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Many vegans and vegetarians use seitan (wheat gluten, see this answer) as a substitute for meat, since it has a similar texture and is high in proteins. However I've recently heard some skepticism about the consumption of seitan, basically for two reasons:

  • modern wheat comes from heavily modified genome (see, for example, radiation breeding), and this is why many people concerned about health choose a gluten-free diet even if they don't suffer from celiac disease. So eating pure gluten would increase the risk of producing several reactions in the body, from allergic reactions, to leaky gut syndrome;
  • wheat grain is a whole food, and the refinement of wheat to make white flour produces several disorders (there are some studies that relate food addiction to refined foods). So additional selection of the proteic fraction would increase the distance from the ideal way to consume wheat, that is whole flour, whole bread, etc.

Should vegans and vegetarians be concerned about the use of seitan?

  • I don't know whether it's advisable to avoid seitan, I just know that it's not a good choice for protein intake since it's not a complete protein source. – Turion Feb 15 '17 at 9:03
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    @Turion sure but very few plant proteins are complete - by consuming a variety of them we get everything we need, and that is OK. I for one don't want to live on soya beans alone :) – Zanna Feb 15 '17 at 9:11
  • @Zanna, right never looked at it like that. Maybe someone can write an answer on how to consume seitan together with something else in order to make it a healthy food? – Turion Feb 15 '17 at 9:17
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    @Turion I actually don't think that is necessary - we worry way too much about getting enough protein as veg*ns in my opinion. Practically everything has some protein and a varied diet over the course of a week or so should tick all the boxes. If you want to write such an answer though, go for it; that would be within the scope of the question. I am working on an answer but it won't address that aspect :) – Zanna Feb 15 '17 at 9:26
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Your concerns about GMOs and food processing apply more broadly than this specific food, and I would recommend looking into each issue in general rather than in regards to seitan specifically.

Seitan and GMOs

The scientific consensus on genetically modified or engineered foods is that they pose no health risks. As such, the use of GMOs to make seitan should not give you any health concerns. If you wish to avoid GMOs for non health concerns, look for organic seitan options in your area.

Seitan and gluten sensitivity

Seitan is literally wheat gluten. If you have a diagnosed gluten sensitivity or wheat allergy you should avoid seitan.

If you believe you have a gluten sensitivity, but have not received a diagnosis, talk to your doctor as gluten sensitivity shares symptoms with other more serious disorders.

Seitan and processed foods

Processed foods can pose a problem in excess as they tend to have high salt and sugar content, and may have a low nutritional value. This in no way means that you should avoid processed foods entirely however, only that you should apply the principle of "everything in moderation", and make sure you eat a variety of foods. Check the nutrition label on the seitan you buy if you are concerned about specific nutrients.

Seitan and food addiction

If you believe you have an eating disorder or food addiction, talk to your doctor!

In regards to addictions or disorders linked to refined foods. Any rewarding behaviour is potentially addicting (Wikipedia), this includes food consumption, and in particular consumption of refined foods and seitan. I can find no evidence that you are at greater risk of addiction to seitan than any other food.

The paper you linked hypothesises that food addiction specifically to refined foods is behind America's obesity epidemic. It based on reports from 12 people most of whom were "overweight or obese, middle-aged, middle class women", and a collection of studies on food addiction in animals, and reinterpretation of studies on the behaviours of obese individuals as the results of a potential food addiction. The paper does not show that refined food addiction exists, or that it is widespread. In the words of the authors, "Although these findings do not establish the existence of such a syndrome, they are sufficiently compelling to warrant further basic and clinical research."

