Upton's Naturals brand of seitan protein

Is Seitan Healthy? This Vegan Meat Has Pros & Cons

[toc]There’s no shortage of excellent plant-based protein sources. Some are new, like Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger.

However when it comes to natural vegan foods that are minimally processed and replicate the texture of meat, the two major categories are soy or seitan (pronounced SAY-tan).

What is seitan?

Seitan is not gluten free. This food is made out of pure vital wheat gluten. The starch is rinsed off of whole wheat dough and what remains is called seitan. It has a chewy and stringy texture that’s similar to meat, making it a good vegan substitute for recipes.

cooked seitan steak
When cooked, it can be made to look and feel like real meat… if you want that kind of thing.

What seitan tastes like is bland, in a good way. Comparable to chicken, it has little flavor on its own. Just like real meat, it soaks up the seasonings and flavors it’s cooked with. Unlike tofu or tempeh, seitan has the texture of real meat. That’s what people like most about it.

The history of seitan dates back to at least the 6th century AD. Its use was first recorded in Chinese literature for making noodles.

Today it’s a popular dish not just in China, but also Japan and many Southeast Asian countries. In particular, it’s a favorite among the Buddhists and Hindi in these regions who follow a vegetarian diet.

Who sells it?

In just a couple decades, it’s gone from being an obscure ethnic food to a mainstream staple.

You can buy seitan at stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, and even many traditional grocers such as Kroger and Meijer will carry a few products made with it. The brands you’re most likely to see sold at these places are Field Roast, Lightlife, Yves, Sweet Earth, Westsoy, and Tofurky.

Those last two brands, contrary to their name, now sell just as many products containing “wheat meat” as they do for soy. Perhaps even more.

Tofurky seitan sausage

Tofurky’s Artisan spinach pesto sausage lists vital wheat gluten as the very first ingredient. Their kielbasa and other vegan sausage flavors all read the same.

Given the public’s fear of estrogens in food – as in the phytoestrogens of soy – it’s no surprise that today, vegan meat brands use far more of this wheat ingredient than they did a decade or two ago. You will find seitan chorizo, burgers, bacon, chicken wings, and steak that all make use of it.

brands of seitan and other imitation meats at grocery store

If you’re gluten free and vegan or vegetarian, shopping for these substitutes can be a real nightmare. In our vegan meat review, we analyzed the 10 bestselling brands of roasts during the Thanksgiving and Christmas season. All of them contained seitan, which was listed as wheat gluten.

If you’re not celiac or gluten free for another health reason, then it turns out this food is good for you in many ways.

Health benefits of seitan

  • More protein than beef and steak on a per calorie basis
  • Less fat than grilled chicken breast
  • Cholesterol-free since it’s 100% plant-based
  • Zero heterocyclic amines, which are carcinogens in meat
  • Moderate amounts of iron and zinc
  • High amount of vitamin B6
  • Fulfills daily value of riboflavin (B2) and niacin (B3)
  • Very low in carbs
  • Filling food for weight loss
  • Sugar-free
  • Non-GMO

While the protein and fat content will vary by brand, the above traits of seitan vs. beef and chicken will generally hold true. What seitan is made with traditionally consists of vital wheat gluten and shoyu, or soy sauce. It should be oil free. Spices like garlic and kombu (seaweed) are sometimes used.

Almost any seitan recipe that sticks with the basic ingredients will be healthier than chicken when it comes to fat content, and better than beef when it comes to total protein.

Some brands even match the protein density of lean chicken breasts. Per 100 calorie serving:

  • Grilled chicken breast, skinless and boneless = 20g protein (1)
  • Sweet Earth traditional seitan = 20g protein (2)

It’s not zero carbs like chicken breast or hamburger meat but it’s awfully close. A typical serving of seitan only has around 1-3% of the daily value for carbs.

Adoption of genetically engineered U.S. crops, 1996 through 2017

chart showing what percent of GMO crops vs. non-GMO in the United States from 1996 through 2017

Over 90% of soybeans grown in America are GMO. The reason you don’t see wheat on the chart is because there’s no such thing as genetically modified wheat. None have been approved.

For that reason, the only essential ingredient in this food is guaranteed to be non-GMO, even if it’s not organic. Added soy sauce may or may not be. (3)

Side effects of seitan

Most adverse reactions are the result of a gluten allergy or sensitivity. Since this food is pure gluten, the seitan allergy symptoms will be even more intense than eating bread, pasta, pizza, cereal, or other wheat-based foods.

