How is Imitation Crab Meat Made?

The salad bar at work was out of hard boiled eggs, my usual protein source for lunch. Instead, I added some of the less desirable grilled turkey strips and some imitation crab, wondering just what exactly comprises the latter.

I discussed this with my GF Deborah a bit as we ate in the work cafeteria.

“I am pretty sure I looked this up once before,” I say, examining a chunk of the textured something at the end of my fork. “I think it’s basically whitefish that they process and then add food coloring to make the fake skin.”

I decide the making of this “seafood” substitute is worthy of a little research, since it is always good to know what one is putting into one’s body.

My description is not too far from the truth. Imitation crab is made by processing ground up white fish flesh into crab meat shaped and colored bits, with particular emphasis on making it resemble the leg meat of snow crab or Japanese spider crab.

Also known as crab sticks, or kanikama in Japanese, imitation crab has its origins in Japan and usually does not contain any crab, except perhaps as a flavoring agent. Due to the lack of actual crab meat, some places forbid use of the moniker “crab sticks” due to labeling laws. So alternate names often used are Krab Sticks (the one letter substitute apparently meets compliance specs), Ocean Sticks, or Sea Legs.

The most common white fish used to make imitation crab is Alaska pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) from the North Pacific. The ground up flesh is mixed with fillers, including wheat, egg whites, and other binding agents to give it its rubbery texture. Crab flavoring (either artificial or derived from actual crabs) is added and after processing into the proper shape, red food coloring is applied to the surface to make it resemble actual crab meat.

That’s pretty much it. It does not sound too horrible. After all, it is still mostly actual seafood. Some forms might even be OK for people with allergies to shellfish, though that is total speculation on my part. Conversely, people with allergies to eggs, wheat, and/or red food dye might want to avoid imitation crab.


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