Imitation crab meat is a popular seafood product that originated in Japan.
Also known as ‘crab sticks’ or sometimes ‘seafood sticks,’ imitation crab meat features in a wide range of recipes around the world.
However, what exactly is it? And is it a healthy choice?
Here’s a full guide to imitation crab meat, its production process, ingredients, and nutritional values.
Table of contents
What Is Imitation Crab Meat?
As previously mentioned, imitation crab meat initially came from Japan in the mid-seventies (1).
It was produced as a more affordable alternative to expensive real crab meat.
The main ingredient is called surimi, a kind of fish paste product made from processed white fish. Interestingly, surimi was first invented in Japan as far back as the 12th century (2).
As part of the production process, coloring and flavoring additives make the product somewhat resemble the real thing in appearance and taste. It has a somewhat chewy texture and a salty, slightly crab-like flavor.
How Is It Made?
First of all, let’s take a look at the ingredients in imitation crab meat.
While the exact ingredients may change from product to product, here is a typical ingredients profile based on a Wal-Mart branded imitation crab meat (3):
- Alaska pollock
- Egg whites
- Corn starch
As shown, the primary ingredient is fish. The other ingredients, such as starch, combine to give the product its trademark chewy texture. There are also “contains 2% or less of” ingredients, including flavor extracts, salt, fish oil, coloring, thickeners, and preservatives.
In other words, it is a heavily processed product and poles apart from real crab meat, which is a whole food.
These ingredients are mixed to make imitation crab meat, and the mixture is then shaped into ‘crab stick’ shapes and cooked. Finally, the outer parts are colored with orange-red food dye to mimic the color of real crab legs.
It is also possible to buy ‘flake style’ imitation crab meat, which can be pulled apart and is not formed into stick shapes.
The fact that a food product is heavily processed does not necessarily comment on its nutritional value. Therefore, let’s examine the nutritional values of imitation crab meat and compare it to real crab.
All nutritional values are per 100 grams (3.5 oz), and the data is from the USDA’s FoodData Central database (4).
% Daily values have been calculated from the USDA data and the FDA’s published daily values (5).
|Name||Amount||% Daily Value (DV)|
|Calories||95 kcal||5% DV|
|Carbohydrate||15.0 g||5% DV|
|– Fiber||0.5 g||2% DV|
|– Sugars||6.25 g|
|Fat||0.46 g||8% DV|
|– Saturated||0.22 g||1% DV|
|– Monounsaturated||0.28 g|
|– Polyunsaturated||0.14 g|
|Protein||7.62 g||15% DV|
Compared to real crab, imitation crab meat contains similar calories, more carbohydrates (crab has none), slightly less fat, and a lot less protein.
- Thiamin (B1): 0.03 mg (3% DV)
- Riboflavin (B2): 0.08 mg (6% DV)
- Niacin (B3): 0.62 mg (4% DV)
- Pantothenic acid (B5): 0 mg (0% DV)
- Vitamin B6: 0.13 mg (8% DV)
- Folate: 0 mcg (0% DV)
- Choline: 13 mg (2% DV)
- Vitamin B12: 0.57 mcg (24% DV)
- Vitamin A RAE: 0 mcg (0% DV)
- Vitamin C: 0 mg (0% DV)
- Vitamin D: 0 mg (0% DV)
- Vitamin E: 0 mg (0% DV)
- Vitamin K: 0.4 mcg (<1% DV)
As shown in the values, imitation crab meat is a good source of vitamin B12. However, the other vitamins it provides are in relatively modest amounts.
Compared to real crab meat, this is much lower amounts of B12 and slightly lower levels of the other vitamins.
