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!
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