Imitation crab, often called crab sticks, crab legs or seafood extender, is a man-made seafood product commonly made from Alaska pollock. It is designed to imitate real crab meat for use in dishes like seafood salads, sushi rolls, crab cakes and more. Imitation crab is an affordable and accessible alternative to pricey real crab, providing a similar taste and texture at a fraction of the cost. But what exactly is in these fake crab sticks and logs that manages to mimic luxurious, sought-after crab meat? Here’s a look at the ingredients and production process behind imitation crab.
The primary ingredient in imitation crab is surimi, a fish paste made from pulverized white fish. This white fish is usually Alaska pollock, a commonly caught bottom dweller that offers a mild flavor and flaky texture when processed into surimi. Additional ingredients like fillers, flavorings and colorings are also added to transform this fish paste into a convincing crab meat substitute.
Here are the typical main ingredients found in imitation crab sticks and logs:
- Surimi – A paste made from pureed white fish (typically Alaska pollock)
- Starch – Fillers like wheat, potato or tapioca starch
- Sugar – For sweetness
- salt – For saltiness
- Colorings – To create a reddish-orange hue
- Crab flavoring – Crab extract flavors like powders, juices or oils
The specific ingredients vary between brands, but surimi and starch make up the bulk of the material. Extra ingredients like egg whites, seaweed, shellfish and real crab may be added in smaller amounts to enhance the texture and flavor.
Imitation crab undergoes an elaborate production process to transform fish paste into mock crabmeat. Here are the basic steps:
- Catch and clean Alaska pollock fish
- Remove skins, bones, scales and dark meat
- Cook and puree remaining white fish into a paste (surimi)
- Add starch, sugar, salt, crab flavors and colorings to surimi
- Blend well and shape into desired logs, shreds or chunks
- Steam, boil or bake to set the imitation crab into the proper texture
- Package final product
This manufacturing process allows manufacturers to take lower-value fish like pollock and transform it into a marketable product that provides the taste and texture of a luxury seafood item. Adding surimi as a base provides the flaky, meaty texture of crab. Extra ingredients like shellfish extract or real crab offer a more pronounced crab flavor. And colorings give the final product the expected reddish-orange tint.
Imitation crab is high in protein and low in fat due to its primary fish and starch ingredients. It provides a significant amount of vitamins and minerals, offering a fairly nutritious substitute for real crab. Here is the basic nutrition profile per 3 ounce serving of imitation crab:
- Calories: 82
- Protein: 10g
- Fat: Less than 1g
- Carbohydrates: 7g
- Vitamin A: 2% Daily Value
- Vitamin C: 0% DV
- Calcium: 4% DV
- Iron: 4% DV
- Sodium: 330mg
One thing to watch out for is the high sodium content, as imitation crab tends to be quite salty. But overall, it provides a good amount of protein, vitamins and minerals for a relatively low calorie seafood option.
Comparison to Real Crab
So how does imitation crab stack up against the real thing? Here are some key differences:
Imitation crab tastes sweeter and saltier compared to real crab. It lacks some of the true crab flavor, although crab extracts help mimic it. Overall it has a less pronounced and more one-dimensional taste.
The flaky, meaty texture can be very similar. But imitation crab tends to be softer with less defined segments of meat. Real crab has a more varied, nuanced texture.
While coloring agents are used, imitation crab still looks quite different from real crab. It lacks the same jagged shapes and defined red and white coloring.
Imitation crab is significantly cheaper, priced at $2-4 per pound compared to $10-20 per pound for real crab.
Alaska pollock is rated a sustainable fishery, while many real crab populations are overfished. Imitation crab is considered one of the more eco-friendly seafood choices.
So in summary, imitation crab offers a budget-friendly alternative to real crab, though it lacks some of the same flavor complexity, texture and appearance. But it provides a similar nutrition profile for a fraction of the cost.
Common Imitation Crab Brands
There are many brands of imitation crab on the market that can be found at grocery stores, warehouse clubs and asian markets. Here are some of the major national brands:
- Dynasty Imitation Crab
- Ocean Garden Imitation Crab
- Great Value Imitation Crab (Walmart brand)
- Fresh Fine Imitation Crab
- Publix Imitation Crab (Publix brand)
- Sea Pak Imitation Crab
- Trader Joe’s Imitation Crab
- Kroger Imitation Crab (Kroger brand)
Local or regional brands are also common finds. Grocery store house brands offer very inexpensive options. Higher end specialty brands marketed as “gourmet” imitation crab are also available at premium prices.