Having some or all of the following reactions may mean your body can’t tolerate seitan:

  • Extreme fatigue beginning 20-60 minutes after eating
  • Irregular bowel movements of diarrhea or constipation
  • Abnormal amounts of gas and bloating
  • Feelings of brain fog
  • Dizziness and balance issues
  • Migraine headaches
  • Karatosis pilaris, which are rough patches of acne-like bumps on the upper arms, thighs, and cheeks
  • Inflammation of the joints
  • Mood swings, such as depression or anxiety

Now to be clear, most of these side effects are frequently experienced by people without any known cause, even when they don’t eat seitan and are on a 100% GF diet. Therefore, experiencing these should not be misconstrued as a positive diagnosis, but rather a clue that you should investigate further with medical testing, to try and find out whether or not you have a sensitivity to gluten. (4)

As long as you are not celiac or have a gluten sensitivity, it’s very unlikely you will experience any adverse reaction from eating this wheat meat.

Just like real meat, it has no dietary fiber. If you’re eating seitan everyday, you may experience constipation if you’re not getting enough fiber from elsewhere in your diet. It can be a healthy part of a daily diet, so long as it’s balanced out with other foods providing adequate fiber.

Is seitan a complete protein?

No. Unlike soy-based sources which have the optimal balance of the essential amino acids, seitan only does for 8 of the 9. It falls short for the amount of lysine. However if you ate a large enough serving, you would still satisfy the RDI for all the essentials.

Amino Acid Profiles of Seitan vs. Tempeh vs. Tofu
(mg per 3oz/85g serving)
Essential Amino Seitan Tempeh Tofu Chicken Breast Ground Beef
Isoleucine (BCAA) 930 748 722 938 539
Leucine (BCAA) 1,718 1,216 1,183 1,582 950
Valine (BCAA) 989 782 740 990 599
Phenylalanine 1,298 759 710 772 475
Methionine 385 149 179 497 314
Lysine 430 772 751 1,839 950
Tryptophan 199 165 200 241 62
Threonine 631 677 667 858 472
Histidine 503 396 366 713 396
Grams of Total Protein
(essential + non-essential)
24.73 17.25 14.68 19.12 12.20
Source  (5) (6) (7)  (8)  (9) (10)

How many calories there are in pure traditional tempeh is 100, for a 3.5 oz. serving. That’s fewer calories than tempeh, tofu, chicken, and beef, yet you get more protein than all of them!

Though keep in mind that in the US, UK, and other western nations, what’s sold as “traditional” or “plain” really isn’t. By weight, most brands will contain around 25-35% less protein than the 24.73g reflected above. That’s because they add in other ingredients.

plain seitan nutrition facts label and ingredients

These nutrition facts and ingredients are for Upton’s Naturals traditional seitan chunks. As you see, it contains whole wheat flour. That adds carbs, calories, and reduces the overall percentage of protein. Plus if you open the package, it appears to have more water than what a traditional Japanese recipe looks like.

Some brands will add soy and/or chickpea flour to enhance texture and taste.

Though for a moment, let’s say you’re eating the pure version. Every 3 oz. serving will provide you with 430 mg of lysine.

The World Health Organization recommends 30 mg of lysine per kg of body weight. If a man or woman weighed 150 lbs (68 kg) that would equal a lysine requirement of 2,040 mg per day. (11)

Field Roast Mexican chipotle seitan chorizo

How much seitan you would have to eat to get the full RDI of lysine would be about 14 ounces.

For the brand Field Roast seen above, that’s more than an entire package of their vegan seitan chorizo sausages. Those aren’t even pure, so it might be even more.

Or it might be lower, because some of the added ingredients have higher concentrations of lysine than the gluten does.

Regardless of this shortfall, you’re getting plenty of lysine elsewhere in your diet.

For example, one cup of steamed lentils provides 1,247 mg of lysine for just 230 calories. (12)

Let’s say though that you ate nothing but pure seitan everyday, without calories from any other source. And without extra lysine coming from added soy flour, chickpeas, or the other ingredients which are found in many of these vegan meats.

