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

Seitan, annotated

Verywell / Alexandra Shytsman 

Seitan is a food ingredient common 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.

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.

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.

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 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 serving of seitan (around 2.5 ounces) contains around 17g of protein.

That same one serving of seitan contains around 90 calories in total, with just 4g of carbs (including 1g of fiber) and a negligible amount of fat. Seitan also contains some important trace minerals, including a healthy supply of iron.

Seitan Health Benefits

Although seitan is a processed food, it can represent a healthy addition to your diet as a protein-rich meat substitute that is low in saturated fat. Since it can take on the taste of meat (depending on preparation), seitan-based dishes and meals might appeal even to some confirmed meat-eaters, perhaps aiding in a switch to a more plant-based diet.

If you're avoiding genetically-modified (GMO) foods, then you may decide to choose seitan-based meat substitutes over other 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. There's some evidence in medical research that wheat gluten may increase the permeability of your intestines, leading to what some health authorities call "leaky gut syndrome." If you find you experience bloating, gassiness, or other digestive symptoms after eating seitan, you may want to avoid it next time.

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.

Because seitan depends on added seasonings to deliver flavor, it’s important to make sure you aren’t sensitive to any of those ingredients if you do have food sensitivities.

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:

  • Sautéed like chicken with your favorite vegetables
  • Thinly sliced like turkey, seasoned with vegetarian "chicken" broth, poultry seasoning, onion flakes, and garlic powder
  • Blended with garlic, cumin, paprika, soy sauce, and thyme and rolled into sausages
  • 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 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 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 at health food or health-oriented grocery stores, including in the produce section (refrigerated meat substitutes), in the freezer and canned goods sections (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.

  1. Add whatever spices you wish (you might want to start with garlic and onion powders) to the dry vital wheat gluten.
  2. Add water or vegetarian broth slowly while blending until the mixture is rubbery. You'll use about two cups of water for every cup of vital wheat gluten. Use your hands to blend, since the mixture 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.
  3. Knead the rubbery ball for about two minutes, allow it to sit for 15 minutes, and then repeat (2 minutes kneading, 15 minutes sitting). This process causes the gluten to become even more rubbery, which is what you want from your seitan.
  4. Cut your rubber ball of seitan 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.
  5. Place your seitan pieces in the broth on very low heat and simmer for one hour (higher heat and/or longer cooking time may result in seitan that's too chewy).
  6. Cool the seitan, then add 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 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. If you mind these caveats, you can enjoy a meaty taste without the actual meat by using seitan in recipes.

Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.

By Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson is a medical journalist and an expert in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, and the gluten-free diet.