.

The tempeh mold is a natural antibiotic and Indonesians who eat tempeh regularly value its medicinal properties in protecting against infectious diseases like dysentry. The mold is heat-resistant and so the health benefits of tempeh mold are enjoyed even when we eat cooked tempeh.

Vitamin B12

The tempeh mold, along with bacteria that are naturally present in the environment during fermentation, also produces vitamin B12. This is a rare but essential vitamin that is normally found only in animal products.

There are several issues here, however. One is that tempeh made traditionally in Southeast Asia - by small cottage industries under conditions that may not be perfectly clean - contain a wide variety of molds and bacteria naturally present in the environment. In contrast, factory-made tempeh in Western countries generally use only one type of mold as the tempeh starter for fermentation. The difference is that traditional tempeh usually contains a lot more vitamin B12 compared to their factory-made counterparts.

The more important issue is whether the body can absorb this vitamin B12. This has not been fully studied and medical authorities are still unsure of the situation. The general view, however, is that vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 are in the form of Vitamin B12 analogs, which may not be absorbed by the body but might even interfere with the body's absorption of Vitamin B12 from other sources.

Most health authorities now feel that tempeh and other fermented plant foods are not a reliable source of vitamin B12. However, some vegetarians and vegans still claim that it is. Or you may read in older books and articles that it is. Unfortunately, I am also guilty of having mistakenly written in the past that the health benefits of tempeh include a rich content of vitamin B12.

Dangers of soy

Finally, in considering the health benefits of tempeh, we should not forget that it is still basically a soy food and that some of the problems associated with soy cannot be eliminated through fermentation.

One is the high content of phytoestrogens. These are plant chemicals that mimic the effect of estrogen, a female hormone, in the body. Phytoestrogens are present in many plant foods, but soy has particularly high levels. And fermented soy foods like tempeh are not spared from these chemicals.

These chemicals appear to offer benefits as well as pose dangers. They can help prevent certain cancers and help older women reduce the symptoms of menopause. But they can also increase the risks of cancer. In men, excessive consumption of phytoestrogens, especially from soy products, can affect fertility and sex drive. They can also bring out feminine qualities.

Another major problem is that most soy beans today are genetically modified. Worldwide, GMO soy accounts for about 77 percent of total output while in the US, GMO soybeans account for about 93 percent of total production.

So to enjoy the health benefits of tempeh while minimising the dangers, you need to look for tempeh made from organic, non-GMO soybeans. Unfortunately, that is more likely to mean factory-made tempeh, which may not be as nutrient-rich as traditional tempah.

Click here for a pasta recipe with the health benefits of tempeh and spinach.

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