This Is What Imitation Crab Meat Actually Is

You might not even have realized that it's not real crab meat inside your California roll.

Cooked crab phalanx with aioli sauce and lemon slices on metallic background. Top view with copy space.Asya Nurullina/Shutterstock

Imitation crab: It’s pretty up front about the fact that it’s not the real thing. What seems unclear, though, is what exactly imitation crab meat is made of. What is imitation crab, really?

While it may seem like fake, processed food, indicative of modern cuisine, the roots of imitation crab go back hundreds of years to a substance called surimi. Surimi is a paste made from minced and washed fish with additives to extend its shelf life. The main ingredient is usually Alaskan pollock or another type of white fish. Japanese chefs originally created surimi to make use of extra or leftover fish fillets. It has been considered a delicacy for over 900 years, according to Thrillist, and is still used in many popular Asian dishes, such as fish cakes. Chefs eventually stabilized the recipe and introduced it to other countries in the 1970s and ’80s, when it gained popularity in the United States as the foundational ingredient for imitation crab. Don’t miss these other facts you didn’t know about the origin of your favorite foods.

But it’s not just surimi, so what is imitation crab made of that’s not natural fish? To get it to that unique crab flavor and consistency, food manufacturers now use additives that often include egg whites, starches, salt, sugar, sweeteners, and natural or artificial flavors, HuffPost reports. The substance is then molded and cut into chunks or strips that mimic real crab. It may even include MSG, says Amy Leigh Mercree, holistic health expert and bestselling author of ten books including The Mood Book. “MSG, or Monosodium glutamate, is sometimes labeled as ‘natural flavors,'” she warns. “Some people have an intolerance to MSG that induces headaches, nausea, or dizziness.” She warns that people who experience this may want to avoid imitation crab.

So what is imitation crab’s popularity in response to? Well, the biggest draw of imitation crab is the difference in price; it’s usually about one-third of the price of real crabmeat. At-home cooks and restaurant-goers alike enjoy it in dishes like sushi or seafood salads, but nutritionally, you do get what you pay for. Although imitation crab is low in both fat and calories, Mercree says that real crab has much more protein, fewer carbs, and less sodium and sugar than the imitation. “It also lacks many of the nutritional benefits found in real crab, including trace minerals, zinc, selenium, and B vitamins,” she told “Nutritionally speaking, crab is a better option.” Diners should also keep in mind that “crabstick” or “krab,” as imitation crab is sometimes called, is a much more highly processed food and is not vegan or gluten-free unless specifically marked as such. Here are more facts about seafood that will change the way you eat fish.

Though surimi has been a popular choice in Asia for years, it has become popular in places like France and Spain as well. The French enjoy crab sticks with dipping sauces, much like imitation crab California rolls are consumed in the United States, according to reports from Oregon State University, where food scientists research and develop surimi seafood products.

You’ll find surimi products clearly labeled as imitation or as a “processed seafood” or “fish protein,” per FDA policies. When dining out, be sure to ask waiters or other service staff if you’re getting the real deal or not. While it’s not the fresh, unprocessed original and will never taste exactly like real crab, many diners find that imitation crab is a satisfying, versatile, and low-cost alternative. Next, check out more secrets that food manufacturers won’t tell you.

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