Tempeh vs. Tofu vs. Seitan: Your Guide to Meat Alternatives

Whether you're trying to eat more vegetarian proteins or you've recently started a plant-based diet, it can be intimidating to navigate your options. Is tofu better for you than seitan? How should you cook tempeh? And is it really healthy to eat soy?

What’s the difference between tempeh, tofu and seitan? (Image: Enrique Díaz / 7cero/Moment/GettyImages)

Not to worry! Anyone who's vegetarian, vegan or mostly plant-based has been in your shoes, and all it takes is a little know-how and some trial and error with recipes to become a pro with these options.

Start by learning the nutritional highlights, health benefits and recommended uses for tofu, tempeh and seitan below, and then have fun as you see what you like best.

Tofu will take on the flavor of whatever you cook it with. (Image: by [D.Jiang]/Moment/GettyImages)

What Is Tofu?

Also called bean curd, tofu is made by taking soymilk, curdling it and forming it into blocks — kind of similar to how dairy milk is formed into cheese.

Depending on how it's made, the texture can be silky, soft, firm or extra-firm, and you can also find sprouted tofu, made with sprouted soybeans, which is easier to digest but higher in fat and calories.

Nutritional Value of Tofu

"Tofu has a great mix of nutrients including protein, healthy fats, fiber, phytochemicals called isoflavones, omega-3 fatty acids and even calcium, selenium and iron," says Lindsey Pine, RDN, owner of TastyBalance Nutrition.

However, the exact nutritional values depends on how the tofu is prepared, so check labels if you are concerned about a specific nutrient.

Three ounces of soft tofu has:

  • 52 calories
  • 6 grams of protein
  • 3 grams of fat
  • 0.5 grams of saturated fat

Three ounces of firm tofu has:

  • 66 calories
  • 8 grams of protein
  • 3.5 grams of fat
  • 1 gram of saturated fat

Three ounces of extra-firm tofu has:

  • 71 calories
  • 8.5 grams of protein
  • 4.5 grams of fat
  • 1 gram of saturated fat

To compare that to other protein sources, "three ounces of tofu provides about as much protein as an ounce of chicken and a little more than a boiled egg," says New York City-based nutrition expert Samantha Cassetty, RD.

Health Benefits of Tofu

Tofu is a complete protein, meaning it provides all of the essential amino acids we need to get from our diet. Our body uses these to build proteins to perform important bodily functions.

Most versions of tofu also provide about 20 percent of the recommended daily calcium to help support bone health and about 6 percent of the recommended daily iron to support growth and development.

Beyond these nutrients, there has been some confusion about the connection between soy foods and different health benefits.

In October 2017, the Food and Drug Administration revoked the health claim that soy protein reduces the risk of heart disease. However, other compounds (such as isoflavones) appear to improve blood pressure, glycemic control, obesity and inflammation, according to a review published in the journal Nutrients earlier that year.

And because soy contains two isoflavones — genistein and daidzein — that act like estrogen within the body, there have also been concerns that it could raise the risk of breast cancer and other hormone-dependent cancers, Cassetty says.

"However, these fears have been put to rest, and the American Institute for Cancer Research considers moderate amounts of soy protein like tofu safe, even for breast cancer survivors," she says.

One drawback of soy, however, is that it is one of the top allergens, so make sure that no one in your household is allergic.

How to Cook Tofu

Tofu is a blank slate and will take on whatever flavors you cook with it. It can be used for savory or sweet dishes, and each texture is best for different recipes:

  • Silken and soft tofu is great for smoothies, dips, creamy dressings and puddings or mousse.
  • Firm tofu crumbles when you cook it, making it good for filling tacos or as a replacement for scrambled eggs, Cassetty says.
  • Extra-firm tofu can be cubed and cooked in stir-fries and on kebabs or baked and added to salads and grain bowls.
  • Pine suggests rubbing the block of extra-firm tofu with spices and barbecuing it whole on the grill.

For any tofu recipes, be sure to press and drain the tofu before preparing it. Tofu is typically sold in water and can retain this moisture. If you cook it as it comes, you can wind up with a watery, less flavorful final dish.

