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Posted on: April 22, 2019 at 5:25 pm
Last updated: April 25, 2019 at 6:18 pm

Sushi, often recommended as one of the healthier options when eating out, has been under the spotlight in recent years. From mislabeled fish and fake sushi to highly processed ingredients such as imitation crab. And, if you’re a sushi lover, you have likely come across and eaten imitation or fake crab meat quite often as it’s one of the most common ingredients in many menu items including California sushi rolls, seafood salad, and crab cakes. [1] [2]

What’s even more surprising is that restaurant staff are frequently not even aware that what they’re using is not real crab meat.

A few weeks ago, I was ordering sushi to go and asked the cashier if the crab meat they use is real crab or imitation. The cashier insisted and confirmed that it’s actually real crab. So, imagine my surprise when I found out that my order was made with imitation crab and not the real thing.

WHAT IS IMITATION CRAB?

The main ingredient in imitation or fake crab is surimi which means “ground meat” in Japanese.

Surimi is a paste that is prepared using fish and sometimes other meats to imitate the texture, taste, and color of expensive delicacies such as lobster, crab, eel or other types of meat and shellfish. The paste itself is tasteless and is about 75% water, 15% protein and 7% carbohydrates, and contains a negligible amount of nutrients. [3]

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Pollock is the most common fish used in the fast food industry as well as in the making of surimi. Other fish that may be used include, but are not limited to, tilapia, Atlantic cod, and swordfish.

So, when the main ingredient in imitation crab is a bland, tasteless and colorless fish paste, you have to add a whole lot of flavorings, colorings, and preservatives to achieve the look, taste, and texture of the real thing.

NUTRITIONAL PROFILE OF IMITATION VS. REAL CRAB

The perfect example of the popular saying “not all calories are created equal” is in the case of imitation vs. real crab. Although they contain the exact same number of calories per serving, imitation crab is much higher in carbohydrates, added starch and sugar, lower in protein and barely contains any nutrients. Real crab, on the other hand, has 0 grams of carbohydrates and sugar, is high in protein as well as vitamins and minerals including zinc, selenium, vitamin B12 and folate to name a few. [4]

*Image Source: Huffington Post [5]

COMMON INGREDIENTS USED TO MAKE FAKE CRAB

A quick search reveals some of the most common ingredients used in making imitation crab which is about one-third of the cost of real crab. Hence, venues and restaurants can cut down on food costs while still having the liberty to charge premium sushi prices.

The USDA Branded Food Products Database shows the list of ingredients found in the typical fake crab meat: [6]

Ingredients: ALASKA POLLOCK, WATER, EGG WHITES, WHEAT STARCH, SUGAR, CORN STARCH, SORBITOL, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF THE FOLLOWING: KING CRAB MEAT, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, EXTRACTS OF CRAB, OYSTER, SCALLOP, LOBSTER AND FISH (SALMON, ANCHOVY, BONITO, CUTLASSFISH), REFINED FISH OIL* (ANCHOVY, SARDINE), RICE WINE (RICE, WATER, KOJI, YEAST, SALT), SEA SALT, MODIFIED TAPIOCA STARCH, CARRAGEENAN, YAM FLOUR, HYDROLYZED SOY, CORN, AND WHEAT PROTEINS, POTASSIUM CHLORIDE, DISODIUM INOSINATE AND GUANYLATE, SODIUM PYROPHOSPHATE, CARMINE, PAPRIKA, COLOR ADDED.

Let’s just take a look at a few of these ingredients:

STARCH: There are 3 types of starch in the above crab meat and two of them are at the top of the ingredient list which means they are primary ingredients. These include wheat starch and corn starch followed by sugar and the sugar alcohol sorbitol that may cause bloating, cramps and diarrhea in sensitive individuals.

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Starch is mainly used to thicken the crab meat and absorb all the added water. Starches are cheap fillers that add absolutely no nutritional value. In addition, corn starch is normally derived from GMO corn, so if you’re avoiding GMO products you may want to stay away from products containing corn starch.

ARTIFICIAL COLORS & FLAVOURS: Some are not even included as part of the ingredient list and disguised under the name of ‘color added’. Artificial colors and flavors are linked to allergic reactions in some people, and food colorings have been associated with hyperactivity in children. [7] [8]

CARRAGEENAN: Used as a binding agent to gel or glue ingredients together, and act as a thickening agent. In animal models, this additive has been linked to inflammation and irritation of the digestive tract [9] as well as bloating, especially for those with irritable bowel disease (IBD).

In addition, if you are sensitive to MSG, you may want to stay away from products containing hydrolyzed vegetable proteins (soy, corn, wheat) and disodium inosinate and guanylate. The production of some hydrolyzed proteins may also create cancer-causing chemicals. [10]

SHOULD YOU EAT IT

Have I ever had imitation crab? Yes.

Will I have it ever again? Probably.

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You might be shocked why a nutritionist that just wrote an entire article about the negative effects and highly processed ingredients of imitation crab would admit to having it, and would even consider eating again.

As a chronic yo-yo dieter that used to be obsessed with counting calories and fearing the consumption of even the smallest amount of processed food, my personal motto now is to SAVOR the moment rather than obsess about every single ingredient on my plate.

But that doesn’t mean that I don’t care about what’s in my food, and on my plate, how it’s grown and what can be done to improve it and make it healthier for all of us. This is where raising awareness and demanding better and healthier alternatives is important. And they are starting to pop up. Just like you can find healthier and less processed forms of burgers and hot dogs, there’s Non-GMO verified imitation crab made with more natural ingredients that you can see here. [11]

Needless to say, the habitual consumption of highly processed foods like imitation crab has been linked to heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. [12]

So my advice always is to aim for fresh, highly nutritious meals that include colorful fruits and vegetables, legumes, whole grains, healthy sources of fats, and high-quality protein most of the time and if on the odd occasion you do have a few pieces of sushi made with imitation crab, you most likely won’t experience any negative effects and your body should be able to process it.

That being said, if you have any food sensitivities, allergies or a serious condition where you need to be extra careful about the ingredients you are consuming then my advice would be to avoid it altogether.

Did you know about imitation crab and what are your thoughts on it?

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Mirna Sharafeddine, B.Sc., R.H.N.
Co-Founder, Naughty Nutrition
Having gone through her own health issues and struggling with yo-yo dieting for many years, inspired Mirna to focus on helping her clients break free from the diet cycle and fall back in love with the food on their plate. With a balanced and mindful approach to nutrition, she helps them create a realistic and individualized health plan to reach their health goals.

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