Often called “wheat protein,” “wheat meat” or “wheat gluten,” seitan (pronounced say-tahn) has a look and texture shockingly similar to meat when it’s cooked, and its alternative namesakes are quite fitting since it’s made from gluten, the main protein found in wheat.
However, store-bought versions are also generally high in unhealthy food additives, sodium and fillers and some of its ingredients may even come with negative side effects.
So should you start adding it into your diet or should you skip the seitan altogether? Here’s what you need to know about this source of protein so popular with those who follow a vegan diet or plant-based diet.
What Is Seitan?
Seitan is a popular meat replacement found in many types of cuisine. It’s a staple ingredient in many vegetarian dishes in Japan, China and other East and Southeast Asian countries. It’s used to produce certain food items like mock duck, meatless jerky, vegetarian hamburger mix and seitan bacon.
Commercial production of this form of wheat gluten began in 1962 by the Marushima Shoyu Co., which created its seitan product for George Ohsawa, the founder of the macrobiotic diet and philosophy, and his students.
“Seitan” is a word of Japanese origin, and when roughly translated, the seitan definition is “made of proteins.” Vital wheat gluten is the natural protein found in wheat that is often used to create seitan. It’s also a common ingredient in bread recipes to help the dough rise.
Seitan is created by washing wheat flour dough with water until all the starch granules have been removed, leaving only the sticky insoluble gluten as an elastic, taffy-like mass. This mass is then cut into pieces and cooked before being eaten.
It’s quite dense, which makes it more similar to meat than other plant-based protein foods. Meanwhile, it has a neutral flavor and tends to absorb flavors well.
Although the exact amounts can vary between brands, pre-packaged seitan is usually low in calories and high in protein. It’s also a food high in sodium and contains a small amount of iron and calcium as well.
One 3-ounce (84 grams) serving of original seitan contains approximately:
- Calories: 90
- Total Carbohydrates: 8 g
- Fiber: 1 g
- Sugar: 1 g
- Total Fat: 0.6 g
- Saturated Fat: 0 g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 0.3 g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 0.3 g
- Trans Fat: 0 g
- Protein: 15 g
- Cholesterol: 0 mg
- Sodium: 250 mg (10% DV*)
- Calcium: 40.3 g (4% DV*)
- Iron: 1.4 mg (8% DV*)
*Daily Value: Percentages are based on a diet of 2,000 calories a day.
Keep in mind that the pre-seasoned store-bought varieties often contain additives, flavorings and extra ingredients that may modify the nutritional content, usually resulting in a higher amount of calories and sodium.
However, opting to make it at home gives you more control of your seitan ingredients, eliminating the risk of additives and allowing you to make a lower-sodium version.
1. High in Protein
Seitan is a good source of protein and can be a quick and convenient way to help those on a vegan or vegetarian diet meet their protein needs. Protein is essential for everything from building muscle to repairing tissue and producing hormones, so getting enough in your diet is absolutely critical.
While protein alone won’t enhance athletic performance, research shows that eating protein benefits performance when eaten before and after exercise. It helps increase muscle recovery, promotes muscle synthesis and serves as effective muscle ache treatment.
2. Help Create Satiety
Is seitan good for weight loss? Because it’s high in protein but low in calories, seitan can help support satiety to keep you feeling full, which could help promote weight loss. In fact, high-protein diets have been shown to decrease levels of ghrelin, the hormone that’s responsible for stimulating hunger.
3. Low in Calories
A three-ounce serving includes an impressive 15 grams of protein yet only 90 calories. For those who are closely monitoring how many calories they need each day, seitan can be a good option.
4. Doesn’t Contain Soy
Seitan is also one of the few meat substitutes without soy, which is an allergen for many people. It’s best to select organic, fermented and minimally processed varieties.
Like some foods, there are both positive and negative aspects when it comes to soybeans, and some special considerations for those with specific health concerns. However, in moderation, many soy products can be enjoyed as part of a healthy diet.
5. Versatile and Convenient Food Product
Seitan is one of the more versatile meat substitutes and can be used in a wide range of meatless recipes. You can easily bake, steam, sauté or simmer it to make vegan fajitas, kabobs, steaks, sandwiches and stews. In addition, it absorbs flavors well and can easily mimic the taste and texture of meat.
While seitan benefits do exist, there are several reasons that you may not want to start eating seitan too often.
1. Made with Gluten
If you have a wheat allergy, celiac disease or gluten intolerance, seitan is definitely out of the question as it is literally made from wheat gluten. If you have a sensitivity to gluten, eating foods like seitan can result in many adverse side effects such as bloating, diarrhea, fatigue and abdominal pain.
2. An Ultra-Processed Food High in Sodium
Most people aren’t making seitan at home, but instead are getting it pre-made from restaurants and grocery stores. These ultra-processed foods tend to be higher in sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure and a host of other health problems. Not only that, but they are also often pumped full of additives and fillers that not beneficial for your health.
