What Is Imitation Crab and Should You Eat It?
Written by Marsha McCulloch, MS, RD on November 20, 2018
Chances are, you’ve eaten imitation crab — even if you didn’t realize it.
This crab stand-in has become popular over the past few decades and is commonly found in seafood salad, crab cakes, California sushi rolls and crab rangoons.
In short, imitation crab is processed fish meat — in fact, it’s sometimes called “the hot dog of the sea.” However, you may still wonder what it’s made from and whether it’s healthy.
This article explains everything you need to know about imitation crab.
What Is Imitation Crab?
Imitation crab is made from surimi — fish flesh that has been deboned, washed to remove fat and unwanted bits, then minced into a paste. This paste is blended with other ingredients before being heated and pressed into shapes that mimic crab meat (1, 2, 3, 4Trusted Source).
While imitation crab is made from seafood, it generally contains no crab — other than a tiny amount of crab extract that is sometimes added for flavoring.
Pollock, which has a mild color and odor, is commonly used to make surimi. This fish is also used to make fish sticks and other breaded fish products (1).
Packages of crab-like products may be labeled “imitation crab,” “crab-flavored seafood” or “surimi seafood” but must follow government labeling rules. In Japan, surimi-based seafood is often called kamaboko (5).
On restaurant menus, imitation crab may be spelled “krab” to indicate that it’s fake.
Imitation crab is made from surimi, which is minced fish flesh — often pollock — that has been deboned and washed, then combined with other ingredients, heated and formed into crab-like cuts.
Nutritionally Inferior to Real Crab
Real crab is significantly higher in several nutrients compared to imitation crab.
Here’s how 3 ounces (85 grams) of imitation and Alaska king crab compare (6, 7):
Imitation crab Alaska king crab
Calories 81 82
Fat, which includes: 0.4 grams 1.3 grams
• Omega-3 fat 25.5 mg 389 mg
Total carbohydrates, which includes: 12.7 grams 0 grams
• Starch 6.5 grams 0 grams
• Added sugars 5.3 grams 0 grams
Protein 6.5 grams 16.4 grams
Cholesterol 17 mg 45 mg
Sodium 715 mg 911 mg
Vitamin C 0% of the RDI 11% of the RDI
Folate 0% of the RDI 11% of the RDI
Vitamin B12 8% of the RDI 163% of the RDI
Magnesium 9% of the RDI 13% of the RDI
Phosphorus 24% of the RDI 24% of the RDI
Zinc 2% of the RDI 43% of the RDI
Copper 1% of the RDI 50% of the RDI
Selenium 27% of the RDI 49% of the RDI
Though both have a similar number of calories, 61% of imitation crab calories come from carbs, whereas 85% of Alaska king crab calories come from protein — with none from carbs (6, 7).
If you’re trying to increase your protein intake and reduce your carb intake — for instance, if you’re on a low-carb or ketogenic diet — real crab would better fit your goals.
Compared to imitation crab, real crab is also significantly higher in several vitamins and minerals — including vitamin B12, zinc and selenium. This is partly because some nutrients are rinsed away during surimi processing (5, 8Trusted Source).
On the other hand, real crab tends to be higher in sodium than imitation crab, though both make a big contribution toward the daily limit of 2,300 mg. Salt is often added to both real and imitation crab, though the amount varies by brand (9Trusted Source).
Lastly, real crab is generally higher in omega-3 fatty acids than imitation crab. Though omega-3-rich oil could be added to imitation crab, this isn’t prevalent (10Trusted Source, 11Trusted Source).
Despite a similar calorie count, imitation crab is higher in carbs and lower in protein, omega-3 fats and several vitamins and minerals than real crab.
Made From Many Ingredients
The main ingredient in imitation crab is surimi, which generally comprises 35–50% of the product by weight (12Trusted Source).
The other major ingredients in imitation crab are (2, 5, 13Trusted Source, 14):
Water: Generally the second most abundant ingredient in imitation crab, water is needed to get the right texture and control product costs.
Starch: Potato, wheat, corn or tapioca starch are often used to firm up the surimi and make it freezable. However, if excess starch is used in order to cut costs, the product can become sticky and soft.
Protein: Egg-white protein is most common, but other proteins, such as soy, may be used. These boost the protein content of imitation crab and improve its texture, color and glossiness.
Sugar and sorbitol: These help the product hold up to freezing and thawing. They also contribute a little sweetness.
Vegetable oil: Sunflower, soybean or other vegetable oils are sometimes used to improve the texture, white color and shelf life.
Salt (sodium chloride): Aside from adding flavor, salt helps the minced fish form a sturdy gel. Potassium chloride, which performs the same functions, may be substituted for some of the salt.
After combining these ingredients with preservatives and other additives, the crab mixture is cooked and pressed into the desired shapes, as well as vacuum sealed and pasteurized to kill potentially harmful bacteria (5).
The main ingredient in imitation crab is surimi, which is typically mixed with water, starch, sugar, egg whites, vegetable oil, salt and additives.
Contains Colorings, Preservatives and Other Additives
Several additives — including some you may prefer to avoid — are generally added to imitation crab to achieve the desired color, flavor and stability.
Common additives in imitation crab include (1, 5, 12Trusted Source):
Gums: These help the ingredients stick together and stabilize the product. Examples include carrageenan and xanthan gum.