To press the tofu, remove the block from the packaging and line a plate or cutting board with paper towels. Place the tofu on top and layer some paper towels on top of that. Then add a heavy plate, pan or cans on top. Let this sit for 30 minutes to an hour, then toss the paper towels and your tofu is ready to use.

It might look strange, but tempeh is extremely versatile. (Image: Dani Daniar / EyeEm/EyeEm/GettyImages)

What Is Tempeh?

Another soy food, tempeh is formed from whole soybeans that are cooked and fermented, Pine says. Some brands add cooked grains or seeds to the soybeans. Compared to tofu, tempeh has a firmer texture and a somewhat nutty flavor.

Nutritional Value of Tempeh

"Tempeh contains healthy fats, iron, calcium, niacin and omega-3s and contains more protein than tofu," Pine says. It also has more carbohydrates and fiber than tofu does.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), three ounces of tempeh provides:

  • 163 calories
  • 17 grams of protein
  • 9 grams of fat
  • 2 grams of saturated fat

Health Benefits of Tempeh

Because it's also made from soy, tempeh has similar health benefits as tofu does. "And since it is made from fermented soybeans, it contains probiotics, which may be beneficial for digestive health," Pine says.

These benefits aren't limited to tempeh alone, though. A 2016 review in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that consuming any soy foods may cause beneficial changes to our gut bacteria that may reduce the risk of diseases and benefit our health.

The review authors also found that fermented soy foods have both prebiotic and probiotic effects on the gut bacteria, but more research is necessary to determine what, if any, health benefits this leads to.

How to Cook Tempeh

Similar to tofu, tempeh can be grilled, baked, stir-fried, crumbled like ground meat and used in sandwiches. "I recommend marinating the tempeh or adding a sauce to give it more flavor," Pine says. "It pairs very well with flavorful marinades that include soy sauce, ginger, garlic and orange juice. And grilled or baked tempeh with barbecue sauce is a tasty option."

Because tempeh's earthy flavor can be strong for those new to tasting it, some recommend steaming it for about 10 to 15 minutes before preparing it, which can help mellow out the flavor.

You can also try one of these LIVESTRONG.COM recipes:

Your choice of meat alternative relies mainly on your preference of taste and texture. (Image: Lawton, Becky/Foodcollection/GettyImages)

What Is Seitan?

A soy-free option, seitan is pure wheat gluten. It has a meaty texture and can be sold plain or made into bacon, sausages, burgers and other meat alternatives.

Nutritional Value of Seitan

"Since all of the starch has been washed away during the production of seitan, it is a low-carbohydrate food that is high in protein. It also contains minerals, such as iron, selenium and calcium," Pine says.

The exact nutritional values vary from brand to brand, but three ounces generally provides:

  • 120 to 150 calories
  • 22 grams of protein
  • 2 grams of fat
  • 0 grams of saturated fat

Health Benefits of Seitan

There aren't any studies on seitan, but it's a good plant-based protein for people who are allergic to soy, Pine says. However, "if you have celiac disease or must avoid gluten due to other medical issues, do not eat seitan because it is made of wheat gluten," she says.

How to Cook Seitan

Seitan can be marinated, sauteed, grilled, stir-fried or baked. You can use it in sandwiches, fajitas, chili or even as a fillet like a piece of meat. "Seitan is very forgiving. It's pretty hard to mess it up!" Pine says. So experiment and have fun.

What do you think about these meat substitutes? (Image: Sasha Pritchard / FOAP/foap/GettyImages)

Should I Eat Tofu, Tempeh or Seitan?

As long as you aren't allergic to soy or wheat, any of these options is a healthy one. Tofu tends to be least expensive and has a mild flavor that you can easily cover with whatever flavors you cook it in.

However, if you're craving a truly meaty texture, Pine recommends seitan. "Tempeh can take some getting used to if you are new to preparing plant-based proteins, so I would probably save this one for last," she says.

Ultimately, though, it's up to your personal preference for taste and texture. Try them all in a variety of dishes and find what works for you.

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