Mystery Meat: Imitation Crab

While it is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, when it comes to imitation crab meat, that’s actually far from the case! But to understand why imitation crab is not the way to go, we must first understand exactly what it is…

To create imitation crab meat, manufacturers typically start with a base of Alaska Pollock (also known as Walleye Pollock, Whiting or Snow Cod). This fish is chosen primarily because it has a mild flavor that allows it to easily take on the flavor and texture of traditional crab meat, but also because it is readily available and is cheap to buy and process. To create the crab meat, manufacturers skin and de-bone the fish, mince it and then leach it of water to create a thick paste known as surimi. But we all know a fish paste isn’t going to cut it, so manufacturers add some combination of starch – usually wheat or tapioca – to stiffen up the mixture, sugars to preserve the surimi for storage and freezing, and egg whites to again stabilize the mixture and add gloss and shine. Vegetable oil can also be added to improve the texture of the mix.

To create the appropriate flavoring and coloring, manufacturers can either opt for natural flavorings – which are extracted from real crabs – or artificial flavorings. Popular artificial flavorings include carmine, caramel, paprika, and annatto extract – which, incidentally, can also help achieve the pink, orange and red hues found in real crab meat. In some cases, manufacturers will also add monosodium glutamate (MSG) to help enhance the flavor.

Finally, the mixture is steam cooked to create a flaky texture, vacuum packed to preserve the flavor and texture and shipped on out to the grocery stores.

What does a nutrition label have to say about imitation crab meat? Well, a 2 cup serving of real crab meat, for example, averages about 50 calories, 1 gram of fat, 7 grams of protein and less than 1 gram of carbohydrates. For imitation crab meat, calorie counts and fat grams are about the same, but because the fake stuff is mixed with sugars and starches, the carbohydrate content can go up significantly, with some varieties logging as much as 20 grams of carbohydrate – and an astronomical amount of sugar – per serving.

But is it bad for you? Well, not if you don’t care that some forms glow in the dark! According to this Food and Drug Administration (FDA) release examining the phenomenon, the glow is due to luminescent bacteria that occur naturally in seawater, fish, shellfish, and marine animals. But can it make you sick? Well, provided the manufacturer takes the steps necessary to ensure proper hygiene and appropriate food handling – and that the imitation crab has been thoroughly cooked during manufacturing – you should be ok. But to be fair, this could happen with the real deal too!

A second study in the Journal of Food Science, meanwhile, found that imitation crab meat can promote the growth of various bacterial pathogens if incorrectly stored either while leaving the plant or once in the home (although it should be noted that this is the case with many foods.).

The bottom line? Imitation crab, like almost any processed food item, is best avoided. Due to the various stabilizers, preservatives, sugar and added sodium, it’s best to save your pennies and opt for the real deal!

Sarey* Flickr Photo (CC)

Further Reading:

Shellfish: Healthy or Not?

A Cranky Crab Confesses: Yes, I Use Splenda!

Crabby Mushroom Recipe

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47 thoughts on “Mystery Meat: Imitation Crab”

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  1. I used to like the seafood and crab sandwich from subway until I found out what was actually in imitation crab meat. Preservatives, like the preservatives found in ketchup are extremely bad for you. So, regrettably I can no longer get the sub sandwich anymore. I really liked it too.

    1. hey i just managed to imitate the seafood part of their sub. i cut up imitation crab meat with a smidgen of imitation of lobster stirred up with real mayonaise (failed with the salad dressing version). but the key was adding what I would on my sub (oil, vinegar, salt and pepper). for the oil it is 90% olive oil and 10% canola and the vinegar is red wine vinegar. I just looked up on how to copy the bread as well… i get to try that tomorrow lol

  2. Sure, it’s no organic grass fed beef. But imitation crab meat packs a wallop of protein for the relatively few calories it contains. And most fake crab meats range in the 7-12 grams of carbs rather than 20, which isn’t all that bad when comparing it to, oh, say, the typical protein shake, which range from 20-40 (Slimfast is somewhere in the high 30’s I believe). There are those who swear off processed foods and diet sodas, and all the more power to them, that’s the true healthy way to go. But I’d argue, blow-for-blow, imitation crabmeat is healthier than the average yogurt cup.

