What Is Seitan (Vital Wheat Gluten)? Is It Healthy to Eat?

Learn how to use and even make seitan, plus who should avoid it

seitan ratatouille
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Seitan is a food ingredient commonly eaten in vegetarian diets that's made from wheat protein. Since seitan is bland-tasting, chewy, and holds together well, it makes a good base for vegetarian meat substitute products and recipes. It's also low in carbs and has very little fat.

Based on all this, you'd think seitan might make a good addition to your diet, and you might be right. Most people can enjoy seitan as part of a healthy vegetarian, vegan, or even meat-containing diet. However, people with certain health conditions—specifically, those with a wheat allergy, celiac disease, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity—should avoid seitan, because the main ingredient is wheat.

Here's the lowdown on seitan, including how it's made, how it's used, and who should eat it (or avoid it).

What Is Seitan?

Seitan is made from wheat gluten, which is the main protein found in wheat flour. Wheat kernels (the seeds used to make wheat flour) contain mostly carbohydrates, but also some protein (between 9% and 15%, depending on the wheat variety), and fat (around 1% to 2%, again depending on the variety of wheat). The protein in the wheat kernels is intended by nature as food for a wheat seedling that grows from that kernel.

When dried wheat kernels are ground up to make wheat flour, it's possible to separate the protein—known as wheat gluten—from the other wheat components by repeatedly rinsing the flour in water to wash away the lighter wheat bran, leaving only the heavier wheat protein. Since wheat is a fairly high-protein grain, you wind up with a fair amount of wheat gluten.

Seitan is made by kneading wheat gluten with enough water to turn it into a meat-like substance. Since it doesn't have much taste by itself (it tastes a little like raw bread dough, with a hint of nutty flavor), seitan takes on the taste of whatever spices are used to flavor it.

In fact, that's what makes seitan such a good plant-based protein source and meat substitute: by adjusting the flavorings and other ingredients in a recipe, seitan can be made to taste like sausage, bacon, turkey, or most other meat products.

The word "seitan" is Japanese in origin, although the use of vital wheat gluten probably started in China centuries ago with vegetarian Buddhist monks. Vital wheat gluten has been used in vegetarian Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines for centuries. However, seitan (vital wheat gluten specifically seasoned and prepared as a meat substitute) sprung out of the Japanese macrobiotic food movement in the early 1960s, and first was imported to the United States in the late 1960s.

Seitan Nutritional Profile

Seitan is almost pure protein. Therefore, it serves as a great source of protein for people following vegetarian and vegan diets, who sometimes struggle to get their daily allotment of protein. Just one ounce of seitan (around 1/4 cup in total) contains around 23g of protein, almost half of your protein needs for the day.

That same one ounce of seitan contains around 120 calories in total, with just 4g of carbs (including 1g of fiber) and 0.5g of fat (most of which is polyunsaturated fat). Seitan also contains some important trace minerals, including a healthy supply of iron and selenium, along with some calcium, copper, and phosphorus.

Seitan Health Benefits

Although seitan is a processed food, it can represent a healthy addition to your diet as a low-fat meat substitute. Since it mimics both the taste and the texture of meat pretty well, seitan-based dishes and meals might appeal even to some confirmed meat-eaters, perhaps aiding in a switch to a more plant-based diet.

Seitan also is soy-free, making it an excellent meat substitute for someone with a soy allergy or intolerance, or for those who simply want to avoid eating lots of processed soy products.

If you're avoiding genetically-modified (GMO) foods, then you may decide to choose seitan-based meat substitutes over soy-based alternative meat products. Wheat crops are not genetically modified, since there's no commercially produced GMO wheat used anywhere in the world at this time.

Who Should Avoid Seitan?

People with certain health issues should steer clear of seitan. Those health issues include:

  • Wheat allergy: Seitan is pure wheat gluten, and so if you're allergic to wheat, you shouldn't try seitan or any dish that includes it as an ingredient.
  • Celiac disease: People with celiac disease experience a dangerous immune system reaction when they consume the protein gluten (which in addition to wheat, also occurs in the grains barley and rye), and so they should avoid seitan. (Fortunately, there are many other potential sources of gluten-free vegetarian protein.)
  • Non-celiac gluten sensitivity: It's actually not clear whether people with this condition (also called non-celiac wheat sensitivity) are reacting to gluten or to another component in the wheat. However, those who experience reactions to any wheat-containing food or product should skip seitan.

