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Like Beyond Meat and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter!, the name imitation crab better describes what the product isn’t rather than what it is. When the ingredient appears in dishes like California rolls and crab rangoon, its true identity is rarely advertised. So, if imitation crab isn’t crab, what is it made of, exactly?
The short answer is fish, and the long answer may make you lose your appetite if you plan on having supermarket sushi for lunch. According to Healthline, inexpensive fish flesh is deboned, washed, and ground into a paste called surimi. A common ingredient in East Asia, surimi can be processed with additives and molded into various shapes to mimic more expensive seafood like lobster, eel, and crab.
In addition to fish, imitation crab sticks (sometimes labeled “krab” sticks) may also contain water, starch, sugar, salt, egg whites, and vegetable oil. These ingredients give the product its desired taste and texture and make it easier to freeze. Red dye (which can come from insects called cochineal) is added to the outside of the sticks to complete the illusion. Though artificial crab is mostly fish, real crab extract is sometimes added for flavor, which is why people with severe shellfish allergies should still be wary of the product.
Surimi can be made from various types of fish, but most imitation crab consumed in the U.S. is pollock. The white fish has a mild taste and odor, making it an ideal candidate to dress up as something more flavorful. It’s also cheap. Imitation crab typically sells for a third of the price of real crabmeat, which is the ingredient’s main appeal. The trade-off for the low cost is fewer nutrients (and more added salt and sugar) compared to real crab, plus the unsavory fact that the “crab” in your meal is really molded fish paste.
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