    1. I’m taking a very ‘typical’ protein shake right now (100% optimum whey) and it’s only got 4grams of carbs per serving. I think you’re mistaking the TOTAL gram per serving of “”20-40″” for the carbs. very misleading.

      people take whey protein shakes to get faster EAA absorption for the working muscle (upregulate protein synthesis) I don’t see why it’s even irrelevant to compare carbs content of imitation crab with whey protein shakes.

      kinda hard for me to visualize people workingout hard at the gym while munching on imitation crabs. lol. (another irrevelant observation for the readers)

      slimfast is typically geared towards the elderly population that needs the extra calories and taste. I think most of the readers here can already agree that slimfast is not a good approach to good health, weightloss, or low carb diet.

      I’m a sushi chef of 8 years, been serving up real crab and imitation crabs via at least 4000+ california rolls and counting. the imitation ‘crap’ just don’t cut it

  3. I’ve never eaten imitation crab meat, and I’ve never trusted imitation meats, even when I was a vegetarian. To use artificial flavors, tricks, and substitutes to make something taste like a natural food is counter to what I believe about real, wholesome food. I think it also tricks people into thinking they’re getting the nutrition benefits of the real thing. I know a vegetarian who eats a ton of an imitation meat made of corn. Scary.

    Food Is Love

  4. Anyone who’s ever lived in Maryland knows that the real problem with imitation crab meat is that it tastes nothing whatsoever like crab! Fake crab is to real crab as veggie burgers are to ground sirloin. The real stuff is expensive, but I’d much rather have it two or three times a year than have the icky stuff once a week. And that was true even before I discovered LC.

  5. I used to eat the imitation crab and lobster until I got really sick once, years ago. Then I read the package and I’ve never touched it since.

  6. “Surimi” as it is affectionally known in Japan.
    I’ve searched EVERYWHERE for a healthy option. I enjoy the taste of it, and like Crabman said, packs a good amount of protein, but unfortunately have not found any alternatives from the real processed stuff. The regular brands available here in the US have some very questionable ingredients.

    1. Just as you wouldn’t expect to purchase a prime rib at hamburger prices, you won’t find premium surimi sold cheaply in one of the large grocers. However, web sites and specialty food stores may be your better alternative. This year will be a whole new ball game with over 30% increases in beef prices and strong poultry markets. Americans will be forced to look new places for safe protein and food companies will respond.

  7. I have just finished a fresh crab sandwich on fresh white crusty bread with real butter, whole egg mayonnaise and a pinch of salt & pepper – I rest my case…

  8. I have been sick all day from eating a salad with IC in it. Then I checked this site out and now I see why I am sick. If it’s not Maryland crabs, then none for me

  9. After living in the mid-west for so long away from “the real deal” crab meat, it was hard find and imitation crab meat was much cheaper for us poor folk. With this said, imitation crab meat is a blessing in disguise for a lot of people in such areas. Finding good imitation crab recipes can be the hot pursuit of the day.
    Basically, good quality imitation crab meat is much like King crab in its texture and draws close to its sweet flavor.
    Good article!

  10. I love all the people that pretend that they eat healthy. Unless you grow your own tomatoes and potatoes in Argentina or something where there is zero polution you all are in the same boat as us “normal” people. Just eat proper portions, excersice and live “healthy” and you are good to go. There has been too much fake healthy hype recently, from organic to “natural” to low fat to low calorie. Its all BS. At this rate you might want to start plugging your nose with air filters and wear sunblock everywhere you go so you dont breath in plouted air and get cancer from radioactive sun. Stick that imitation crab meat in your mouths and chew it. Bye.

    1. Gee, thanks so much for all your insight. Mark only has a website and several books and makes a living from selling this lifestyle, and your one comment showed me the light. I have wasted two years of my life following his program, and Mark? How many years of his??? If only you had posted sooner, or maybe you have your own website and business that promotes YOUR lifestyle that keeps YOU healthy and in such great shape? OH… WAIT…. You DON’T. You’re just a TROLL. (Why are you here????)

  11. my dad eats the glow-in-the dark, processed, crab flavored ground and processed pollock on a daily basis for about 2 years now and tonight he is sicker than sick can be and can’t figure out why….i tried to tell him this stuff is bad for him…and I’m convinced it’s why he is so very ill tonight….vomiting and diarrhea… and plenty of pain…not nice at all!!!! Stay clear of this crap crab stuff folks!!! I think I might be in for an ER visit with my dad tonight.

