What is Imitation Crab and Why it Doesn’t Compare

Have you ever bought a pre-made crab salad from the local grocery store or ordered a California roll or a plate of crab ragoon at a sushi restaurant and wondered, What is that stuff? You also may have noticed it in various other forms on menus and for sale near the seafood counter at a market. Chances are, you have probably eaten this food at a cookout, event, or in a dish unbeknownst to you. 

Those sticks of white and orangey-red, resembling string cheese, are called imitation crab–which do not even contain real crab meat. 

That’s right! What we all know as imitation crab is actually a rectangular mold made from a seafood paste called surimi. This paste traditionally comes from a mixture involving white fish (typically Alaskan Pollock), starch, sugar, sodium, and artificial and natural flavors. The surimi is made, put into molds, and orange dye is thinly painted onto them, which assists with the crab-like look (Southern Living). 

And voilà! That is how imitation crab is created. 

So What is Imitation Crab? 

Some of you may be interested in knowing why this food creation even exists when we have the real thing swimming around in the ocean waiting to be caught. 

It all boils (no pun intended) down to economics. 

In the 1970s in Japan, surimi was created as a cheaper alternative to real crab meat. Real crab meat is much more expensive, and it is not as easy to come by for many people around the world. At about the same time, China began using the ingredients to make “fish balls” that are in a traditional soup. The basics of the recipe of surimi have been used to make other ingredients; it is not solely used as imitation crab. 

Eventually, the concept made its way to America, where imitation crab is found in many recipes. Today, millions upon millions of pounds of surimi are consumed yearly by Americans. 

Cheaper isn’t always better

Of course, imitation crab is the perfect alternative for individuals who have less access (physically or monetarily) to fresh crab; yet when both are next to each other in a taste test, the fresh crab will always come out on top. 

An 8-oz. bag of imitation crab runs anywhere from $3 to $10, and you get what you pay for. 

Surimi is processed food and its contents can be a bit questionable. The white fish typically used in making imitation crab is the same one might find in frozen fish sticks. Some people who have certain food allergies or sensitivities may not be able to consume imitation crab meat due to its ingredients, while they might, however, be able to consume fresh crab meat. 

While some chefs may tout that their imitation crab tastes just like the real deal, there is definitely a difference in texture, color, and taste. 

The culinary experts at Chow Hound chime in on the crab:

“Any chef, gourmand, or other human person with at least one functioning taste bud will tell you the flavor [of imitation crab] is duller, saltier, and the texture far denser and more rubbery, whereas real crab is bright, fresh, and naturally sweet-tasting, and flaky to the touch.”

And cheaper sometimes means less nutritional density when it comes to food.

Live Dungeness Crab

Compare the nutrition facts between real and fake crab

Sometimes nutrition is the ultimate deciding factor when it comes to food. Many people follow various diets that promote health and nutrition by eating as fresh, organic, and sustainable as possible, and imitation crab meat would not make it on many grocery lists. There is quite a difference in nutrition when comparing fresh crab to imitation crab.

When comparing the nutrition facts, one small crab is being compared to 6 oz of imitation crab meat. Note that one cooked Dungeness crab yields about 5 to 8 oz of crab meat. 

Nutrition Fact       Dungeness Crab      Imitation Crab

Calories               140                           162

Total Fat              1.6g                          .8g

Saturated Fat      .2g                            .4g

Cholesterol          97mg                       34mg

Sodium               480mg                      900mg

Potassium           518mg                     154mg

Carbohydrates    1.2g                          26g

Protein                 28g                          13g

Note that fresh Dungeness crab contains various vitamins and minerals that imitation crab simply does not. Also, imitation crab contains 10.6g of sugar, whereas fresh crab contains no sugar. 

Choosing between the two should be easy: fresh crab for the win! 

Steer clear from imitation crab by knowing the differences

To reiterate what the article from Chow Hound stated, fresh crab just can’t compare to imitation crab within a recipe. The taste, look, and texture are different. 

When purchasing something with crab in the ingredients or browsing crab selections at the store, look at the food labels for clues that your crab might be fake. 

The experts at All Recipes have some tips for us when purchasing processed crab at the store:

  • Most imitation crab products will be labeled as "imitation." However, you may see it go by many names, both in grocery stores and in restaurants, including "crab sticks," "crab-flavored seafood," "surimi seafood," "krab," and in Japan, it is known as "kamaboko."
  • If the front of the label isn't forthcoming about the type of meat, look at the ingredient list on the nutrition label located on the back of the package. If you see a long list of ingredients, you've likely got imitation crab. 
  • The processed crab will usually only have two ingredients: crab and water (and maybe one or two other ingredients to prevent discoloration).

We hope those tips will help you the next time you are shopping. 

However, no crab is better than fresh crab straight from the ocean! 

The Dungeness crab from Fathom Seafood is the best of the best, and you can order a box of live Dungeness straight from their warehouse to your door in 24 hours! Browse Dungeness crab recipes today on Fathom’s website while ordering a box of crab, grocery shop tomorrow morning, and you’ll be cooking a mouth-watering crab dish by evening. 

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