It looks like meat, has the texture of meat, and apparently, with enough flavour enhancers, tastes like meat -- but it's not actually meat. It's the sticky goo that most of us work on eating less of. If you've ever tried mock chicken, pork or beef, often shown on vegan menus surrounded by quotes ("tuna" salad, anyone?), you may already have eaten it.
Affectionately known as wheat meat, seitan (pronounced say-tahn -- perhaps not by coincidence) is a meat replacement made entirely out of gluten (pronounced glue-ten -- also perhaps not by coincidence). I repeat, a "food" 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 stretchy gloooooooooten.
Let's back up the trolley here for a minute and talk a little bit about why gluten shouldn't be invited to the dinner table in the first place.
What's Wrong With Gluten, Anyway?
- 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.
- Studies have shown that eating gluten may contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms, obesity, diabetes, along with inflammatory conditions, auto-immune disease and conditions of brain degeneration.
- 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 favours. But there's a bigger issue at hand here.
I know there are many people who disagree with the gluten theory. Those who believe that a little isn't bad if they show no signs of sensitivity may still want to try eliminating it, just to see. The massive amount of scientific research being done around the world, from Israel to Italy to the USA, about the connection between gluten and the influx of degenerative diseases has me thinking that what we may not feel today, will show up one day. And as I always say, if in doubt, keep it out.
There will never be a cause for the health benefits of gluten. Eating more gluten will never make us healthier.
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 popular fake meat product BOCA Original Vegan Burgers:
water, soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten, contains less than 2% of methylcellulose, 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 flavours (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 plantiful 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 focussing 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?
For more about gluten, check out:
- 17 Surprising Sources of Gluten
- Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight? Really?
- Quizzle of the Dizzle: Should You Go Gluten-Free?