  12. If your dad has eaten it for two years without problem, then he’s probably sick from something else.

  13. Did anyone check out where the food coloring “carmine” comes from? In the article above:

    Popular artificial flavorings include carmine, caramel, paprika, and annatto extract – which, incidentally, can also help achieve the pink, orange and red hues found in real crab meat.

    Wikepeadia says …

    Carmine is the red pigment of cormonic acid that’s made from …the scales of boiled dried insects called cochineal.

    It’s also used to make rouge and other cosmetics. It’s in red colored foods and drinks, including cheap curries. And it can cause severe allergic reactions.

  14. Imitation crab or surimi is minced fish. Yes, fillers are added to give it texture; usually eggs. It’s called read your food labels: just like any other food, imitation crab can have excessive fillers and preservatives.

    To the commenter above, I hope you swear off all other foods that contain carmine (red dye) otherwise you’re only spreading your ignorance. Also from Wikipedia: Carmine is used as a food dye in many different products such as juices, ice cream, yogurt, and candy, and as a dye in cosmetic products such as eyeshadow and lipstick. Although principally a red dye, it is found in many foods that are shades of red, pink, and purple.

    The irony in your comment anyway is that crab is basically a sea insect.

  15. Good info.

    If I want Pollock, I’ll just eat pollock without the processing!

    Ralph, Ottawa Canada, (613) 276-3812

  16. Anything that has the words “artificial” in the product name should be steered clear of. Eat the real deal and stop being lazy and cheap, folks. All processed foods are unhealthy – period.

    1. “stop being lazy and cheap” you must be one of those clueless rich people who thinks your way is the only way.

      I work 40+ hours per week, and I can only afford $20-$30/week on food. Most people are in this or a similar boat. I can either buy the factory farmed, processed/mass produced foods and meet my nutritional requirements, or I can take your sage advice and also turn off my electricity and heat.

      Most people who eat the canned crap available wish it was so easy to just up and “stop being so cheap,” but the reality is not everyone is as fortunate as you.

      As an aside, I have no problem with rich people. If you’ve worked for it, you should be able to spend your money however you want instead of being taxed in excess–as if being punished for being successful. I just have a problem when the rich get these groundless notions about others being lazy/cheap/stupid. While there are some out there who are, most people who work are none of those things. We buy the imitation products b/c that’s all that we can afford without starving ourselves or going without other necessities.

  17. I eat Seafood Subways all the time and aside from a higher calorie content because of the added mayo, I am not concerned.

    As someone else said above, unless you grow your own food you are eating wheat-starch, corn syrup, MSG and other artificial ingredients in basically anything you can buy in a Supermarket. I DO grow some of my own food and buy locally produced eggs from someone with her own hens just outside town so I know where they come from.

    I enjoy Subway, but I will NOT buy Tuna (for obvious sustainability reasons), beef (hormones), chicken (inhumane rearing conditions of battery hens AND hormones), Pork is basically my only other option and the salt content is even higher than the seafood. Oh, and Pollock is more sustainable than most real crab because crab is often dredged off the bottom with a ton of by-catch whereas the abundant Alaskan Pollock is netted with much less impact. Pot caught crab is the only sustainable crab, but is really hard to get nowadays and you won’t find it in a North American Supermarket.

    On balance I’m pretty happy with the sum total of the food I buy so I just enjoy my sub and don’t worry about the ingredients.

  18. I buy my imitation crab at Fresh & Easy. It contains NO ARTIFICIAL flavors or preservatives! It’s basically pollock with some egg whites and starch. Nutritionally, the bang for your buck is out of this world. Schwing!

  19. Imitation crab can be like Jinah crab claws comped to Stone crab claws.Mine too is simply pollack,eggwhites and starch.I have had some pretty expensive ,premium branded crab meat fro a can and it was awful!

  20. I’ve eaten real crab at some of the best restaurants prepared in different ways and I prefer imitation crab; it just tastes better. Real crab tastes gross; imitation crab dipped in thousand island is amazing. I’ve had real crab steamed, with butter, Asian style etc. I still prefer imitation crab.

