Seitan is about as far from gluten-free as you can get — it’s made by taking flour from wheat (wheat, barley, and rye are, of course, the three main gluten grains) and washing away the starch in the flour to leave mainly protein.
This process leaves behind a rubbery, meat-like substance that’s easily seasoned and then substituted for meat in a variety of vegetarian and vegan dishes.
Since the protein left behind in seitan once that starch is washed away is mainly gluten (with a residue of wheat starch), seitan is most definitely not gluten-free.
In fact, seitan happens to be one of the most potentially toxic substances available for someone following the gluten-free diet — it’s probably second only to vital wheat gluten, which is 100% gluten protein.
There’s no medical research indicating the level of toxicity that seitan would have for someone with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (that’s a study I wouldn’t volunteer for!). But suffice it to say, if you’re gluten-free for medical/health reasons, you should stay just about as far away from seitan as you possibly can.
Where Do I Need to Watch Out for Seitan?
Seitan is a popular source of protein for people following a vegetarian or vegan diet, and it commonly appears on the menu in vegetarian restaurants or in ready-to-eat dishes sold at the deli counter and refrigerated sections in health food stores.
Look out for seitan in wraps, stir-fry dishes or prepared as a barbecued meat substitute. I’ve seen it used as a stand-in for the turkey on Thanksgiving, in vegetarian Indian recipes (in place of chicken in Tikka Masala, for example), on the menu at a Thai restaurant (“choose chicken, beef, pork or seitan”), in various stews, and as the protein source in sandwiches.
I’ve also seen deep-fried breaded seitan and seitan masquerading as meatloaf. And finally, I’ve watched a sushi chef serve it up in California sushi rolls.
Seitan Labeling Often Incomplete and Dangerous
Since seitan contains wheat, it should be clearly labeled. But there are frequent instances when the wheat just isn’t called out. This occurs more often in restaurants and health food stores than on packaged food products in supermarkets (which are required to follow the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s requirements to label wheat, one of the “big eight” allergens).
So be aware that you can’t have anything with seitan in it if you’re gluten-free, even if it’s not specifically advertised as wheat.
Seitan is popular with vegetarians and vegans, and that’s for a reason: It contains tons of protein, which can be hard to get on a vegetarian/vegan diet.
Since you obviously can’t include seitan in your gluten-free vegetarian or vegan diet, you’ll want to look for alternative sources of protein.
Just be sure to steer clear of seitan — if you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, it will make you sick … very sick.