Is Imitation Crab Meat a Healthy Choice?

Last Updated on July 14, 2021 by Michael Joseph

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.

Imitation Crab Meat Sticks On a Wooden Surface.

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.

Key Point: Imitation crab meat is a product designed to resemble and taste like crab, but at a more affordable price.

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
  • Water
  • Egg whites
  • Corn starch
  • Sugar
  • Sorbitol

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.

Key Point: Imitation crab meat is made from a mix of white fish and thickeners. The use of colorings and flavorings helps it to resemble real crab.

Nutrition Facts

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).

NameAmount% Daily Value (DV)
Calories95 kcal5% DV
Carbohydrate15.0 g5% DV
– Fiber0.5 g2% DV
– Sugars6.25 g
Fat0.46 g8% DV
– Saturated0.22 g1% DV
– Monounsaturated0.28 g
– Polyunsaturated0.14 g
Protein7.62 g15% DV
Table 1: the basic nutritional values of imitation crab meat per 100 gram (3.5 oz) portion

Compared to real crab, imitation crab meat contains similar calories, more carbohydrates (crab has none), slightly less fat, and a lot less protein.

Vitamins

  • 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.

Minerals

  • 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.

Key Point: Imitation crab meat is a good source of protein, vitamin B12, phosphorus, and selenium. However, it does not provide the same nutrient-density as real crab meat.

Benefits

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.

Key Point: Imitation crab meat contains a moderate amount of nutrients, and it is much more affordable than real crab.

Downsides

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.

Crab (and other shellfish like lobster and shrimp) tend to be extremely nutrient-dense, and they offer high amounts of vitamins and minerals for very few calories.

While imitation crab meat has a similar calorie count, it does not offer the same nutrient density.

On this note, the table below shows how the two compare for several nutrients per 100-gram (3.5 oz) serving (4, 6):

NutrientAmount in Imitation CrabAmount in Real Crab
Calories95 kcal97 kcal
Carbohydrate15.00 g
Fat0.46 g1.54 g
Protein7.62 g19.35 g
Vitamin B1224% DV479% DV
Copper3% DV131% DV
Selenium41% DV73% DV
Zinc3% DV69% DV
Table 2: the nutritional differences between imitation crab meat and real crab per 100 grams (3.5 oz).

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).

Shellfish allergy is one of the world’s eight most common allergies, and it can cause potentially severe allergic reactions (7, 8).

Key Point: Imitation crab meat is not as nutritious as real shellfish. Also, because it contains very small amounts of crab, it can still cause allergic reactions for individuals with shellfish allergies.

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.
  • Omelets
  • Casseroles, pasta-based and rice-based dishes.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is imitation crab meat pre-cooked?

Yes, imitation crab meat is cooked as part of the production process.

Can you eat imitation crab meat raw?

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.

Does imitation crab meat contain real crab?

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.

Is imitation crab meat a healthy choice?

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.

Is imitation crab suitable for vegetarians or vegans?

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!

Final Thoughts

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.

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