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.
Seitan stands out as one of the only meat substitutes completely free of soy. Like its soy counterparts, it’s also high in protein, incredibly versatile and easily able to take on other flavors.
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 Asian, Buddhist and vegetarian dishes and is also used to produce certain food items like mock duck.
“Seitan” is a word of Japanese origin, and when roughly translated, the seitan definition is “made of proteins.” It’s 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. You can easily bake, steam, sauté or simmer it to make vegan fajitas, kabobs, steaks, sandwiches and stews.
Is Seitan Healthy?
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.
But 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. (1)
Seitan is also one of the few meat substitutes without soy. Many people prefer to avoid unfermented soy products like tofu because it can disrupt hormone levels and often comes from genetically modified crops.
That being said, there are several reasons that you may not want to start eating seitan everyday.
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)
Although more research is needed on the effects of gluten, some preliminary evidence suggests that gluten may even cause symptoms in those who don’t have a sensitivity to gluten. Several animal and test-tube studies have suggested that gluten could contribute to inflammation and leaky gut by activating a protein related to intestinal permeability. (3, 4, 5) This allows food particles, waste products and bacteria to leak from the intestines to the bloodstream, causing leaky gut symptoms like fatigue, inflammation and skin conditions.
Additionally, 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 may not be so stellar for your health.
Finally, seitan may be high in protein, but is seitan a complete protein? Unfortunately, it does not contain all of the amino acids that our bodies require to function and is actually considered an incomplete protein. 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.
Benefits vs. Negatives
When it comes to health and nutrition, seitan has both benefits and drawbacks that need to be considered. Let’s take a look at how the pros and cons stack up.
- High in protein and low in calories.
- One of the few soy-free meat substitutes.
- Versatile, convenient and can be used in a wide range of meatless recipes.
- Absorbs flavors well and can easily mimic the taste and texture of meat.
- Needs to be paired with other foods to make a complete protein.
- Not suitable for those with a wheat allergy, celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
- Pre-packaged varieties are often high in sodium, additives and fillers.
- May not provide as many nutrients as other plant-based sources of protein.
Although the exact amounts can vary between brands, pre-packaged seitan is usually low in calories and high in protein. It’s also relatively high in sodium and contains a small amount of iron and calcium as well.
One 3-ounce serving of seitan contains approximately (6):
- 90 calories
- 8 grams carbohydrate
- 15 grams protein
- 0.5 grams fat
- 1 gram dietary fiber
- 250 milligrams sodium (10 percent DV)
- 0.9 milligrams iron (6 percent DV)
- 40 milligrams calcium (4 percent DV)
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.
Want to start switching to a more plant-based diet but not sure what other healthy high-protein options are out there?
Tempeh is a great 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. (6, 7)
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. (8)
Both tempeh and natto are fermented foods, meaning they contain healthy probiotics that help support the health of your gut. 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. (9)
If you still want to include seitan in your diet, your best option is to try making it at home. Unlike pre-made seitan from grocery stores and restaurants, this puts you in control of your ingredients and cuts down on the extra additives and flavoring agents that you don’t necessarily need.
Interesting Facts About Seitan
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.
Historically, seitan has been very common in Japan and China as well as other East and Southeast Asian countries. It’s said that wheat gluten came about as an edible product when it was first used as an ingredient for Chinese noodles in the sixth century.
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. (10)
Today, you can easily find seitan in vegetarian dishes in China and around the world. It’s especially popular as a meat substitute for Buddhist vegetarians and is also found in many pre-made products like mock duck, meatless jerky, vegetarian hamburger mix and seitan bacon.
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.
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