Q: What is imitation crabmeat and how healthy is it?
A: Imitation crab is typically made from Alaska pollock, a mild-flavored white fish, which is minced, rinsed and strained. The resulting paste, called surimi, is blended with sugar, salt, binders like egg whites and starch, flavorings and other ingredients.
After cooking, it's cut into various shapes resembling crab leg meat or other types of shellfish, like lobster and shrimp. Orange dye is also added to make it look more like shellfish. Some imitation seafood contains small amounts of real crab or other shellfish.
Imitation crab provides good-quality protein (though not as much as other seafood because of its fillers). It's comparable in calories to real crabmeat (80 to 90 calories per three ounces, on average) but has much less cholesterol.
One drawback to imitation crab: Because it is very low in fat, imitation crabmeat is a poor source of omega-3s. Some companies add these heart-healthy fats, but the levels are still below that of real crab (only a fair source to begin with) and far below omega-3 levels in fatty fish, such as salmon. Another drawback is the high sodium content of imitation crab—300 to 600 milligrams or more in three ounces—though, interestingly, some real crabmeat is even higher in sodium.
Imitation crab costs much less than the real thing. And because it’s precooked, it's ready-to-eat and less perishable than fresh fish. Moreover, it's considered a good environmental choice by the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program.
You can use imitation crab in any recipe that calls for real crab, such as in seafood lasagna, soups, quiches, noodle and rice dishes, stir-fries and sushi rolls. Mix it with a little mayo, chopped celery and bell peppers to make a "crabmeat" salad.
Source: Originally published in The University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (September 2011)