Imitation crab meat, sometimes called surimi, is a popular ingredient in seafood salads, sushi rolls, and other dishes. Made from white fish that has been pulverized and shaped to resemble crab meat, imitation crab meat provides the flavor of crab without the high price tag. But is this ubiquitous snack food actually good for you? Here’s a look at the nutritional profile of imitation crab and whether it deserves a place in a healthy diet.
What is Imitation Crab Meat?
Imitation crab meat is a food product made by blending small amounts of crab with mild, white fish like pollock or hake. The resulting paste is then shaped into strips or chunks to mimic the flake of real crab. Imitation crab also contains fillers like wheat or egg white, vegetables like carrot or potato for color, and crab flavoring. It’s an affordable way for seafood lovers to enjoy the taste of crab without spending a lot of money. Here are some key facts about imitation crab meat:
- Made from mild white fish like pollock or hake
- Contains only a small amount of real crab (if any)
- Bound together with fillers and flavorings
- Formed into strips, chunks, or shreds to resemble crab meat
- Less expensive than real crab
- Frequently used in seafood salads, sushi, surimi salad, and more
While it may not contain much real crab, imitation crab meat provides a similar sweet, delicate flavor. Its versatility and low cost make it popular choice for many dishes.
Nutritional Profile of Imitation Crab
To determine if imitation crab is healthy, it’s important to look at its nutritional makeup. Here are some of the key nutrients found in a 3 ounce serving of imitation crab meat:
*DV = Daily Value
At 82 calories per serving, imitation crab is low in calories and fat. It provides 11g of protein per serving, which is a good amount for a snack. However, imitation crab tends to be high in sodium, with 330mg per serving. It’s not a significant source of important micronutrients like calcium and iron.
The Pros of Imitation Crab Meat
Based on its nutritional profile, here are some of the positives about eating imitation crab meat:
- Low calorie – With around 80 calories per serving, imitation crab fits into a diet for weight management.
- High protein – The 11 grams of protein help you feel full and satisfied after eating it.
- Low fat – Having only 1 gram of fat per serving makes imitation crab meat leaner than many snacks.
- Affordable – It’s less expensive than real crab, making it budget-friendly.
- Versatile – Imitation crab can be used in many recipes and it shreds easily.
- Delicious flavor – It has a sweet, delicate crab-like flavor that crab lovers enjoy.
With its low calorie, high protein, low fat nutrition profile, imitation crab can be a smart choice if you’re watching your weight or fat intake. The affordable price and versatility are added advantages.
The Cons of Imitation Crab Meat
However, there are some downsides to consider before adding imitation crab meat to your shopping cart:
- High sodium – With 330mg sodium per serving, imitation crab is very high in sodium.
- Lacks nutrients – It’s not a significant source of important vitamins and minerals.
- Contains additives – Imitation crab contains fillers, flavorings and preservatives.
- Not whole food – It’s a processed food made of fish paste shaped to look like crab.
- Contains wheat/egg – The fillers mean it’s not good for gluten-free, wheat-free, or vegan diets.
- Not sustainable – Some imitation crab contains unsustainably harvested fish.
The biggest concern is the high amount of sodium, which can contribute to high blood pressure and other health issues when consumed in excess. The lack of nutrients and presence of additives are other factors to weigh.
Comparing Imitation Crab to Real Crab
To better evaluate the healthfulness of imitation crab meat, it helps to compare it to the nutrition profile of real cooked crab:
|Imitation Crab (3oz)
|Real Crab (3oz)
While imitation crab and real crab have similar amounts of calories and fat, real crab contains more protein and important minerals like calcium. Imitation crab is higher in carbs while real crab contains none. They’re both very high in sodium, though real crab has slightly more.
So while imitation crab shares some nutrition stats with the real thing, it does fall short on protein and nutrients. Real crab meat is the healthier choice, but it also costs at least triple the price of imitation crab.
Health Risks of Eating Too Much Imitation Crab
Like most foods, there can be downsides to eating imitation crab meat in excess. Some potential health risks of consuming too much include:
- High blood pressure – The very high sodium content can raise blood pressure when frequently consumed in large amounts.
- Weight gain – While low calorie, eating multiple servings can add up in calories, leading to weight gain.
