I am wondering why it is called vital wheat gluten. How is it vital?

I first heard it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gysghjYejHw

And then I tried to look it up, but nowhere did I find any mention as to what "vital" actually means here.


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    Where did you see this? Could you include the source? – Cascabel Jan 12 at 20:00
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    My snap reading of it is that 'vital' just ... sounds better, like advertising embedded in the name. Like for example in the ingredients list on some packages, instead of 'sugar' they might list 'organic unprocessed sugar' which I suppose is better than synthesized sugar. – Mitch Jan 12 at 21:47
  • This would be like asking what "Canadian bacon" "means" or what "French fries" "means". It "means" almost nothing, it's just a "commonly-used phrase name". Such questions can be asked on ELL – Fattie Jan 13 at 12:40
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    The difference is that everyone knows what "Canadian" or "French" means, there is no ambiguity. On the other hand "vital" has many meanings in different contexts. – PunchyRascal Jan 13 at 13:48

Short answer:

Vital emphasizes the organic origins or dietary benefits of vital wheat gluten, also known as seitan.

Long answer:

In the early 20th century, vital as an adjective was applied to food derived from plants or animals. The Oxford English Dictionary features an early example of this under definition 5 of "vital, adj. and n.":

  1. Conferring or imparting life or vigour; invigorating, vitalizing; life-giving. Chiefly poetic. [...]

1872 T. H. Huxley Lessons Elem. Physiol. (ed. 6) vii. 156 The vital foods are derived directly, or indirectly, from the vegetable world.

Huxley was writing a physiology textbook, The Elements of Physiology, and that sums up his definition of vital food-stuffs - "they can only be obtained by the activity of living beings, whether animals or plants" (p. 158). (For Huxley, that is most foods, excluding minerals like salt and water.) By 1899, the Annual Report of the State Board of Health and Vital Statistics of the Commonwealth of Pennslyvania has a more specific understanding of vital foods; they are foods that have not undergone chemical processes like fermentation:

Third. That fermented bread and yeast raised foods and drinks corrupt the blood, and the time has surely come to cease using them in hospitals and institutions, and also to discountenance their general use. Hundred [sic] of families keep entirely well and free from every disease by using unfermented, purely vital foods.

The board perceives unfermented foods as healthier. So there is a sense that the vital in vital foods makes both a dietary distinction and a possible recommendation for good health. As Google Books results demonstrate, the term was widely used in the early-to-mid 20th century in governmental, agricultural, and dietary contexts.

Vital wheat gluten is an offshoot of this usage appearing in the 1950s and after the heyday of vital foods, as highlighted by the Google NGram:

enter image description here

The earliest result appears in the Food, Drug, Cosmetic Law Reporter (1950). Results begin to increase in the 1950s and 1960s in both trade publications and, notably, in US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture hearings (1965) on Canadian vital wheat gluten imports, where a representative of a company making vital wheat gluten has to explain what it does to a committee member. A couple of brief excerpts highlight that the usage of vital was specialized and not universally understood:

Mr. Purcell: With respect to your end product, are you saying vital wheat gluten -- I do not know what that is.

Mr. Hellekson: Vital, v-i-t-a-l -- vital wheat gluten.


Mr. Purcell: Just for the record and for my own edification, what do we use vital wheat gluten for, from the human standpoint?

Mr. Hellekson: The baker uses it as a tool to increase the protein content of the flour that he utilizes in his bakery. And his reason for adjusting the protein content is to get texture, loaf volume, physical characteristics in his bakery product.

Based on the earlier uses of vital foods, I guess that the vital in vital wheat gluten emphasizes the vegetative origin of what is otherwise a processed food product. Perhaps there are additional connotations of the food being more essential (in the sense of just having the gluten) or healthy.

  • In general 'vital' has no connotation of 'vegetative' or even 'vegetable'. I'm sure many might consider animal sources as vital too. The literal meaning is 'necessary for life' or more broadly 'necessary', but likely the word is added only for advertising punch and has no relevance to science. – Mitch Jan 12 at 21:45
  • In the specific context of food, vital was used to signal that the food originated from plant or animal life. (See Huxley's definition, one I found several times in nutritional guides.) Wheat is a plant, so it'd be redundant to talk about meat. That's why I focus on the vegetative, but I can adjust that if you prefer. I absolutely agree with the guess that it's for advertising, but it's advertising that draws on the established use of vital as applied to dietary choices. – TaliesinMerlin Jan 13 at 0:35
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    While incredibly detailed and an academic success, I just can't support this answer, @TaliesinMerlin Say an English learner asked "What does 'French Fries' 'mean'?" and you gave a long answer ..... explaining in detail the history and politics of France. It just doesn't make sense conceptually. The answer to the question is nothing more than "vital wheat gluten is a common name for seitan". – Fattie Jan 13 at 12:43
  • @Fattie The question is "What does vital in vital wheat gluten mean?" It's not "What is vital wheat gluten?" "Vital wheat gluten is a common name for seitan" does not answer what vital may have meant when applied to wheat gluten. If you feel the two questions are the same, I advise you to vote to close the question, because the equivalent to "What is French fries?" is answered by the Wikipedia article. (However, that didn't resolve the asker's question.) – TaliesinMerlin Jan 13 at 15:41
  • I would just say that your answer spectacularly explains the word "vital" ! perhaps I could explain it this way. Your answer needs a single line at the top "Ah, V.W.G is seitan. To give you a feel for how that g term came about, here's a magnificent 10,000 word essay on that! ..." You know? – Fattie Jan 13 at 16:01

"vital wheat gluten" is a popular name for purified dried gluten powder, which can be mixed with water and eaten as a vegan meat substitute. It's also known as "seitan"

  • Seitan is a vegan meat substitute made by rinsing wheat dough to remove the starch. This leaves a dense mass of pure gluten protein that can be seasoned and cooked.

The word "vital" has probably been added because there is no starch left and it's all pure wheat protein, which is supposed to be a healthier meal.

Vital Wheat Gluten, a powdered form of wheat gluten, is produced and sold as an additive for baking or used to make seitan. Vital wheat gluten is nearly all gluten and almost no starch. When used as an additive in baking, its purpose is to add elasticity to flours that would otherwise be low in gluten, such as whole wheat flour or rye. It improves the rise of the raw dough and also improves the texture and chewiness of the final product. Very little is required, generally about 1 Tablespoon (15ml) per 2–3 cups (480–620 ml) of flour.[12]

seitan fingers

seitan fingers

enter image description here

seitan burger

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    the correct and obvious answer (which should be on ELL) (if they allow questions where you can just glance in a dictionary to get the answer) – Fattie Jan 13 at 12:43

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