Uses for Imitation Crab
Because it’s versatile, affordable and widely available, imitation crab is popularly used in place of real crab in a variety of dishes:
- Sushi rolls
- Seafood salads
- Crab dip
- Crab cakes
- Crab rangoons
- Surimi salads
- California sushi rolls
- Seafood fried rice
- Crab quesadillas
- Crab stuffed mushrooms
It’s commonly found as a filler in dishes at all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants or Asian buffets. Imitation crab also has many uses in everyday home cooking as an inexpensive way to add seafood flavor and textures to meals and snacks.
Storage and Food Safety
Proper storage and handling are important when dealing with any seafood product. Here are some tips for safely storing and preparing imitation crab:
- Store unopened packages in the refrigerator at 40°F or below.
- Keep refrigerated after opening and use within 1-2 days.
- Check ingredient labels and avoid if allergic to any contents like shellfish.
- Rinse before use and avoid eating straight from package.
- Cook to an internal temperature of 165°F.
- Discard any with an unpleasant odor.
The contaminated water used to make surimi can cause imitation crab to spoil quickly and harbor foodborne pathogens like Listeria. Proper handling and cooking mitigate this risk. Pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems may want to avoid it.
How to Make Homemade
While not quite the same as what you’ll find in stores, it’s possible to make a version of imitation crab at home. Here is a simple recipe to try:
- 1 lb ground white fish (tilapia, cod, pollock, etc.)
- 3 tbsp potato or tapioca starch
- 1 tbsp sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp crab boil seasoning or Old Bay Seasoning
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1/2 tsp baking soda
- 1 tsp fish sauce
- 1/8 tsp red food coloring
- In a bowl, mix together the ground fish, starch, sugar, salt and spices until well combined.
- Add fish sauce and food coloring and mix again until evenly distributed.
- Shape the mixture into crab leg shapes. You can bake at 375°F for 15 minutes to help set the shape.
- Steam or boil the legs for 3-5 minutes until cooked through and firm.
- Cool slightly before serving or chilling completely before storage.
This simple homemade recipe allows you to control the ingredients. Play around with additions like shrimp, scallops or real crab for a more luxe version.
Is it Healthy?
The biggest health concern with imitation crab is the high sodium content, with a 3oz serving containing over half of the daily recommended limit. But for most people, occasional moderate consumption should not pose problems.
Here are some other key health considerations:
- High protein provides 9-11g per serving.
- Low calorie at around 80 calories per serving.
- Low fat and low sugar make it relatively diet-friendly.
- May trigger food allergies, especially shellfish.
- Pregnant women and young children should avoid due to food safety risks.
- Lacks nutrients found in real seafood like healthy omega-3 fats.
Overall, imitation crab can be part of a healthy diet in moderation. Limit portions to control sodium intake. Look for low-sodium product options or reduce salt in recipes. Enjoy as an occasional seafood-flavored treat.
Surimi-based imitation crab tends to have less environmental impact than real crab and many other seafood options. Here’s why it’s considered one of the more sustainable choices:
- Made from Alaska Pollock which is an abundant and well-managed fishery.
- Bycatch and habitat damage are regulated and minimized.
- Alaska Pollock is low on the food chain so it doesn’t accumulate high mercury.
- No waste from discarded shells or carcasses.
- Shelf-stable packaging reduces food waste.
That said, some small forage fish species like anchovies are overfished as part of the surimi manufacturing process. But overall imitation crab ranks well for sustainability, especially compared to threatened crab species.
Is it Kosher?
Most imitation crab is not certified Kosher because the presence of shellfish products like crab flavoring makes it non-Kosher. Even varieties containing finfish like pollock are still considered non-Kosher because of the use of additives derived from non-Kosher ingredients.
However, some Kosher versions of imitation crab do exist. Look for packages with Kosher certification markings to ensure it meets Kosher dietary standards.
Is it Halal?
IMITATION CRAB IS CONSIDERED HALAL FOR MUSLIM CONSUMPTION PROVIDED THE FOLLOWING CRITERIA ARE MET:
- It is made from halal fish species like Alaska pollock.
- No alcohol is used as an ingredient.
- Gelatin used is sourced from halal slaughtered animals.
- No pork products come into contact with it during processing.
Halal imitation crab products will contain a halal certification logo. Without this certification, it’s best for Muslims to avoid imitation crab, as crab flavoring is typically made from non-halal ingredients.
Imitation crab sticks contain a mix of fish (typically pollock), fillers, flavorings and colorings to mimic the taste, texture and appearance of real crab meat. The manufacturing process transforms low-cost fish into a product that provides the experience of eating decadent crab at a fraction of the price. While not a perfect substitute, imitation crab offers an affordable and accessible way for everyday cooks to add crab-like qualities to seafood dishes and recipes. In moderation, it can be part of a healthy diet, while also light on the wallet and environment.