If you're new to vegetarianism, seitan and textured vegetable protein, or TVP, are probably both high on your frequent ingredient list. Both are plant proteins used as meat replacements in vegetarian recipes because they can be made to resemble meat in texture and flavor. Both sources of protein help to simplify the meal-planning process by reducing the need for strategic food-combining and extensive knowledge of the amino acid contents of different foods. Despite their similarities, these two foods are not the same -- a better nutritional profile and simpler manufacturing methods make seitan the choice experts recommend.
Both seitan and TVP are protein sources, so they are meat substitutes nutritionally as well as culinarily. They're not comparable in nutrients and sodium, though. According to Vandana Sheth, registered dietitian and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a serving of seitan has up to three times the amount of protein as a same-size serving of TVP. Made from soy flour or soy protein isolates, TVP is a complete protein, while seitan, made from wheat gluten, is not, but that isn't necessarily a problem if you're eating a wide variety of protein foods. TVP is high in salt, and according to vegan nutritionist Mike Tubbs, contains MSG that forms naturally during the manufacturing process. Also, according to Sheth, "Soy can inhibit iron absorption from non-animal sources, so TVP is also not the best form of iron."
Seitan and TVP are about equal in terms of versatility. The way each is made determines the final texture, and both can be solid like a chicken breast or crumbled like ground beef. Both take on the flavor of other ingredients in the dish, but both can also be flavored with herbs, spices and broth during the manufacturing process. Unflavored, TVP and seitan both have a bland taste similar to plain tofu, but without tofu's various consistency options.
Seitan and TVP differ most obviously in the way they're made. Tubbs says, "The thing about TVP is that, number one, it is highly processed. It goes through a heat process a number of times before it's packaged and sold. Most nutrients in the food at that point will be dead and useless;cooked off." Seitan, on the other hand, doesn't require chemical solvents or high heat in processing -- seitan products lack TVP's list of industrial-sounding ingredients. New York University School of Medicine nutrition researcher Michelle Davenport says, "People can actually make [seitan] at home -- no crazy industrial processing needed -- and can control what ingredients they use... More importantly, it's natural. My rule is, if you can't pronounce the ingredients, don't eat it."
Allergens & Other Cautions
Davenport cautions that because seitan is made from wheat gluten, it's not for people with celiac disease or others on gluten-free diets. Tubbs also warns against the MSG content of TVP: "It does not bother everybody," he says, "but for those that have MSG sensitivities or allergies, this can be an issue." Davenport also recommends against heavy reliance on soy in any diet because of the concern over soy isoflavones and cancer. "While [it] hasn't been proven yet," she says, "it also hasn't been unproven." Too much of anything can be detrimental, so Sheth recommends making variety the basis of your diet, saying, "[It's] best to enjoy a wide variety of foods in a vegan diet to adequately meet your nutritional needs. It is important to include whole grains, beans, lentils, seeds, nuts, fruits and vegetables."
- Vandana R. Sheth, RD, CDE; Spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- Mike Tubbs; Vegan Nutritionist
- Michelle Duong Davenport, M.A.; Nutrition Researcher, Brain, Obesity and Diabetes Laboratory, New York University School of Medicine
Angela Brady has been writing since 1997. She works as a certified personal trainer, weight-loss consultant and sports nutritionist. A lifelong dancer and yoga devotee, she has competed in gymnastics, swimming, volleyball, softball and soccer. She is also an authority on sustainable design, having studied, practiced and written extensively on the subject.