Tempeh is one of those foods that you may have seen mentioned on social media and used in plant-based recipes, but aren’t entirely sure what it is or how to eat it. For people who need to follow gluten-free diets and be careful with their food choices, tempeh can be a particularly confusing food.
So is tempeh gluten-free? The answer is a little complicated. We’ll discuss what tempeh is and how to tell whether it fits into a gluten-free diet.
What is tempeh?
Tempeh originates from Indonesia and is commonly used as a vegetarian protein source. It’s a popular plant-based food made from pressed, fermented soybeans. Tempeh is high in protein and fiber and provides some vitamins and minerals like iron, calcium, potassium, and zinc.
Traditionally, it is often stir-fried or marinated in spices and deep-fried as a snack. In Western countries, it’s popular as a meat substitute for ground beef and is used in tacos, chili, pasta dishes, stir-fries, and more.
Is tempeh gluten-free?
People with Celiac disease and who suffer from Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) must be cautious when adding new foods to their diet. To determine whether tempeh is gluten-free and safe for these individuals, we need to understand how tempeh is made.
Tempeh is produced by taking mature soybeans, boiling them, and adding tempeh starter (often the Rhizopus oligosporus mold) to begin the fermentation process. The soybeans become tightly packed into a cake, held together by the mold.1
During production, grains may also be added to provide additional carbohydrates to feed the mold. In commercial varieties, grains like rice, barley, and millet are common.
So does tempeh have gluten? Most of the time the answer is no, but it depends on whether ingredients other than soybeans have been added. Tempeh is gluten-free when made simply from fermented soybeans and gluten-free grains like brown rice or millet. However, tempeh can also be made with gluten-containing grains like barley, so it’s always best to double-check the label.
Be aware of pre-seasoned tempeh products as well, such as buffalo- or teriyaki-flavored tempeh or smoky tempeh “bacon” strips. Many of these use soy sauce in the marinade, which typically contains gluten. Tamari, on the other hand, is gluten-free.
Benefits of tempeh for gluten-free diets
The health benefits of tempeh are pretty impressive! Tempeh is an incredibly versaile source of plant-based protein, with about 17 grams of protein per three ounce serving. Soy is a complete protein, meaning that it provides all nine essential amino acids in ideal proportions for human health.
A serving also provides about 6 grams of fiber, which can contribute to a healthy gut, reduce inflammation, and support a healthy immune system.
As a soy product, tempeh contains anti-inflammatory isoflavones which may help reduce the risk of breast cancer in both pre- and post-menopausal women as found by a 2022 systematic review paper2.
Thanks to the fermentation process, some nutrients in tempeh become more bioavailable than in non-fermented soy foods. When soy is fermented3, its amino acids can become more easily digested and absorbed. Micronutrients like iron and zinc may also become easier to absorb.
Tempeh can also be used to add variety to plant-based, gluten-free dishes. It’s firmer in texture than tofu or beans, and is perfect for slicing and grilling. It can also be used as a gluten-free substitute for seitan thanks to its meaty texture.
Which brands of tempeh are gluten-free?
If you’re interested in adding tempeh to a gluten-free diet, consider the following gluten-free options.
The following tempeh products from Tofurkey are certified gluten-free:
SoyBoy is another certified gluten-free brand of tempeh. They offer Organic Soy Tempeh made without any grains.
According to the Lightlife website, many Lightlife tempeh products do not have gluten-containing ingredients but are not specifically labeled gluten-free due to the potential for cross-contamination. Tempeh products without gluten-containing ingredients include:
Made only from soybeans and water, their Organic Tempeh (but not the 5 Grain version) is free of gluten.
Interestingly, Biona Organic offers Organic Tempeh made only with organic soybeans that is packed in glass jars and water rather than vacuum-packed in plastic.
Similarly, Marigold offers soy-only Tempeh in cans packed with water.
Ways to eat tempeh
Tempeh can be used in a variety of dishes and takes on the flavors of whatever marinade or seasonings are added to it. Try eating tempeh in these delicious ways:
- Sliced into strips for tempeh “bacon”. Use this to make vegan BLTs or as a breakfast side.
- Marinated and added to stir-fries.
- Cut into slabs, marinated, and grilled. Use in vegan gyros or add to Buddha bowls
Crumbled or shredded and sauteed as a substitute for ground beef. Use in tacos or pasta dishes
Some of my favorite tempeh recipes that are vegan and gluten-free include:
- Sticky Ginger Tempeh with Coconut Rice (The First Mess)
- Jerk Tempeh Bowls with Mango-Tahini Sauce (Dishing Out Health)
- Spicy Italian Tempeh Sausage Crumbles (Roaring Spork)
- Vegan Tempeh Tacos (Dianne’s Vegan Kitchen)
- Easy Tempeh Bacon (Minimalist Baker)
Don’t forget to steam your tempeh
Depending on the brand, tempeh can have a slightly bitter flavor. Steaming tempeh for about ten minutes before marinating or cooking will help remove any bitterness and will allow the tempeh to better absorb whatever flavors you add to it.
Tempeh is a versatile, highly nutritious plant-based food made from fermented soybeans. Thanks to its protein, fiber, isoflavone, and micronutrient content, it can make a valuable addition to plant-based diets.
Most tempeh is gluten-free when made only from soy or when gluten-free grains like rice or millet have been added. Tempeh that has barley or other gluten-containing grains are not gluten-free. Some tempeh comes pre-seasoned and may contain gluten depending on the ingredients used. Soy sauce, for example, is commonly used and typically contains gluten.
There are many ways to add tempeh to a gluten-free or plant-based diet – you just need to find recipes, flavors, and preparation methods that you love!
Interested in other soy-based, gluten-free meat alternatives? Soy curls are a great option! Learn more about them by reading Are Soy Curls Healthy?
- Hachmeister KA, Fung DY. Tempeh: a mold-modified indigenous fermented food made from soybeans and/or cereal grains. Crit Rev Microbiol. 1993;19(3):137-88. doi: 10.3109/10408419309113527. PMID: 8267862.
- Boutas I, Kontogeorgi A, Dimitrakakis C, Kalantaridou SN. Soy Isoflavones and Breast Cancer Risk: A Meta-analysis. In Vivo. 2022 Mar-Apr;36(2):556-562. doi: 10.21873/invivo.12737. PMID: 35241506; PMCID: PMC8931889.
- Adebo, J. A., Njobeh, P. B., Gbashi, S., Oyedeji, A. B., Ogundele, O. M., Oyeyinka, S. A., & Adebo, O. A. (2022). Fermentation of Cereals and Legumes: Impact on Nutritional Constituents and Nutrient Bioavailability. Fermentation, 8(2), 63. https://doi.org/10.3390/fermentation8020063