What is Seitan?
Vegan seitan is one of the most popular forms of faux meat on the market today. The most common seitan definition is a flavored wheat gluten used as a meat substitute. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first usage of the word seitan was in 1968.1
Seitan is made using wheat gluten and other ingredients, and seasoned to taste. Due to the texture of the wheat gluten, seitan is the preferred choice for mock meat dishes which are meant to duplicate the texture and flavor of meat.
While the complete history of seitan remains unclear, the earliest reported use of wheat gluten as a meat alternative is in an ancient Chinese text called Jujia Biyong Shilei Quanji, written sometime around 1350 CE. Ancient Chinese writers and poets described wheat gluten (mien chin) as tasting better than its meat counterparts. This book is also among the first to describe mock meat, or meat substitutes made from wheat gluten, soy, and other products.2
As a meat substitute, seitan can be used in a variety of recipes, and takes on the flavor of ingredients it is cooked with. Therefore, seitan can be prepared to taste like chicken, beef or other meat varieties.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the correct way to pronounce seitan is “say-tan”, or sāˌtan.1
What is Seitan Made of?
Different brands are made using different seitan ingredients, key ingredients include wheat gluten, garlic, vegetable broth, and either vegetable or olive oil. Seitan can be flavored with soya sauce, hot sauce, spices, ginger, sesame oil, and other flavoring agents.
What Does Seitan Taste Like?
Due to the varying ingredients in seitan, this meat substitute can taste like just about anything. You can create a spicy and savory seitan by incorporating herbs and spices, or create a sweet seitan with the addition of honey and ginger. Without any additional flavoring components, most people describe seitan as tasting like bread or plain chicken.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, one slice of seitan (approximately 84 g) includes the following seitan nutrition facts:4
- Seitan protein: 15 g
- Calories in seitan: 90 kcal
- Fat in seitan: 0.42 g
- Carbohydrates in seitan: 8 g
- Fiber in seitan: 1 g
- Sodium in seitan: 250 mg
These nutritional facts come from a seitan mix of water, wheat gluten, brown sugar, sprouted lentils, garlic, sea salt, spices, and red beans. Other varieties may vary in nutritional values.
As an example of meat vs seitan, a butterball oven roasted chicken breast has the following nutritional facts for 84g:5
- Chicken protein: 10 g
- Calories in chicken: 50 kcal
- Fat in chicken: 0.5 g
- Carbohydrates in chicken: 1 g
- Fiber in chicken: 0 g
- Sodium in chicken: 410 mg
In this comparison, you can see that seitan has a higher protein value, while chicken has a lower carbohydrate value. There is also no fiber in chicken, and per 84 g serving, sodium intake is higher. For those concerned about added ingredients or sodium, some users may choose to make homemade seitan for more control over the nutritional value.
Is Seitan Gluten Free?
The main ingredient in seitan is wheat gluten; this is where wheat gets its protein, and what makes seitan a great meat substitute. Unfortunately, the addition of wheat gluten makes seitan an unfriendly ingredient to those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivities. A good alternative for gluten-free vegetarians and vegans is tofu, which is made entirely of soybean curds.
Seitan vs Tofu vs Tempeh
If you plan to lead a meat-free life-style, or eat a low-meat diet, you’ve probably found yourself comparing tempeh vs tofu vs seitan. These three ingredients are the most commonly used meat substitutes, particularly in products designed to emulate real meat. So, what exactly sets them apart, and is one better than the other? Here, we take a closer look at how these ingredients differ, and whether there’s a winner in terms of flavor, texture, and health.
Seitan vs Tofu
Tofu is made entirely from fresh or dried soybeans. During processing, the soybeans are soaked in boiling water and then strained to make a liquid. A coagulant, such as magnesium or calcium, is then added, which causes the liquid to curdle. These are then pressed into the blocks of tofu many are familiar with. The amount of liquid left in the soybean curds will determine the firmness of the tofu.6 Tofu can be boiled in a soup, blended into a creamy mousse, deep fried until crispy, or marinated and grilled.
