Imitation crab is a popular crab substitute. Imitation crab is mostly made of Alaska pollock and it’s good for you because it is affordable, convenient, and nutritious.
Imitation crab is a popular crab substitute that has long been a part of Asian, and particularly Japanese, cuisine. With the rising popularity of seafood dishes, its demand has also increased in many western countries. Since it’s made from processed fish meat, many call it the “hot dog of the sea.”
You can find this crab stand-in being used in many kinds of dishes, from crab cakes and sushi rolls to seafood salads. However, despite its delicious taste and varied uses, many warn against eating imitation crab since it also poses some environmental and health risks.
While imitation crab looks and tastes like crab meat, it usually doesn’t contain any real crab except for the small amount of crab extract added for flavoring. Instead, its main ingredient is surimi, which accounts for 35% to 50% of its weight. Surimi — meaning ground meat in Japanese — is a paste made from the flesh of deboned, cleaned, and minced whitefish.
The most commonly used fish in imitation crab is Alaska pollock. It accounts for almost 50% to 75% of the world’s total surimi.
Once the surimi paste is made, it’s mixed with other ingredients and additives so that it tastes like real crab. It’s then heated, pressed into the desired shape, and dyed red to make it look like the meat from crab legs. Finally, this product is pasteurized and vacuum sealed, which helps to kill and avoid contamination from any potentially harmful microbes.
Besides surimi, these are some of the other ingredients that are used for making imitation crab:
- Water: After surimi, water is the second-most-used ingredient in imitation crab. It gives the right texture to the final product.
- Protein: Proteins like egg white and soy help to give imitation crab better color, texture, and glossiness and also add to its protein content.
- Vegetable oil: Manufacturers sometimes use soybean, sunflower, or other vegetable oils to improve the shelf life, texture, and color of the product.
- Salt (sodium chloride): This adds flavor and provides a sturdy structure to the surimi. In some cases, potassium chloride is used in place of sodium chloride.
- Sugar: Besides adding a little bit of sweetness, sugars also help the product to freeze and thaw better.
- Starch: Manufacturers use potatos, tapioca starch, corn, or wheat to give surimi a firm texture and to make it more freezable. However, when too much is used to cut costs, it makes the final product soft and sticky.
What are the additives in imitation crab?
These are some of the common additives that you may find in this crab substitute:
Colorants. Carmine is the most common food dye used to give imitation crabs a red color similar to that of real crab meat. In some cases, beet juice extract, lycopene from tomatoes, or paprika extract is also used as a coloring agent.
Sweeteners. Besides sugar, naturally occurring sugar alcohols like sorbitol are used to add mild sweetness to the product.
Thickeners. Maltodextrin is often used in imitation crabs to increase the volume of the final product.
Gelling agents. These include xanthan gum and carrageenan, which act as stabilizing agents and help the ingredients gel together.
Preservatives. Manufacturers use preservatives like sodium benzoate, tocopherol, citric acid, and soy lecithin to boost the shelf life of the product and to maintain its texture, color, and flavor.
Solvents. Ethyl alcohol and glycerin are the most common extraction solvents used during the production of imitation crab.
How is imitation crab different from real crab?
It’s hard to differentiate between imitation crab and real crab just on the basis of their looks and taste. However, checking their names can help. For example, some restaurants label dishes as “krab” to show if something’s made from a crab substitute. Similarly, you may find labels like “surimi seafood” or “crab seafood” on packages of imitation crab.
Real crab is a healthier option than imitation crab. This is because crab stand-ins typically have fewer vitamins and minerals. Moreover, real crab has more than double the amount of protein. This makes real crab a better alternative for those on a ketogenic diet or those looking to increase their protein intake.
Another difference is that in comparison to imitation crab, real crab is richer in omega-3 fatty acids. On the plus side, some surimi manufacturers have now started adding these fatty acids to their products to make them healthier.
What are the potential benefits of imitation crab?
Affordable and convenient. Real crab meat is usually quite expensive. However, with imitation crabs, you can enjoy a dish that looks and tastes similar to real crab but comes at 1/3 of its cost. Since surimi is frozen and sold as blocks, carrying and transporting it also becomes easier and more economical. Moreover, compared to fresh, whole fish, frozen surimi has a longer shelf life.
Another benefit of imitation crabs is that they’re very convenient to eat. You can add these crab substitutes to your dishes with minimal preparation. Moreover, those that are packaged as snack-sized crab sticks can be eaten on the go.
Nutritionally beneficial. Imitation crab has low calorie, fat, and cholesterol content. This makes it a good choice for those who are trying to lose or maintain weight and are looking for low-cholesterol foods. If you’re worried about the additives in such crab substitutes, there are also healthier, additive-free versions. Such products contain natural flavoring agents and ingredients like cane sugar, oat fiber, sea salt, and pea starch.
Imitation crab is also a better alternative than real crab meat for those with shellfish allergy since it’s made from whitefish like pollock. Moreover, many experts recommend taking 3 oz servings of it per day to immunosuppressed patients who also have digestive problems.
What are the drawbacks of imitation crab?