  • modified genome is not synonym of GMO nor genetic engineering. in the 70s there have been mutations through irradiation. check, for example, the history of "creso" wheat. – Attilio Feb 16 '17 at 23:26
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    I can't find anywhere referring to "modified genome" as a distinct technique or type of gene mutation. In regards to creso wheat, are you referring to mutation breeding? Mutation breeding uses radiation or chemical mutagens to produce random mutations at a faster rate than would be found in nature. It seems relevant to note that all naturally found wheat strains have been radiated by the sun and cosmic background radiation for the entirety of their existence. – nloewen Feb 17 '17 at 15:29
  • check these two links: pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/jf305122s onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1541-4337.12129/full . the matter is not as simple as you say and science has not found a final answer. so doubts are - at least - reasonable. – Attilio Feb 17 '17 at 17:06
  • I'm not sure what your point is. The first author is unable to find a link between changes in gluten content and celiac disease writing "I have not found clear evidence of an increase in the gluten content of wheat in the United States during the 20th century, and if there has indeed been an increase in celiac disease during the latter half of the century, wheat breeding for higher gluten content does not seem to be the basis". – nloewen Feb 17 '17 at 17:31
  • The second author concludes that "when correctly matched to disease pathology, less-reactive wheat products can improve the quality of life for individuals with diagnosed wheat sensitivity", but not that various types of wheat cause sensitivity. Which makes sense. If your body is sensitive to wheat due to celiac disease or some other disorder, you'll see improvements by avoiding what's causing your symptoms. Anyone not diagnosed with such a disorder is free to consume any type of wheat without issue however. – nloewen Feb 17 '17 at 17:34
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Seitan is made by the simple process of washing the starch out of wheat dough, leaving the gluten. It should be remembered that seitan, although this name for it is new, is a traditional food in countries such as Japan and China, where it has been eaten for more than a thousand years (wikipedia says its use is documented at least as far back as the 6th century). Of course, just because something is traditional and prepared in a low-tech way, does not mean it is necessarily healthy, but it is interesting that coeliac disease seems to be rare in areas where seitan is a traditional food. It would seem that eating seitan does not necessarily cause people to develop coeliac disease and other gluten sensitivities.

The increased prevalence of coeliac disease is a puzzling phenomenon and there seems to be quite a lot of research into it. The protein in gluten that seems to be mainly responsible for coeliac disease is gliadin.

Different wheat varieties differ in the amount of gluten and of gliadin they contain. The modern wheat varieties grown in countries where coeliac disease is relatively common (Europe and the USA), also called dwarf wheat, bred over centuries for high yield, seems to be generally higher in the more inflammatory types of gliadin associated with coeliac disease.

Another interesting factor is that sulphur and nitrogen fertilizer change the proportion of different proteins formed in wheat. This article notes that the fourfold-increase in coeliac disease since the mid twentieth century has occurred since the use of chemical fertilisers became widespread in Europe, the US and other "industrialised" countries, and that those are the countries where coeliac disease is most prevalent. If I find research into the protein composition of organic versus conventional wheat, I will add them here.

Gluten-free seems to be one of the most confused and confusing trends in modern food culture. I am frequently asked if, as a vegan, I can eat bread, since it contains gluten, and I am frequently told, when I ask if a product is vegan "yes, it's completely gluten-free". I have read several confusing articles saying that coeliac disease is on the rise because of all the starch we eat, "our ancestors didn't eat all these refined starches" etc, although coeliac disease is caused by proteins. I very much hope that research will conclusively explain what is causing gluten sensitivity to increase and thus how we can reverse this rise.

In the meantime, my conclusion is that seitan itself is not what should be avoided (based on its long history of apparently safe consumption); if anything, it's particular types of wheat eaten in excess. It may be better to choose organic wheat, which may have lower levels of inflammatory gliadins due to non-application of fertilisers, or to choose "heritage" varieties like spelt which seem to be less inflammatory. Further research is needed, but, it seems, seitan is not the enemy here.

Of course, if you are a coeliac or have another type of gluten intolerance, you must avoid seitan along with all foods containing gluten

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Seitan can be made from spelt (which is considered a non-modern kind of wheat), though it is a bit more tricky to make. Spelt gluten is probably not commonly available as an isolate product, so old-school seitan technique has to be used here (and is in itself trickier with spelt). It could be made from a certified non-GMO wheat flour, as seems to be available commercially. Using old-school technique, again. If one wanted to avoid using a commercially milled flour, one could get whole wheat or spelt grain and mill them oneself.

Basically, anything concerning seitan would also concern any conventional bread and pastry products.

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