- Calcium: 13 mg (1% DV)
- Iron: 0.39 mg (2% DV)
- Magnesium: 43 mg (10% DV)
- Phosphorus: 282 mg (23% DV)
- Potassium: 90 mg (2% DV)
- Sodium: 529 mg (23% DV)
- Zinc: 0.33 mg (3% DV)
- Copper: 0.03 mg (3% DV)
- Manganese: 0.01 mg (<1% DV)
- Selenium: 22.3 mcg (41% DV)
Imitation crab meat contains a good amount of selenium and phosphorus, and it is also high in sodium.
On the downside, it is not as mineral-rich as real crab meat, which contains notably high amounts of copper, selenium, and zinc.
Aside from its provision of essential nutrients, the main benefit of imitation crab meat is the price of the product. Imitation crab meat will cost a lot less than the real thing.
At the time of writing, a 24 oz (680g) pack of imitation crab meat sells for $4.48 at Walmart in the United States. In the United Kingdom, a 250-gram (9 oz) pack of ‘seafood sticks’ sells for £1 ($1.38).
As can be seen, this is just a fraction of the price of real crab meat. So while imitation crab meat understandably won’t taste exactly like the real thing, it offers a more budget-friendly option.
Here is a summary of the potential downsides of imitation crab meat.
Less Nutritious Than Real Crab
The clearest downside of imitation crab meat is that it is far less nutritious than real crab meat.
While imitation crab meat has a similar calorie count, it does not offer the same nutrient density.
|Nutrient||Amount in Imitation Crab||Amount in Real Crab|
|Calories||95 kcal||97 kcal|
|Fat||0.46 g||1.54 g|
|Protein||7.62 g||19.35 g|
|Vitamin B12||24% DV||479% DV|
|Copper||3% DV||131% DV|
|Selenium||41% DV||73% DV|
|Zinc||3% DV||69% DV|
As shown, if nutrient provision is the goal, then imitation crab meat is a poor substitute for regular crab. It is also worth pointing out that, unlike regular crab, it does not offer a notable amount of omega-3.
Still Unsuitable For People With Crustacean/Shellfish Allergy
Even though it is an imitation product mainly made from pollock/white fish, this doesn’t make imitation crab meat suitable for people with shellfish allergies.
Unfortunately, these products still usually contain a tiny amount of crab.
In cases where the product contains no crab meat, it still uses extracts from crab as an additive for flavoring purposes. Thus, any imitation crab product will contain crustacean shellfish (7).
How To Use Imitation Crab Meat
There are no real limits to how imitation crab meat can be used, but here are some popular ways to use it:
- In Japan where the product originated, it is commonly used in varieties of sushi such as maki and nigiri.
- A Japanese “crab meat” salad known as kani, which features imitation crab meat, cucumber, sweetcorn, ponzu, white sesame seeds, mayonnaise, and soy sauce. Here is an example of this recipe.
- Imitation crab sticks can be eaten alone as a snack or alongside a dip.
- Add it to seafood-based soups and stews.
- Casseroles, pasta-based and rice-based dishes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Yes, imitation crab meat is cooked as part of the production process.
Since it has already been cooked, imitation crab is ready to eat straight from the packet. Depending on personal taste or the specific recipe, it can either be eaten raw or heated.
As previously mentioned, imitation crab meat usually does contain real crab or at least some extracts from it for flavoring. However, the amount of crab in the product is minimal and tends to be around 1-2% or even less.
The product contains a moderate amount of protein, vitamins, and minerals. However, it also contains various additives to taste and feel more like crab, and it isn’t as nutritious as the real thing. This doesn’t necessarily make it “bad” as part of an overall healthy diet, but real crab offers a lot more nutritionally.
Since the primary ingredient is white fish, imitation crab is not vegetarian-friendly. However, some products are appearing on the market that are suitable. Look for labels such as ‘vegan crab sticks’ or ‘plant-based crab meat’ – and check the ingredients carefully!
Imitation crab meat is a versatile ingredient that can be used in many different ways. It also offers a moderate provision of nutrients, most notably protein, vitamin B12, and selenium.
It is a good option for those that want a crab-like experience on a budget, but it is nutritionally inferior to the real thing.