How healthy imitation crab is compared to other seafood, and what surimi sticks are actually made of

Dozens of Alaskan Pollock outside of water.
Imitation crab is made from a white paste that's mostly ground up Alaskan pollock, a white fish shown here by the dozens.Brian Vander Brug / Contributor / Getty Images
  • Imitation crab — aka krab — is made of Alaskan pollock and commonly used in salads and sushi rolls.

  • While imitation crab is more affordable than real crab, it doesn't have as much nutritional value.

  • Consider buying only krab made of wild-caught Alaska pollock, which is a responsible seafood choice.

Do you love a good California roll or head straight for the seafood salad at potlucks? Maybe you can't order Chinese takeout without adding on a side of crab Rangoons?

If you're a fan of foods featuring imitation crab, aka krab, you can thank Japanese fish paste manufacturer Sugiyo. While trying to develop artificial jellyfish in the 1970s, they realized their creation more closely resembled crab meat and changed course, or so the story goes.

Once imitation crab hit the markets in the late '70s, it became wildly popular as an affordable alternative to crab meat. Yet while real crab packs a major protein punch, imitation crab doesn't have quite as much nutritional value.

What is 'krab', exactly?

Chunks of imitation crab on a plate next to some cucumbers.
Imitation crab contains little or no real crab.cacio murilo de vasconcelos / Getty Images

Typically, imitation crab is made of Alaska pollock surimi. Pollock is a mild white fish, while surimi refers to fish that's been deboned, washed, and finely ground into a paste.

Some brands of imitation crab may contain up to 2% crab meat and crab extracts, along with other fish oils and extracts. Others may have no crab at all.

If you have a seafood allergy, you'll want to read ingredient labels carefully — or just pass on imitation crab, to be on the safe side.

Unlike real crab, imitation crab has a number of added ingredients, like salt, sugar, egg white, and starches, according to Eva De Angelis, a licensed dietitian nutritionist and health writer at Health Canal. Manufacturers add these to give the meat a firm, glossy texture, add flavor, and make it easier to freeze.

You'll usually also find additives on the ingredient list. Common ones include monosodium glutamate (MSG), artificial flavorings, added colors, and preservatives, like phosphates and sodium benzoate. These help the imitation crab last longer and improve its taste.

Of course, all these added ingredients make imitation crab a very different product from real crab and other unprocessed fish.

"Imitation crab is a highly-processed food, so I don't recommend eating it frequently," De Angelis said.

Is imitation crab healthy?

Tray of crab and avocado sushi rolls.
Imitation crab is considered to be a highly-processed food and you should eat it in moderation like any other processed product.Gado / Contributor / Getty Images

Imitation crab has about 90 calories per 100 gram serving, while crab has 84 calories per serving. But beyond their similar calorie counts, imitation crab pales in comparison to real crab, according to De Angelis, not to mention many other types of seafood.

For example, imitation crab has 6.41 g of protein per serving. That may seem like a fairly respectable amount, until you compare it to pollock's 12 g, crab's 16.3 g, and salmon's whopping 19.8 g of protein per serving.

What's more, imitation crab contains about 15.4 g of carbohydrates per serving and 5.1 g of added sugars. Whole fish contains no carbs or added sugars.

Carbs can make up an important part of a balanced diet. Yet, imitation crab may not be the best choice for your meal plan if you're limiting carbs for health or other reasons.

Real crab is also packed with important vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, folate, magnesium, vitamin B12, zinc, and selenium. Imitation crab contains some of these nutrients, like vitamin B12, magnesium, and selenium — but in far lower amounts.

Like many other types of seafood, real crab is also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, providing 351 milligrams (mg) per serving. Whole Alaska pollock offers 281 mg of these heart-healthy fats, imitation crab only provides about 31 mg per serving.

If you're concerned about mercury in your fish, you can safely choose real or imitation crab: Both pollock and crab are very low in mercury.

Rising costs and sustainability

A docked fishing boat unloading its catch of Alaskan pollock.
Demand for pollock is on the rise, which means prices are likely to follow suit.Brian Vander Brug / Contributor / Getty Images

The rising costs of crab have made imitation crab a more appealing option for many shoppers.

However, you'll find Alaska pollock in plenty of other products besides imitation crab. Its mild taste and affordability make it a good option in fish sandwiches, fish sticks, fish tacos, and more.

Pollock's popularity and relatively low cost may help explain why the US demand increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, National Fisherman reported. The war in Ukraine has also boosted the demand for US-caught Alaska pollock, since sanctions against Russia have reduced the country's seafood exports.

Yet as the demand for pollock continues to rise, its cost will likely go up. Prices of Alaska pollock are about 40% higher than they were in 2017, SeafoodSource reported.

Overfishing may also become a concern in the future, if high demand continues.

As of January 2023, fish and wildlife experts consider Alaska pollock a responsible choice. "U.S. wild-caught Alaska pollock is a smart seafood choice because it is sustainably managed and responsibly harvested under U.S. regulations," NOAA Fisheries said on its website.

So, when shopping for imitation crab products, opt for those that use wild-caught Alaska pollock to make the most environmentally-responsible choice.

Read the original article on Business Insider