Red colorants: Carmine — which is extracted from tiny bugs called cochineals — is widely used to color imitation crab red. Paprika, beet juice extract and lycopene from tomatoes may also be used.
Glutamates: Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and a similar compound, disodium inosinate, may serve as flavor enhancers.
Other flavorings: These may include real crab extract, artificial crab flavorings and mirin (fermented rice wine).
Preservatives: Sodium benzoate and several phosphate-based additives are regularly used to improve shelf life.
Though generally recognized as safe by the FDA, some of these additives are associated with health concerns and may need further study (15).
For example, MSG may cause headaches in some people, while carrageenan is linked to intestinal damage and inflammation in animal and test-tube studies (16Trusted Source, 17Trusted Source, 18Trusted Source).
Furthermore, studies show that phosphate additives may lead to kidney damage and increased heart disease risk — partly because high phosphate intake from additives can damage blood vessels. People with kidney disease are at higher risk (19Trusted Source, 20Trusted Source).
In addition, some people may find it unappetizing that the carmine frequently used to color imitation crab is extracted from insects.
Several additives are used in imitation crab to achieve the desired color, flavor and stability. Some of these are linked to potential health concerns.
There are several reasons imitation crab is popular. One is its affordable price, which is about 1/3 of the cost of real crab (1).
Imitation crab is also convenient, as it can be added to dishes without further preparation. Additionally, some imitation crab sticks are packaged in grab-and-go, snack-sized portions with dipping sauce.
If you’re concerned about all of the additives in imitation crab, there are healthier versions — just as there are healthier versions of hot dogs.
For example, some brands include more natural ingredients, such as pea starch, cane sugar, sea salt, oat fiber and natural flavors.
In addition, some products are gluten-free and made without genetically modified (GMO) ingredients. What’s more, some mock crab may be certified to indicate that the seafood was sustainably sourced.
However, these more natural products cost around 30% extra and aren’t as widely available.
Imitation crab is affordable and convenient. A few brands contain more natural ingredients, but you’ll pay extra for them.
Aside from the fact that imitation crab is a highly processed, additive-laden and less nutritious version of real crab, it also carries environmental, mislabeling and allergenic concerns.
Some pollock used to make surimi has been overfished — endangering animals such as Steller sea lions that eat pollock — or is caught in ways that damage habitats of other sea life.
That said, surimi manufacturers are increasingly using other types of white-fleshed seafood, such as cod, Pacific whiting and squid (1, 12Trusted Source).
It’s also possible to use non-fish meats, such as deboned chicken, beef or pork to make surimi — though this is uncommon (1, 14, 21Trusted Source).
Another environmental problem is that the minced fish meat used to make surimi is washed several times to improve color, texture and smell. This uses a lot of water and generates wastewater, which must be treated so that it doesn’t contaminate oceans and harm fish (1).
Mislabeling, Food Safety and Food Allergies
Some imitation crab products don’t list seafood ingredients accurately, which increases food safety and allergy risks.
It’s impossible to know the actual ingredients without special testing.
When 16 surimi-based products purchased in Spain and Italy were tested, 25% listed a fish species different from that identified by DNA analysis.
Most of the mislabeled products were imported from Asian countries. Some labels failed to even note that the surimi was made from fish — a top food allergen. Food allergy labeling is required in EU countries and the US, including for imported foods (12Trusted Source, 22Trusted Source).
Inaccurate and inadequate product labels increase your risk of an allergic reaction to an ingredient that isn’t properly disclosed.
Mislabeling also conceals potentially toxic fish. In fact, two of the mislabeled Asian surimi products contained a species of fish linked with ciguatera poisoning, the most frequently reported toxin-based seafood illness (12Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source).
If you have food allergies, it may be best to avoid unlabeled imitation crab — such as in appetizers at a party — as it may harbor common allergens including fish, crab extract, eggs and wheat (13Trusted Source).
Pollock used in surimi is sometimes harvested in ways that can harm other sea life, and imitation crab production uses excessive amounts of water. Seafood used in imitation crab is sometimes mislabeled, which can increase food safety and allergy risks.
Simple to Use
You can find imitation crab either in the refrigerated or frozen section of stores. They sell several types, including flake-style, chunks, sticks and shreds.
Since imitation crab is precooked, you can use it straight from the package for cold dishes, such as dips and salad, or add it to dishes you heat.
Here are multiple ways to use imitation crab, categorized by type:
Flake-style or chunks:
Cold crab salad
Appetizers with cocktail sauce
California-style sushi rolls
Leafy green salad topping
Recipes for imitation crab dishes can often be found on manufacturers’ websites.
Imitation crab is quite versatile. However, given its nutrition and health considerations, it’s better to use it for special occasions rather than routine recipes.
Because it’s precooked and available in several different cuts, imitation crab is easy to use in appetizers, salads and main dishes.
The Bottom Line
Imitation crab is a highly processed food made by combining minced fish with starch, egg whites, sugar, salt and additives to mimic the flavor, color and texture of real crab meat.
While it’s significantly less expensive than real crab, it’s also less nutritious and laced with questionable additives.
If you’re making a dish for a special occasion and don’t have the budget for real crab, imitation crab is a good alternative that’s simple to use.
However, for day-to-day meals, opt for affordable, minimally processed and nutritious proteins, such as cod, chicken and lean beef.
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