Being a highly-processed, additive-rich, and less nutritious alternative to real crab, imitation crab has some of these drawbacks:
Health concerns. The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has assigned a “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) status to many of the additives that are used in imitation crabs. However, there are some that require further studies or have been seen to pose health risks.
According to some test-tube and animal studies, exposure to carrageenan can lead to inflammation, intestinal damage, and even an increased risk of cancer.
Similarly, scientists have found that the phosphate additives in imitation crabs can cause damage to the kidneys, as well as the blood vessels.
Some people also find the use of carmine in crab substitutes to be off-putting, since this food dye is extracted from insects.
Environmental concerns. The pollock, which is used to make imitation crabs, faces overfishing problems in some parts of the world. This, in turn, poses risks for animals like stellar sea lions that feed on pollock. Some fishermen also use methods that damage the habitat of sea creatures.
For this reason, imitation crab manufacturers have now increased the use of other fishes like whiting and animals like squid. There are also some who use non-fish meats like pork, beef, or chicken in surimi — though this practice isn’t common.
Another drawback of imitation crab is that it generates a lot of wastewater. This is because, to enhance the smell, texture, and color of surimi, the fish meat paste is washed many times using large amounts of water. This wastewater can pollute oceans and harm sea life if it is released without being treated.
Food allergy issues. There’s an increased risk of food safety and allergy issues with imitation crabs since many surimi manufacturers don’t list the ingredients accurately on the packages. In fact, some studies have also found mislabeled surimi products containing fish that can cause seafood illnesses like ciguatera poisoning.
If you have food allergies and are especially sensitive to fish, wheat, egg, or crab extract, you will likely not want to eat unlabeled crab stand-ins such as the appetizers found at parties or the snacks sold by roadside vendors.
What are the ways to use imitation crab?
You can easily find imitation crabs in the frozen or refrigerated sections of most grocery stores. While they’re mostly sold as crab sticks, you can also find them in the form of flakes, chunks, or shredded meat. You can cook these while preparing hot dishes or use them directly from the package to make cold dishes.
Based on the form of imitation crab, these are some of the dishes that you can make with them:
- Sandwich wraps
Using chunks or flakes
- Pizza topping
- Pasta dishes
- Cold crab salad
Using shredded meat
- Fish tacos
- Salad toppings
- Lettuce wraps
Should you choose imitation crab over real crab?
Whether you choose real crab or its substitutes should depend upon your needs and preferences. Fresh crab meat has a richer nutritional profile and is much less processed. In comparison, imitation crab is laden with additives, but it’s much more affordable, long-lasting, and easy to prepare.
You should also keep in mind, though, that crab stand-ins pose various health risks. This is why it’s best to use them only on special occasions rather than on a regular basis
Health Solutions From Our Sponsors
Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety: “Alternatives for Efficient and Sustainable Production of Surimi: A Review.”
Deutsches Arzteblatt International: “Phosphate additives in food–a health risk.”
Environmental Health Perspectives: “Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments.”
EXCLI Journal: “Extensive use of monosodium glutamate: A threat to public health?”
Green, A. “Field Guide to Seafood: How to Identify, Select, and Prepare Virtually Every Fish and Shellfish at the Market,” Quirk Books, 2015
Jae Park Surimi School: “The Culinarian.”
Marine Drugs: “Ciguatera fish poisoning: treatment, prevention and management.”
Massey Cancer Center: “CELLULAR IMMUNOTHERAPIES AND TRANSPLANT PROGRAM.”
PloS One: “Advances in the analysis of complex food matrices: Species identification in surimi-based products using Next Generation Sequencing technologies.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central: “Crustaceans, crab, alaska king, imitation, made from surimi.”
U.S. Department of Agriculture FoodData Central: “Crustaceans, crab, alaska king, raw.”
U.S. Food and Drug Administration: “SCOGS (Select Committee on GRAS Substances).”
Top Imitation Crab Made of and Is It Good for You Related Articles
Diet and Nutrition: Fatty Fish That Are High in Omega-3s
You may know that omega-3s are good fats that you get from seafood. But not all fish are equal. The fatty ones are best. WebMD’s slideshow shows you the choice picks.
12 Ways to Cook Foolproof Fish
Are you scared of cooking – and messing up – a fish dish? Or maybe you just don’t know how. Use these simple tips from WebMD to create foolproof fish dishes.
How Do You Store Fish?
The best way to store fresh fish is on ice. Ice may need to be placed on top of the fish as well as underneath. The ice isn’t just cold; it’s also dry and allows the meltwater and liquid to run off the fish.
How Do I Know If My Fish Is Contaminated by Ciguatera Toxin?
Since ciguatoxin is odorless and tasteless, as well as harmless to fish, it is not possible to know if a particular fish is contaminated by ciguatera food poisoning.
What Causes Scombroid Fish Poisoning?
Scombroid poisoning is caused by accumulated bacteria that turn histidine into scombrotoxin (histamine) in improperly stored fish.
Pregnant? Don’t Eat This
Do you know which common foods may be risky during pregnancy? Learn which foods to avoid, while pregnant, such as queso dip, lunch meat, coffee and more.
Best and Worst Seafood Dishes for Your Health
Seafood seems like a healthy choice. But the way it’s cooked makes a difference. Find out about the best and worst seafood dishes for your health.