Whether you’re munching a California roll or slicing into a crab eggs Benedict, if you’re not 100 percent sure where that crab came from there’s a good chance it’s something else: imitation crab. Imitation crab may have a nearly indistinguishable flavor and texture to that of the real deal, but one thing is certain—it’s not crab. So, what exactly is imitation crab? A popular fake food, imitation crab is mostly surimi, a paste made from white fish. Surimi-based imitation crab is significantly cheaper than real crab, which makes it appealing to restaurants working with large quantities of the ingredient; they don’t have to pay more to stock crab, and consumers don't have to shell out more money. Additionally, while you can catch crabs all year long, there is a specific season during the summer where crab is going to taste best. Imitation crab is constantly similar due to its processing, and has no season.
Surimi is typically made from mild white fish like pollock, cod, and tilapia. The fish is rinsed repeatedly to remove much of its odor, puréed with starches, sugars, and sometimes colorings, egg whites, and flavoring (in this case, crab flavoring, but surimi is also used to make imitation lobster and other seafood); then solidified into flakes or sticks using a curing method. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database standards, fish surimi should be about 76 percent water, 15 percent protein, and a combined nearly 8 percent carbohydrate and fat.
Certain brands of surimi are made with highly processed sugars and starches to create their product, like Louis Kemp, which contains ingredients like “crab extract,” as well as the processed sugar alcohol sorbitol, and additives with antifreeze properties like propylene glycol. On the other hand, some companies, like Trans-Ocean, are committed to making their surimi as simple—and as similar to real crab—as possible. Although some types of surimi use wheat-based starches, Trans-Ocean is certified gluten free, since they process surimi with pea starch and oat fiber. The ingredient is seasoned with sea salt and cane sugar, and colored naturally with lycopene from tomatoes.
While it’s certainly not crab, surimi’s nearly identical resemblance to real crab and lower price point may not raise a red flag for some consumers upon seeing “imitation crab” on a menu. However, when ordering from a restaurant—especially if you’re gluten free or allergic to certain types of white fish—it’s important to confirm exactly which kind of crab the establishment serves. As evidenced from the Trans-Ocean ingredient list, surimi may be completely safe and relatively similar in nutritional content to real crab. But since you can’t always know you’ll find such a consumer-friendly brand, it’s best to ask first if the crab offered in a dish is real, and if not, to see an ingredient list from the imitation crab package. If you’re simply just looking for real crab, visit coastal restaurants that state explicitly where their seafood comes from, and don’t be shy to call ahead to confirm.