- Mercury exposure – Some imitation crab contains fish higher up the food chain that may accumulate mercury.
- Allergic reactions – People with shellfish allergies may react to trace amounts of crab in imitation crab meat.
- Lack of nutrients – Relying too heavily on imitation crab could displace more nutrient-rich foods from the diet.
To keep health risks low, eat imitation crab in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet, not as a dietary staple. Limit sodium intake from other foods and make sure to get nutrients from a variety of whole foods. Those with shellfish allergies should use caution and avoid it if reactions occur.
How Often Can You Eat Imitation Crab?
When eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet, imitation crab meat can be reasonably healthy. Here are some tips on how often you can eat it as a snack or meal ingredient:
- Limit to 1-2 times per week as a snack or salad topping.
- Keep servings small, around 3 ounces.
- Avoid eating multiple days in a row due to the high sodium content.
- Imitate crabs sticks or shreds can also be used as a sandwich filling 1-2 times per week.
- In sushi rolls, limit to 6-8 pieces 1-2 times per week.
- Avoid consuming imitation crab every day, which could lead to excess sodium intake.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting sodium to 1,500mg per day to reduce high blood pressure risk. With 330mg sodium in a 3 ounce serving, imitation crab can quickly provide a large portion of that amount. Alternating with snacks and foods lower in sodium can help balance intake.
Healthier Ways to Eat Imitation Crab
Here are some tips for healthier ways to enjoy imitation crab meat as an occasional snack or recipe ingredient:
- Reduce sodium by rinsing canned or packaged imitation crab under cool water before eating to remove some added salt.
- Opt for low-sodium versions when buying imitation crab products.
- Balance the sodium by eating imitation crab with fresh veggies, whole grains, and other foods lower in salt.
- Watch portion sizes and stick to 1-2 servings a week.
- Eat imitation crab as an ingredient in recipes like salad, sushi rolls, or seafood dip rather than on its own.
- Pair imitation crab with healthy sides like avocado, carrot sticks, edamame, or cucumbers.
- Avoid frying or breading imitation crab, which adds extra calories, fat, and sodium.
Choosing low-sodium options, rinsing to reduce salt, and keeping portions modest can help maximize the benefits while minimizing any downsides of eating imitation crab.
Healthy Recipes with Imitation Crab
Here are some nutritious recipes that incorporate imitation crab meat in delicious ways:
Imitation Crab Salad
- 3oz imitation crab, shredded
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp parsley, chopped
- Lettuce leaves
- 1 tomato, sliced
- In a bowl, mix together imitation crab, celery, lemon juice, olive oil, and parsley.
- Serve salad over lettuce leaves and top with sliced tomatoes.
Imitation Crab Sushi Rolls
- 1 sheet nori
- 1/2 cup cooked sushi rice
- 1/4 avocado, sliced
- 2 oz imitation crab sticks
- 1 tsp sesame seeds
- Lay nori sheet on sushi mat, shiny side down. Spread rice over 3/4 of the sheet, leaving 1/4 uncovered.
- Lay imitation crab sticks and avocado over the rice, near the uncovered portion of nori.
- Roll up sushi mat to form a tight roll. Press gently to seal.
- Slice roll into 6 pieces and sprinkle with sesame seeds before serving.
Imitation Crab Dip
- 8oz imitation crab, shredded
- 1/4 cup Greek yogurt
- 2 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1/4 tsp dill
- Dash of cayenne pepper
- In a food processor, blend together all ingredients until a dip consistency forms.
- Refrigerate dip for 1 hour before serving to allow flavors to blend.
- Serve with vegetables, crackers, chips, or bread.
The Bottom Line
Imitation crab meat can be reasonably healthy in moderate amounts as part of an overall nutritious diet. It provides protein, is low in fat and calories, and offers the sweet flavor of crab without the price tag. However, imitation crab does contain high levels of sodium, additives, and lacks nutrients compared to real crab. Eating it frequently or in large quantities may pose health risks. To get the benefits without downsides, enjoy imitation crab in recipes 1-2 times per week in proper portion sizes. Rinse before using, balance with non-salty foods, and couple with healthy sides like vegetables or whole grains. Overall, imitation crab is a budget-friendly way to enjoy the taste of seafood, as long as you eat it in moderation as part of a varied diet.