What is Seitan? General Information and Nutrition Facts

what is seitan
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What is seitan? What is it made of? We’ll answer all seitan-related questions, and show you how to make the vegan alternative to meat at home.

Vegans and vegetarians aren’t the only ones who love seitan— people who suffer from rheumatism or high cholesterol also appreciate this protein-rich meat alternative, as do regular omnivores who just want to take a break from meat now and then. Its chewy, hearty texture satisfies cravings for meat for anyone who chooses not to eat the real thing for any reason. But what is seitan? What is it made of? And is it really nutritious?

What is Seitan and Where Does it Come From?

You may be surprised to learn that seitan is not a new-age, engineered, hipster food. Far from being the latest science project of the food industry, seitan is made of a natural and familiar protein, and has been around for centuries.

What is seitan made of? Wheat gluten; the water-insoluble protein that holds bread together. For centuries, it has been made by Zen monks, who traditionally followed a vegetarian diet and relied, in part, on seitan for balanced nutrition. Nowadays, seitan comes seasoned and packaged in all different ways: as meat-free burgers, sausages, gyros, and salami to name a few, and even as full-blown Christmas roasts. 

But as more and more vegan meat alternatives show up on the market, the quality of the products has also diversified. It is easy to assume that because a product is meat-free, it is automatically ethically and sustainably produced. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Cheap seitan exists on the market and is just as questionable as any other conventionally-produced food: the sourcing of the wheat, the production process, and the conditions of workers are often far from transparent. When choosing a product, always read the labels carefully, and buy organic as much as possible. 

Seitan Nutrition: Is It Healthy?

what is seitan made of
Seitan is made of gluten – what does that say about its nutritional value? (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay –einladung_zum_essen)

Let’s take a look at seitan’s nutrition facts to decide whether or not it can be considered healthy. On average, one hundred grams of seitan contain

  • about 25-20 grams of protein,
  • 2 grams of carbohydrates,
  • 2 grams of fat,
  • and 150 calories.

In comparison, the same amount of tofu contains 10 to 15 grams of protein, 2 grams of carbohydrates, 5 grams of fat, and 130 calories.

Because of its high protein to low fat ratio, the wheat-based meat alternative makes an excellent addition to any healthy diet. But the protein in seitan, as opposed to the protein in tofu, is not a complete protein. Complete proteins contain all nine of the essential amino acids that the human body doesn’t produce on its own: seitan contains low amounts of lysine, and so doesn’t quite make the cut. However, it is traditionally seasoned with soy sauce, which does contain lysine – especially tamari soy sauce.

There is one catch: Seitan is made of 100% gluten and therefore obviously not an option for people with Celiac’s disease or any sort of gluten-related problem.

Tip: Often, seitan comes pre-seasoned or marinated, and can sometimes contain high levels of sodium. Always check the seitan product’s nutrition facts before purchasing.

How is Seitan Made?

how to make seitan dough
The first step is to make dough with wheat flour and water. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay –Dni2012)

You now know, what seitan ist made of: wheat gluten. But how is it made? 

The process is simple and doesn’t require any special ingredients. You can even try it at home. 

  1. First make a dough of what and water. This will cause long chains of protein (gluten) to form, which hold the surrounding starchy mass together.
  2. To make seitan, this gluten must be separated from the starch. Since the gluten is not water soluble, but the starch is, all you have to do is wash away the starchy component, by rinsing the dough over and over with water.

If that sounds like too much work to you, there is a way to cheat:

Many health food stores and supermarkets sell vital wheat gluten, which is basically seitan that has been extracted from dough, dried, and ground into flour. All you need to do is to add water and season. Seitan doesn’t have much of its own taste, but absorbs flavor well from herbs, spices, and marinades. 

Seitan keeps in the refrigerator for about a week when stored in an airtight container. It can also be frozen and thawed out again later, when you’re ready to use it.

Tip: If you can’t find vital wheat gluten in your area, you can also order it online on Amazon**.

Environmental Impact

what is seitan wheat gluten
Seitan is made of 100% wheat gluten. (Photo: CC0 Public Domain / Pixabay – ManfredRichter)

While seitan requires more water to produce than tofu, the production of wheat (at least when it is organically grown) is not as destructive to the environment as soybean plantations. According to the WWF, soybean monocultures are tied to mass destruction of the amazon rainforest, which is an important biodiversity hotspot and home to many vulnerable species that exist nowhere else in the world. Plus, the expanding soy industry is causing an ever-increasing number of smallholders in South America, who grow crops for subsistence, to be displaced by huge soybean plantations.

The takeaway: If you buy seitan, makes sure that you choose an organic, non-GMO brand. If you choose to buy tofu instead, be sure to avoid products that use soybeans from South America. 

This article was translated from German to English by Christie Sacco. You can read the original here: Seitan: So gesund und vielseitig ist die vegane Fleischalternative

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