Seitan, as explained above, is made using wheat gluten and an assortment of seasonings, oil and water. Seitan has a very different taste and consistency from tofu. Even firm tofu doesn’t have quite the same meat-like texture of seitan. Whereas, those who prefer the smooth, soft texture of cheese or scrambled eggs may prefer soy-based tofu.
Both seitan and tofu are easily accessible in grocery stores and health food shops, although there are more available versions of tofu in most of these locations. While tofu tends to be less processed and includes fewer ingredients, it’s quite bland in flavor. Seitan is often pre-seasoned and can be eaten alone, however it tends to be more expensive than tofu products.
Tempeh vs Seitan
Tempeh is made from fermented soy, adding an extra nutritional element in comparison to standard tofu. Tempeh is made using the whole soybean, rather than just the soybean curd. The beans are formed into a cake, and then fermented to create a meat-like consistency.
Tempeh has a strong nutty flavor, which stands up well to bold spices, and other textural components in a dish. Like seitan, tempeh more closely imitates meat than tofu. Tempeh is easy enough to find in a grocery store, but tends to be less popular than seitan and tofu products because of its unique aroma and flavor.
Again, tempeh includes fewer ingredients than most seitan products, making it a purer form of non-meat protein. In the end, choosing between tempeh, tofu, and seitan comes down to preferences for flavor, texture, and whether you prefer soy or gluten based protein alternatives.
Is Seitan Bad for You?
A common question asked by those pursuing a meatless lifestyle is, “is seitan unhealthy?’ The answer depends on what you put in your seitan, or how many additives are mixed in. Wheat gluten has seen a lot of attention in the media due to celiac disease and gluten sensitivities, causing a stir in the scientific community as to whether gluten should be avoided by everyone, not just those with celiac.
A scientific review published in 2016 put these worries to rest, concluding that the opposite might be true. Avoiding gluten could be potentially unhealthy, as it is a natural source of protein and B-vitamins.3 Therefore it isn’t that seitan is unhealthy, but should be eaten as part of a complete diet, and avoided by those with gluten sensitivities.
Where to Buy Seitan
Today, readers can buy seitan at many specialty health food stores and online retailers. A variety of grocery store chains also sell seitan, Whole Foods being one of the most notable.
As the taste of seitan meat may vary from brand to brand, it may take some time to find the brand that best suits your preferences. The top seitan food brands in North America include:
- Beyond Meat
- Yves Veggie Cuisine
- Boca Burger
Scientific Research Referenced in this Article
- Merriam-Webster. Seitan. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved on December 11, 2017 from – View Reference
- Shurtleff, W., Huang, H.T. & Aoyagi, A. (2014) History of soybeans and soyfoods in china and Taiwan, and in Chinese cookbooks, restaurants and chinese work with soyfoods outside china (1024 BCE to 2014). Soyinfo Center. Retrieved on December 11, 2017 from http://www.soyinfocenter.com/pdf/176/Chin.pdf
- Shewry, P. R. & Hey, S. J. (2016) Do we need to worry about eating wheat? Nutrition Bulletin. 41(1), 6-13. DOI: 1111/nbu.12186
- United States Department of Agriculture. (2017) Full report (all nutrients): 45078536, seitan, UPC: 052603094610. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved on December 11, 2017 from – View Reference
- United States Department of Agriculture. (2017) Full report (all nutrients): 45141525, butterball, oven roasted chicken breast, naturally roasted, UPC: 02265528769. United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved on December 11, 2017 from – View Reference
- Eat Right Ontario. (2017, September 19). All about tofu. Retrieved December 12, 2017 from – View Reference
- MURATA, K., IKEHATA, H., & MIYAMOTO, T. (1967). Studies on the Nutritional Value of Tempeh. Journal of Food Science, 32(5), 580-586. doi:1111/j.1365-2621.1967.tb00837.x
- Robberecht, H., Hendrix, P., Van Cauwenbergh, R., Van Dyck, K., & Deelstra, H. (1999). Mineral and trace element content of various vegetarian foodstuffs available in Belgium. Zeitschrift for Lebensmitteluntersuchung und -Forschung A, 208(3), 156-161. doi:1007/s002170050394