Read this before you eat your next California roll.

By Melanie Fincher
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Whether or not you realize it, you've probably eaten imitation crab before. It's quite common in sushi (like in the California roll you picked up at the grocery store), frozen breaded fish, and pre-packaged seafood salads. It's everywhere, yet most of us know so little about it.

Imitation crab was first produced in Japan in the 1970s as a cheaper, processed alternative to pricey crab meat. Soon after, it made its way to the United States, where it has been fully embraced ever since. By the late 1980s, U.S. consumption of imitation crab had risen to an estimated 135 million pounds per year.

But what is imitation crab, anyways? And what is it made of? If not crab, then what? Here's everything you need to know about imitation crab, and how it holds up to the real thing.

What Is Imitation Crab Made From?

Contrary to popular belief, imitation crab is actually made with real fish meat — generally not crab meat though. It's usually made from surimi, or white fish flesh that has been deboned and minced into a paste, which is then mixed with other ingredients including both natural and artificial flavors, starch, sugar, and sodium.

Most often the preferred white fish for surimi is Alaskan Pollock, which is also commonly used in frozen fish sticks or fast-food breaded fish products.

After the paste is made, it's then piped into rectangular molds and painted with a thin coat of orange food dye to mimic crab's natural hue.

Imitation Crab vs. Real Crab

Imitation crab was created as a low-cost alternative to high-priced crab meat. Even processed crab meat can come with a steep price. So it's by design that the biggest difference between imitation crab is the price tag.

But another major difference between the two comes down to nutrition. Both real crab meat and imitation crab are similar in calorie count, but that's about where their nutritional similarities end.

Real crab meat has nearly three times the amount of protein as imitation crab, which gets most of its calories from carbs. Plus, real crab is much higher in vitamins and minerals than imitation crab. This is because some of the nutrients of the fish are washed away during the surimi processing.

The good news is, imitation crab cooks and tastes nearly identical to the real thing, helping to save you money without sacrificing flavor.

How to Tell if Your Crab Is Real or Not

So if imitation crab looks and tastes like the real thing, how can you tell if the crab you're eating is real or not? The best way to be sure is to look at the label.

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. Processed crab will usually only have two ingredients: crab and water (and maybe one or two other ingredients to prevent discoloration).

How to Use Imitation Crab

Imitation crab can be found in the refrigerated or frozen section of the grocery store. Enjoy it anyway you would real crab. Since it's pre-cooked, you can enjoy it in cold dishes like crab salad or crab dip. You can also use it in heated dishes such as crab cakes, gumbo, crab rangoons, and so much more.

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