  21. Hi! I have been Primal for about 2 years and for biblical reasons have chosen to not eat pork or shellfish. Now, I love the taste of pork, which I satisfy with turkey bacon on the rare occasion. However, I have found that when I need crab meat if I sub with canned salmon (or even tuna on a budget) then i season it right and no one can tell the difference. In fact, I find that you can make anything taste how you want if you only take a few minutes and season things properly – but then, I am a woman who loves to cook and my creativity and love of my family is expressed in the creative, healthy “groc” meals that I so enjoy creating. Good canned salmon (even tuna if you prefer) can sub for all sorts of seafood dishes for religious and budget purposes. Try it, especially in a chowder or soup. yum..

    1. It boggles my mind why people only take a certain part of the bible and run with it without reading the entire thing and looking at the whole picture… unbelievable but if you think that is the way to your salvation, more power to you…

      Leviticus chapter 11 lists the dietary restrictions God gave to the nation of Israel. The dietary laws included prohibitions against eating pork, shrimp, shellfish and many types of seafood, most insects, scavenger birds, and various other animals. The dietary rules were never intended to apply to anyone other than the Israelites. The purpose of the food laws was to make the Israelites distinct from all other nations. After this purpose had ended, Jesus declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). God gave the apostle Peter a vision in which He declared that formerly unclean animals could be eaten: “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:15). When Jesus died on the cross, He fulfilled the Old Testament law (Romans 10:4; Galatians 3:24-26; Ephesians 2:15). This includes the laws regarding clean and unclean foods.

      God Bless!!

      1. I agree, but what boggles my mind is that this chapter clearly says that he is not to call a man unclean. It has absolutely nothing to do with the foods in the vision and Peter makes this clear when he defines what the vision means. Gotta follow the same process that you insist others do.

    1. it doesn’t freeze well..the texture is off when you unthaw. I had to toss it out.

  22. I absolutely agree with Crabman. In addition to his points, some facts to remember:
    1) Crab producers got legislation passed FORCING surimi / kamaboko products to be called “Imitation” or “Artificial” to achieve the very fear exmplified by many.
    2) There are a multitude of animal-based products that have names far friendlier and are far FAR worse for you. Hot dogs would be called “Imitation Meat”. Sausage would be “Artificial Pork/Beef”. Chicken nuggets titled “Fake Bird”. So don’t let the title bend you out of shape.

    3) Ever heard of a ‘recipe’? Well, that’s pretty much what ‘analog seafood products’ are and there are good recipes and bad recipes. IN GENERAL they are a pretty solid source of protein, low or no fat, and many of the very ingredients making them up are standards food products.

    No… it may not be premium seafood, but if you would allow producers to call them something a little less intimidating and a little more consumer friendly like “SeaStix” or Ocean Nuggets” or “SeaDogs” they won’t be compared to something they are not (crab) and can stand on their own.

    IMO, I like it a heckuva lot better than virtually any red meat product. Period. I just wish the naming scam implemented by crab producers decades ago could be modernized so we can get past this false labling.

  23. Annato extract used in artificial favouring combats “Bad” Cholesterol
    “Richard E. Tapert, D.O., author of “Stop Worrying About Cholesterol!” touts the tocotrienols in annatto seeds and leaves for their ability to lower the liver’s production of low-density lipoprotein — the so-called bad cholesterol — without also inhibiting the organ’s output of Coenzyme Q10. This, says Tapert, is far superior to the performance of statins, which also lower cholesterol but at the same time drastically reduce production of CoQ10, a powerful antioxidant. As an added benefit, the tocotrienols in annatto have potent anti-inflammatory properties, which help to reduce platelet clumping, vasoconstriction and the stickiness that promotes the buildup of plaque on the walls of arteries.”
    So maybe imitation crab meat is not so bad afterall 🙂

  24. This was the worst article I have ever read… well not literally but it was really bad. The internet is full of this baseless nonsense. Not one fact tells you that there is any reason to stay away from imitation crab. It is someone that has a gut feeling about a product , finds a couple of almost facts(like if it isn’t fully cooked) and write a story about it. You get the same baseless articles about cleansing and organic food. Come on hippies stop thinking with your gut and actually do some research. Stop trying to prove your gut feeling right and pay attention to the data that is presented to you.

  25. Here we are, five years after the Fukushima nuclear disaster and except for locally (river/lake/pond) caught fish, no more for me! Christmas Eve dinner was always Crab Louie made with Alaskan King Crab, but no more. We love shell fish, cod, monk fish, sea bass — you name it.

    Problem: We don’t want to glow in the dark!