Have you ever tried seitan? It looks like meat, feels like meat and, apparently with enough flavor enhancers, tastes like meat, too. But it’s not actually meat — it’s wheat.
Affectionately known as wheat meat, seitan is a meat replacement made entirely out of gluten. It’s prepared by mixing flour with water, then kneading and rinsing the dough to remove the wheat starch until all you’re left with is sticky, stretchy gluten.
At that point, you’re supposed to treat it just like meat by deep frying it, barbecuing it or making yourself a bowl of mock chicken, duck, pork stew — you name the meat, seitan can replace it.
Let’s back up the wagon here for a minute and talk a little bit about why gluten shouldn’t be invited to the dinner table in the first place.
Gluten is a glue-like protein that holds breads and baked goods together. Picture mortar, the stuff used to hold bricks together — it’s thick, clumpy and difficult to digest.
It’s estimated that 1 in 133 Canadians suffer from celiac disease, a medical condition where the small intestine is damaged by gluten, resulting in anemia, chronic diarrhea, cramps, bloating and more. But non-celiac gluten sensitivity is estimated to be six to 10 times more prevalent than celiac disease.
There’s no nutritional value in gluten — you risk nothing by cutting it out, but you stand to gain better digestion, pain-free mobility, mood stability, more energy and less junk in your trunk.
Wheat has always contained gluten, but modern varieties of wheat contain a whole lot more of it than they used to. According to the book Wheat Belly, we’ve bred our wheat to contain so much gluten that our immune systems no longer recognize it as food. And since wheat is in so many of the foods we eat (think cereal, pasta, crackers, muffins…), we’re eating a lot more gluten than we used to, even without turning it into a main course.
Needless to say, a meal made entirely out of gluten isn’t doing your digestive system any favors. But there’s a bigger issue at hand here.
With all the amazing, delicious, whole food protein sources available for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans, turning to any sort of mock anything for dinner (let alone one made entirely out of gluten) just isn’t needed.
Let’s take a quick look at the ingredients in just one popular fake meat product:
water, soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten, contains less than 2% of methyl cellulose, salt, caramel color, dried onions, yeast extract, sesame oil, hydrolyzed wheat protein, natural and artificial flavor (non-meat), disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate. contains: soy, wheat, sesame.
Just a glance at these scary ingredients reveals wheat gluten (see seitan, above), yeast extract (read: MSG), artificial flavors (read: poison), soy (no doubt GMO) and a whole pile words I can’t pronounce.
Though many believe these mock-meats make for an easier transition, I can’t help but wonder what the transition is to. If our goal is to eat less meat, let’s do that. Let’s add in more vegetables and some plant-based proteins and, little by little, meal by meal, eat less meat. There’s no need to pass through the meat-Plasticine phase to get there.
Healthy eating doesn’t have to be complicated, and it’s not about following an abstract set of rules, only focusing on what you can’t have and trying to find a convenient replacement. This isn’t about eating meat or not eating meat, but about doing the best for ourselves. Can we forget the labels and make sure every bite we eat is simply fresh, real, health-supportive, delicious, and ideally not surrounded by quotes?