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Is Seitan (Vital Wheat Gluten) Healthy?

Health + Wellness
Seitan. nclm / Wikimedia

By Erica Julson, MS, RDN, CLT

Seitan is a popular vegan substitute for meat.


It is made from wheat gluten and water and is often promoted as a high-protein, low-carb alternative to animal protein.

However, there are some concerns about the possible negative effects of consuming a product made entirely of gluten.

This article will review the pros and cons of eating seitan and help you decide whether it is a good fit for your diet.

What Is Seitan?

Seitan (pronounced "say-tan") is a vegan meat substitute made entirely out of hydrated gluten, the main protein found in wheat.

It is sometimes also called wheat gluten, wheat meat, wheat protein or just gluten.

Seitan is produced by kneading wheat flour with water to develop sticky strands of gluten protein. The dough is then rinsed to wash away all of the starch.

What remains is a sticky mass of pure gluten protein that can be seasoned, cooked and used in vegan or vegetarian dishes as a substitute for meat.

Seitan can be purchased pre-made in the refrigerated or frozen sections of most grocery stores. It can also be made at home by mixing vital wheat gluten (purified dried gluten powder) with water.

Summary

Seitan is a vegan meat substitute made by rinsing wheat dough to remove the starch. This leaves a dense mass of pure gluten protein that can be seasoned and cooked.

Seitan Is Nutritious

Seitan consists almost entirely of wheat gluten, but it is still a nutritious food that is high in protein and minerals while low in carbs and fat.

One serving of seitan (made from one ounce of vital wheat gluten) contains the following nutrients (1):

  • Calories: 104
  • Protein: 21 grams
  • Selenium: 16% of the RDI
  • Iron: 8% of the RDI
  • Phosphorus: 7% of the RDI
  • Calcium: 4% of the RDI
  • Copper: 3% of the RDI

It is also extremely low in carbs since all of the starch normally found in wheat flour is washed away in the process of making seitan. One serving contains just 4 grams of carbs.

Since wheat grains are nearly fat-free, seitan also contains very little fat. One serving contains only 0.5 grams of fat.

Keep in mind that many store-bought seitan products contain additional ingredients to improve the flavor and texture of the final product, so exact nutritional profiles will vary.

Summary

Seitan contains roughly the same amount of protein as animal meat and is a good source of several minerals. It is also low in carbohydrates and fats.

It Is a Source of Protein

Seitan is made entirely out of gluten, the main protein in wheat, so it is a good protein option for vegetarians and vegans.

The exact amount of protein in seitan varies, depending on whether other proteins like soy or legume flours were added during production.

A 3-ounce serving usually contains between 15 and 21 grams of protein, which is roughly equivalent to animal proteins like chicken or beef (2, 3, 4).

However, while seitan is high in protein, it does not contain enough of the amino acid lysine to meet your body's needs (5).

Since it is low in lysine, an essential amino acid that humans must get from food, seitan is not considered a complete protein.

But many vegans and vegetarians easily solve this problem by eating lysine-rich foods, such as beans, in order to meet their needs (6).

Summary

Seitan is high in protein. However, it is an incomplete protein source, as it contains very little lysine, an essential amino acid.

It’s Easy to Cook With

Plain seitan is made from simply wheat gluten and water, so it has a relatively neutral taste and can take on the flavors of sauces and other seasonings very well.

This makes it a versatile cooking ingredient that can blend into almost any meal.

Some of the more popular ways to cook seitan include:

  • Marinated, baked and cut into slices like meat
  • Used as a ground beef substitute
  • Sliced into strips for fajitas or stir-fries
  • Slathered in barbecue sauce and served as a main dish
  • Breaded and deep-fried like chicken strips
  • Simmered in hearty winter stews
  • Threaded onto skewers and baked or grilled
  • Cooked in broth to soak up extra flavor
  • Steamed for a lighter flavor

The texture of seitan is often described as dense and toothsome, so it makes a much more convincing meat substitute than tofu or tempeh.

Pre-packaged seitan can be a quick and hearty vegan protein option, but making seitan at home is also a relatively simple and low-cost alternative.