3. Not Fermented and Without Probiotics
Other popular vegan protein foods include tempeh and natto, which are both fermented foods — meaning they contain healthy probiotics that help support the health of your gut. Seitan is not fermented and doesn’t include any probiotics.
Your gut microbiome plays a huge role in health and disease, and probiotics have been associated with an extensive list of benefits like improved immunity, cancer prevention and better digestive health.
4. Not a Complete Protein
Seitan isn’t a complete protein, as it does not contain all of the amino acids that our bodies require to function. For this reason, it’s especially important to pair seitan with a balanced diet to ensure that you’re getting all of the essential nutrients and amino acids that you need.
How to Make
As discussed above, you can make your own seitan and be in control of the additives (and avoid the preservatives in store-bought versions).
- 1 cup vital wheat gluten
- ¼ cup nutritional yeast
- 1 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- ½ cup low-sodium vegetable broth
- 2 tablespoons coconut aminos
- 4 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
- ¼ cup coconut aminos
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 small onion, sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- In a large mixing bowl, combine the vital wheat gluten, nutritional yeast and spices.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the vegetable broth and coconut aminos.
- Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and stir until a dough forms. Knead the dough for a few minutes to develop the gluten.
- Shape the seitan dough into a log and cut it into smaller pieces.
- In a large pot, combine the cooking broth ingredients. Bring this broth to a simmer.
- Carefully place the seitan into the simmering broth. Make sure the broth covers the seitan pieces. Cover and simmer for about 1 hour.
- Once the seitan is cooked, remove it from the broth and let it cool. You can store it in the broth in the refrigerator for a few days, or use it right away.
Seitan vs. Tempeh
Tempeh is another meat replacement that makes a nutritious addition to any diet, vegetarian or not, and it can be easily swapped in to almost any recipe as a seitan gluten-free alternative.
Tempeh is a traditional fermented soy food originating in Indonesia. Whole soybeans are soaked, dehulled and partly cooked before going through a natural culturing and controlled fermentation process that then binds the soybeans into a cake form. This tempeh cake is then typically cut into slices or cubes before use. Tempeh’s fermentation process and use of the whole soybean give it a higher content of protein vitamins and minerals.
If you compare seitan vs. tempeh gram for gram, tempeh is slightly higher in calories and protein. It’s also lower in sodium and boasts a wider range of nutrients including manganese, copper, phosphorus, riboflavin and magnesium.
Seitan vs. Natto
Natto is another nutritious option for squeezing in some extra protein. It’s created by soaking whole soybeans, steaming or boiling them and then adding the bacteria Bacillus subtilis to the mixture and allowing it to ferment over time. Natto definitely has a smell (like cheese) and a texture (very gooey) that can be hard to get used to for some, but once you do get accustomed to natto’s uniqueness, it can become an excellent source of protein in your next meal.
Traditionally in Japan, natto is a eaten at breakfast along with rice, miso soup and fish. One of the easiest and most common ways to include natto in your diet is to add it to rice dishes after cooking so that you don’t destroy the good bacteria. You can also add it to salads and noodle dishes. Natto adds not only vegan-approved protein to a meal, but it also brings a very unique flavor and many vital nutrients, including vitamin K, vitamin C, riboflavin, thiamine and vitamin B6.
Risks, Allergies and Side Effects
Although seitan is high in protein, it can also have other questionable ingredients that may diminish its nutritional properties. So how much seitan is too much? While ordering it occasionally at a restaurant is okay, it probably shouldn’t become a staple ingredient in your diet. If you do eat seitan, it’s best to make it at home to avoid excess sodium and added ingredients.
If you are sensitive to gluten, have celiac disease or are following a gluten-free diet, steer clear of seitan. Those with a wheat allergy should also avoid it. Seitan allergy symptoms can include swelling, itching, abdominal pain, cramps and diarrhea.
Additionally, seitan should not be used as the sole protein source in vegetarian and vegan diets. Make sure your diet includes other plant-based proteins such as tempeh, natto, legumes and nutritional yeast to get in a wide array of nutrients and optimize your diet.
- Seitan is a popular meat replacement that is made using wheat gluten and can be found in many types of cuisine.
- It’s generally low in calories but high in protein and pre-packaged varieties may also contain extra sodium, additives and fillers as well.
- In those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, eating seitan can cause adverse side effects like swelling, abdominal pain, diarrhea and cramps.
- It’s also not considered a complete protein and needs to be paired with a well-balanced diet to ensure you’re getting the amino acids that you need.
- If you do eat seitan, try making it at home to eliminate the risk of unhealthy additives. Alternatively, try other nutritious plant-based proteins such as tempeh or natto instead.