If you love your tempeh, you likely know that it’s fermented. And when foods are fermented, it usually means you don’t have to cook them and can eat them as is (or raw).
This is because the beneficial bacteria that grow from the fermentation process preserve the food and keep the harmful bacteria that make you sick at bay.
Since tempeh is fermented, many wonder – can you eat tempeh raw? Yes, you can eat tempeh raw. Read on as I answer this in more detail.
Can You Eat Raw Tempeh?
Yes, you can eat tempeh raw. But should you?
Tempeh is a fermented food, where beneficial bacteria naturally preserve the nutrients and prevent rotting.
However, cooking food is the best way to ensure that potentially harmful bacteria are killed and will not cause illness.
If foods will be fermented and eaten raw, it is extremely important that all cooking equipment and surfaces be completely sterile.
When tempeh is made commercially, the manufacturer is required to follow very high standards of food safety and to pasteurize food before selling it.
When tempeh is made at home, a typical home kitchen is a less sterile environment and there is a higher chance of contamination.
If you plan to eat tempeh raw, it is important to purchase pre-made, pasteurized tempeh from a quality manufacturer with high safety standards and check the expiration date on the package.
It’s best to not eat homemade tempeh without cooking it.
Most people find that cooked tempeh is more delicious and has a better texture, so raw tempeh is also not preferable from a flavor perspective.
What Happens if You Eat Tempeh Raw?
If your tempeh is fresh and pasteurized, there is virtually no health risk when eating it raw.
Unpasteurized tempeh, when eaten raw, carries the risk of foodborne illness due to potentially harmful bacteria and microorganisms.
The fungus that ferments tempeh, Rhizopus oligosporus, is closely related to the potentially toxic fungus Rhizopus microsporus.
Raw, unpasteurized tempeh may also cause inflammation and other problems, and should be especially avoided by people with immunity concerns.
Does Tempeh Need to be Cooked?
In a very real sense, store-bought tempeh is never a “raw” food. Tempeh goes through several processes before it reaches your home:
- Soybeans are cooked to break down the natural sugars and fibers. This releases the nutrients needed for fermentation and makes the final product edible.
- Cooked soybeans are fermented (either with starter culture or already-made tempeh) to ensure that the correct type of fungus is cultivated, preserving the food.
- Fermented tempeh is pasteurized, which virtually stops the fermentation process at the desired stage and kills any unwanted bacteria.
Many people prefer to add a fourth step of steaming tempeh before final preparation. Steaming tempeh can remove bitter flavors and make your final recipes taste better.
After tempeh is made and pasteurized and/or steamed, it is usually cooked into a finished dish with the desired flavor and texture.
Cooking tempeh changes its nutrient profile, as cooking does for all foods, but renders it more delicious and versatile.
Does Cooking Tempeh Destroy Probiotics?
One of the benefits of fermented foods is the beneficial probiotics that may add nutrients and aid digestion.
Many people choose fermented foods like tempeh in order to gain these probiotics and aid their intestinal microbiome, and there is a lot of debate about whether cooking tempeh destroys beneficial probiotics.
The truth is, there is a lot that we still don’t understand about our intestinal flora, and there have not been sufficient scientific studies of tempeh to provide a conclusive answer.
However, here are a few factors to consider:
Not All Live Cultures Are Probiotics
Not all fermented foods contain live cultures, and not all live cultures are beneficial.
When tempeh is pasteurized, that process kills off potentially harmful bacteria.
However, when tempeh has completed the fermentation process, the beneficial microorganisms have, in essence, done their work: a finished tempeh cake has little food left for them to consume.
In other words, whether tempeh is pasteurized or un-pasteurized, it is not a high source of probiotics.
Not All Microbes Need to Be Alive to Be Beneficial
Common knowledge indicates that, in order for probiotics to be effective, they need to be alive when they reach the intestines.
This means cooking them in a way that does not kill them, and also eating them in foods that prevent them from being attacked by stomach acids, so they remain alive throughout the digestive process.
However, more and more studies suggest that this may not be true, and dead probiotic microbes, or even particles of dead microbes, can be beneficial.
This is important because the likelihood that food is contaminated with potentially toxic bacteria is much higher than the chance that it will contain beneficial bacteria.
Tempeh Appears to Be Beneficial Both Raw and Cooked
In one study, rats were fed cooked and uncooked tempeh, as well as non-fermented soybeans, to see how this diet affected their immune system.
The study found that tempeh caused a significant increase in the secretion of intestinal immunoglobulin when compared with soybeans, but that there was no difference between cooked and uncooked tempeh.
In other words, it is likely that the actual amount of beneficial probiotics in tempeh is fairly low compared to other fermented foods.
It also seems that, while cooking or pasteurization will kill live cultures and probiotics, it does not seem to reduce the health benefits of tempeh, and may make it safer to eat by reducing other kinds of unwanted bacteria and contaminants.
If you want to increase the amount of beneficial probiotics in your diet, the best way is to look for foods that are specifically high in probiotics, like many yogurts and kefirs, or take a probiotic supplement.
Simply eating fermented foods, even fermented foods with live cultures, does not necessarily increase your consumption of probiotics.
How to Eat Tempeh
The best way to eat tempeh is as a delicious, nutritious, high-protein food.
Steam it to remove any unwanted flavors and then use it in your favorite recipes. I also enjoy frying it in a pan with a bit of olive oil.
If you like raw tempeh, you may also enjoy it that way, but it is not more nutritious or beneficial than cooked.
Because tempeh is made from cooked soybeans, and then usually pasteurized before being sold to the consumer, it is neither a truly “raw” product, nor is it an especially good source of gut probiotics.
Instead, consider it a firm, delicious, high-protein food, and enjoy it for what it is.