People with irritable bowel syndrome don't need to avoid seitan, but they should watch their bodies' reactions after eating it. Although the idea is controversial, there's a bit of evidence in medical research that wheat gluten may increase the permeability of your intestines, possibly leading to what some health authorities call "leaky gut syndrome." If you find you experience bloating, gassiness, or other digestive symptoms following a meal with seitan, you may want to avoid it next time.

You also should be aware that commercially-prepared seitan products contain ingredients other than wheat gluten. Specifically, they may be quite high in sodium, which represents a problem for people who are trying to lower the salt in their diets.

In addition, vegetarian meat dishes served in Chinese restaurants may include monosodium glutamate (MSG) in addition to seitan, so be aware of this possibility if you're sensitive to MSG.

How to Use Seitan

Since plain, unseasoned seitan is bland and chewy on its own, most people season it to make it taste like meat. There are various ways you can use seitan:

  • sauteed like chicken with your favorite vegetables
  • thinly-sliced like turkey, seasoned with vegetarian "chicken" broth, poultry seasoning, onion flakes, and garlic powder
  • rolled into sausages and blended with garlic, cumin, paprika, soy sauce, and thyme
  • shaped and grilled like a steak, slathered with your favorite steak sauce or marinade
  • chopped into chunks for "chicken" salad, with celery, mayonnaise, chives, and curry powder
  • blended into a hearty "beef" slow-cooker stew, with vegetarian "beef" broth, potatoes, carrots, and celery

Since seitan is so chewy and dense, it doesn't make a great fish substitute, but you might consider trying small pieces of it as vegetarian "shrimp" kebabs, with your favorite kebab vegetables and seasonings.

Commercially, you can find many different seitan products, including chorizo seitan, cubed seitan in several different flavors, seitan bacon and hot dogs, and seitan-based dried jerky. Look for these products in various places at your local health food or health-oriented grocery store, including in the produce section refrigerator case (refrigerated meat substitutes), in the freezer section and canned goods section (some flavored and cubed seitan products), and in the snack section (jerky products).

How to Make Your Own Seitan

It's easy to make your own seitan from vital wheat gluten, which is available from Bob's Red Mill and other companies, and usually found in the specialty flour section of the supermarket. Just follow these easy steps.

1. Take the dry vital wheat gluten, add whatever spices you wish (you might want to start with garlic and onion powders), and add water or vegetarian broth slowly while blending it in a bowl until it's rubbery. You'll wind up using about two cups of water for every cup of vital wheat gluten, and you'll need to use your hands to blend it, since it will be too stiff for a mixing spoon or spatula. Don't be afraid to add a little more water, but make sure you wind up with a rubbery ball.

2. Take your rubbery ball and knead it for about two minutes, allow it to sit for 15 minutes, and then knead it again for about two minutes and allow it to sit for 15 minutes. This process causes the gluten to become even more rubbery, which is what you want from your seitan.

3. Take your rubber ball of seitan, cut it into three or four smaller pieces. Heat a pot of vegetarian broth to a boil (some people like to use soy sauce and liquid smoke in the broth as well, but season it to your own tastes) and then lower the heat until it's barely simmering.

4. Place your seitan pieces in the broth on the lowest stove heat setting and simmer them for one hour (higher heat and/or longer cooking time may result in seitan that's too chewy).

5. Cool your seitan, then add it to whatever recipe you wish. You can store the seitan in its broth in the refrigerator for around three or four days, or take it out of the broth and freeze it.

A Word From Verywell

As a low-fat, low-carb, low-calorie, and high-protein ingredient, seitan can make a great-tasting addition to your diet, especially if you're vegetarian or vegan. However, it's not for everyone—people who can't eat wheat or gluten should avoid seitan. In addition, if you're buying seitan as part of a processed food, make sure to look for unwanted added ingredients, such as lots of sodium. Still, if you mind these caveats, you can enjoy a meaty taste without the actual meat by using seitan in recipes.

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