What Is Imitation Crab?

Medically Reviewed by Christine Mikstas, RD, LD on February 23, 2024
3 min read

Fresh crab can be costly. Therefore, imitation crab is often offered as a substitute. Just like the name implies, imitation crab contains no crabmeat. Fish is, however, one of the main ingredients. It is made using surimi, which is a paste made of fish and a few other ingredients. Surimi is often made with pollock, which is also used to make fish sticks and breaded fish products.

Imitation crab is made with surimi, a paste made out of finely shredded or pulverized fish. After the fish is minced, it is heated and pressed into shapes that resemble meat from a crab leg. The resulting imitation crab looks similar to the original crab in its coloring and texture.

Binding agents, like egg white, starch, vegetable oil, or sugar, are added to the surimi paste to make the meat stick together. Occasionally, monosodium glutamate (MSG) is added to the surimi. Orange or red coloring is the key ingredient added to make the mixture resemble shellfish meat. For the preservation of the product, the makers vacuum seal and pasteurize the imitation crab meat. When you buy the product, you will eat it straight from the package.

You have probably eaten imitation crab meat without realizing it. Since it has become so popular, it has found its way to your plate through restaurant menus, appetizers at parties, and grocery store products. Packages with imitation crab may be labeled as "crab seafood" or "surimi seafood" so you know what you’re buying. On some restaurant menus, an item may be spelled as "krab" as a way to tell you that it's not made with real crab meat.

Nutritional value. Real crab has significantly higher nutrient levels than imitation crab. For example, imitation crab derives most of its calories from added carbs. The calories in an Alaskan king crab are derived from proteins, not from carbs. If you’re on a keto or low-carb diet and are trying to cut your carb intake, real crab would be the better choice.

Vitamins and minerals. Real crab provides a higher amount of vitamins and minerals. It’s a good source of vitamin B12, selenium, and zinc. When making surimi, these nutrients are lost during washing and processing when the fish meat is exposed to heat. Real crab also has a higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids than its mock substitute. Some packages of imitation crab may have added omega-3, but this isn’t always the case.

Imitation crab contains several processed ingredients. The largest component of the imitation crab product is surimi. It contributes 35% to 50% of the product’s weight. The other 50% to 65% that makes up imitation crab contains:

  • Starches like wheat, potato, or tapioca starch make the surimi firm and freezable. 
  • Salt (sodium chloride) adds flavor and helps turn the minced meat into a sturdy gel. Sometimes, potassium chloride is used.
  • Vegetable oil enhances texture, shelf life, and white coloring.
  • Sugar and sorbitol add some sweetness and help imitation crab to freeze and thaw with ease.
  • Egg whites or soy are often added for a boost of protein and to improve texture, color, and glossiness.
  • Water takes up the biggest percentage of all the extra ingredients. It helps create the right texture. 

When choosing between real crab and imitation crab, you should consider:

  • The price. Imitation crab is often easier on the wallet, as fresh crab can be very costly.
  • Nutritional value. Both are similar in calorie count, but real crab meat has more protein, vitamins, and minerals, and is much less processed.
  • Ease of use. You can use imitation crab straight from the package. The product is also easy to find in various forms like sticks, chunks, shreds, or flakes.

Imitation crab, as its name says, is a mock version of crabmeat. It’s a highly processed food containing minced fillet, egg whites, salt, sugar, and other additives to make it look like real crab meat. It’s more affordable, but less nutritious, than fresh crab meat. The decision is yours to make as to which you'll buy for dinner.