Summary

The neutral flavor and dense texture of seitan make for a convincing meat substitute that is easy to use in a variety of ways.

It’s Good for Vegans With Soy Allergies

Soy is considered to be one of the top 8 food allergens, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (7).

However, many popular vegan protein options, such as tofu, tempeh and packaged vegan meat substitutes, are made from soy.

This can make it difficult for vegans with soy sensitivities or allergies to find appropriate meatless products at the grocery store.

Seitan, on the other hand, is made from wheat, which makes it a great choice for people who cannot eat soy.

Even though seitan can be made from just wheat gluten and water, many prepared seitan products contain other ingredients.

It is important to read the ingredient lists on all seitan products since many are seasoned with soy sauce to add extra flavor.

Summary

Since seitan is made from wheat, not soy, it can be a good vegan protein option for people with soy allergies or sensitivities.

It Is a Highly Processed Food

Seitan may be nutritious, but it is still a highly processed food.

Seitan does not exist on its own in nature. It can only be made by rinsing away all the starch from kneaded wheat flour dough or by rehydrating powdered vital wheat gluten with water.

Although seitan is technically a processed food, it is not high in calories, sugar or fat. Because of this, it may not contribute to obesity like other ultra-processed foods (8).

People who consume a diet rich in whole foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes, can likely include seitan in their diets without much worry.

However, those who already consume high amounts of processed foods may want to consider whether seitan would be a good addition to their diets.

Summary

Seitan is nutritious, but it is still a highly processed food and should probably be consumed in moderation.

Certain People Should Avoid Seitan

Since seitan is made from wheat flour, it must be avoided by people who cannot eat wheat or gluten.

This includes people with allergies, sensitivities or intolerances to wheat or gluten and especially those with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease that is triggered by gluten (9).

Since seitan is essentially just wheat gluten and water, consuming it could cause a particularly intense reaction in anyone who cannot tolerate gluten.

It should also be noted that pre-packaged seitan can have high levels of added sodium.

Those who must monitor the amount of sodium in their diets should read labels carefully or make their own seitan at home to reduce their sodium intake.

Summary

Seitan must be avoided by anyone who cannot tolerate wheat or gluten. Pre-packaged varieties can be high in sodium, too.

It May Be Bad for Your Gut

Since seitan is made from pure gluten, there is some concern that eating it may be bad for your gut.

In a normal, properly functioning gut, intestinal permeability is tightly regulated so that only small food particles can pass through into the bloodstream (10).

But sometimes, the gut can become "leaky," allowing larger particles through. This is called increased intestinal permeability and is associated with a higher risk of food sensitivities, inflammation and autoimmune diseases (11, 12, 13).

Several test-tube studies have found that eating gluten can increase intestinal permeability, even in people without celiac disease or gluten sensitivities (14, 15).

However, not all studies have replicated these results. Therefore, more research is needed to understand why gluten may affect some people more than others (16, 17).

If eating gluten causes unpleasant side effects like gas, bloating, diarrhea or joint pain, you may want to try removing it from your diet for 30 days to see if your symptoms improve (18, 19).

Meeting with a dietitian or other licensed nutrition professional can also be helpful in understanding the possible link between your diet and symptoms (20).

Summary

Some research suggests that consuming gluten may increase gut permeability and cause unpleasant symptoms in some people, but more studies are needed.

The Bottom Line

Seitan is a popular vegan protein source made from wheat gluten and water.

It is high in protein and is a good source of minerals like selenium and iron.

Seitan is a great option for vegans who cannot eat soy, since other popular vegan foods, such as tofu and tempeh, are soy-based.

However, anyone who cannot tolerate wheat or gluten, including those with sensitivities, allergies or celiac disease, must strictly avoid seitan to avoid serious side effects.

It is also important to note that seitan is a highly processed food and can be high in sodium when purchased pre-made.

Moreover, there is some concern that gluten may contribute to "leaky gut," increasing the risk of food sensitivities and autoimmune diseases, but more research is needed.

Overall, it seems that seitan may be a good food choice for some people but can cause unpleasant symptoms in others.

Until more about how gluten impacts the gut and immune system is understood, it is wise to listen to your body and let how you feel guide your food choices.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Healthline.

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