At around 35 calories per ounce, it would mean you’re eating 330 calories per day of this food to fulfill the RDI for lysine. That’s not a large amount and in fact, some athletes and bodybuilders will eat even more than that amount in a given meal.

Even though seitan is not a complete protein, because it’s so protein-rich, you still end up getting a respectable amount of lysine, even though it’s not in the ideal ratio to the other essential aminos.

When you eat protein – regardless of whether it’s from meat or plants – your body doesn’t digest it as a whole. Instead, your body needs to break it down into the constituent amino acids and they get absorbed independent from one another.

That’s why the whole “complete” protein label is misleading many. You will talk to people who wonder how vegans are getting enough “complete” protein in their diet. Even if one particular food source falls short in a given amino (i.e. lysine), you are fine as long as you are getting it elsewhere.

It doesn’t even need to be during the same meal, because your body can store aminos for up to 24 hours. So really, the important part is having a complete intake on a cumulative 24-hour basis, when you analyze your breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks all together.

Good for bodybuilding?

young shirtless male bodybuilderContrary to what some purport, seitan remains a good source of protein for exercise and muscle growth.

Even though lysine is in a subpar ratio vs. the other essentials, the amount of lysine you ultimately get per serving still exceeds that of many other foods which are less protein-rich, like brown rice, quinoa, and even some meats and dairy products.

Bodybuilders will appreciate its high amount of branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).

For a 3 ounce serving of the pure vital wheat gluten, which is just 100 calories, you’re getting up to 1,718 mg of leucine, 930 of isoleucine, and 989 of valine. Compare that to the amino acid profile of whey protein isolate and you will see it compares quite favorably.

Ultimately though, this wheat-based food should only be eaten in moderation.

How much seitan is too much?

Try to limit it to less than 50% of your protein intake each day. Balance sietan out with other rich plant-based sources like tempeh, tofu, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sacha inchi, and various other grains, all of which will help you achieve a more complete protein intake.

Good for weight loss?

Just like there are widespread misconceptions about vegan calcium, there are also myths about the health benefits of eating chicken for losing weight and getting cut.

Grilled chicken breasts are viewed as being a low fat, low calorie, and healthy protein source. Only 2 out of those 3 things are true.

The 5 Worst Grilled Foods For Heterocyclic Amines (HCAs) (13)
Food HCAs (ng per 100g)
Chicken breast, skinless, boneless, grilled, well done 14,000
Steak, grilled, well done 810
Pork, barbecued 470
Salmon, grilled with skin 166
Hamburger, grilled, well done 130

Almost no one is aware of the fact that grilled chicken breasts are among the worst foods for heterocyclic amines (HCAs). Those are a category of Advanced Glycation End Products that are only present in animal-derived foods. There are zero HCAs in a vegan diet, because plants lack the building blocks necessary for creating them.

Some HCAs are labeled as Group 1 carcinogens by the World Health Organization. Worse yet, almost all of the HCAs in chicken are PhIP. This is a particularly troubling type.

Eating as little as 10 to 20 nanograms per day has been linked to nearly doubling breast cancer risk. A nanogram is a billionth of a gram, so this is a very small amount. (14) (15).

Cancer concerns aside, HCAs are also linked to accelerated aging.

Increased risk of cancer, age-related diseases, and skin wrinkles?

HCAs only have the potential of being unhealthy. Nothing about them is good for you! (16) (17)

On the flip side, you could make the argument that ingesting high amounts of carcinogens may be better for you than being obese and therefore, the benefits of eating lean chicken still outweigh the health risks.

That might actually be true, but why not switch it out for a food that has comparable nutrition facts without the heterocyclic amines? Seitan strips, burgers, and faux chicken can offer your just that. They are a filling protein source that’s low in fat and calories, too. It’s a healthier alternative to eat for weight loss.

The takeaway

Seitan is bad for you if you’re gluten intolerant, but for everyone else, it’s a healthy and nutritious food.

It may not be the perfect protein, but seitan is healthier for you than chicken and red meat, as you won’t be ingesting carcinogenic HCAs. Vegans and omnivores alike can appreciate its meaty texture that makes it an excellent substitute in recipes.

The one danger about it that affects everyone is sodium content.

Many brands are too high in sodium, so make sure you check the label before buying. However the risk of too much sodium is also a worry when eating real meat too. Our society has the unfortunate habit of adding way too much salt to practically everything we eat.