Those imitation crab sticks (surimi) wrapped in packages in the fish cooler at the supermarket are very tempting: they look like crab, they even taste a little like crab, and they’re much less expensive and always available.
But what is in them, really, that makes them look and taste like something else?
Even if your guests think the mushroom caps are stuffed with real crabmeat, is surimi crab stick something you would serve them in good conscience?
Let’s look into the essence of fake crab and you can decide for yourself.
What is Imitation Crab Meat Made of…
- “Surimi” is Japanese for “ground meat”. Okay there. At least it’s not “inu no iki” (dog breath).
- Surimi is made by mashing up a white meat fish, like pollock, so it’s the consistency of a thick paste. Nothing offensive there.
- A host of other ingredients are added to the fish to make it look, smell, taste, and feel like crab. Here’s where it gets interesting. This is the list of ingredients for one brand of imitation crab:
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 (Adds a Trivial Amount of Fat) (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.
Let’s spend a few minutes here. Beside the various starches (wheat, corn, tapioca, and soy), there’s artificial flavor and then there’s the stuff we can’t pronounce:
1. Potassium chloride
No, this isn’t hard to pronounce, but what is it? It’s a salt substitute that has been found to cause cardiovascular distress, muscular weakness and paralysis, and gastrointestinal effects of nausea and vomiting when taken in large doses.
2. Disodium inosinate and Guanylate
These are flavor enhancers used in conjunction with monosodium glutamate (MSG). Some people are sensitive to MSG or simply don’t want it in their food so manufacturers use different forms of similar chemicals so they don’t have to list MSG on the label.[2,3]
3. Sodium Pyrophosphate
A crystalline food additive to maintain acidity level and keep the other ingredients together. One food site says:
“Reports have shown that (tetra)sodium pyrophosphate is twice as toxic as table salt when ingested orally. It is a source of phosphorous as a nutrient. Because its production methods and side effects are relatively unknown, consumption should be avoided. Some individuals may experience stomach cramps and discomfort.”
This is how they make it look red like crab on the outside. Carmine is the product of crushed cochineal beetles which are red. Some food companies have gotten into trouble for using it because there are allergy and dietary issues to using insects in food—not to mention the yuck factor. Still better than Red 2, 3, or 40, however.
5. Other Ingredients
As for the other items that seem benign, sorbitol is a form of sugar (it’s not specified on the label whether it’s naturally-occurring or synthetic—it could be either and is in addition to the Sugar also on the label); carrageenan is a seaweed extract that—while a natural product—causes inflammation and gastrointestinal problems; hydrolyzed soy is MSG, the mate of disodium inosinate and guanylate.
“Hydrolysis is a method of extraction that boils the soy protein in a vat of sulfuric acid. Manufacturers mix the resulting acidic substance with caustic soda to neutralize the acid content. While hydrolyzed soy protein contains most of the nutrients and health benefits of soy, when you consume this type of soy you also consume the unhealthy chemical byproducts of the manufacturing process…such as monosodium glutamate that can lead to health problems. According to “Excitotoxins: The Taste That Kills,” the Food and Drug Administration [FDA] requires food manufacturers to list MSG as an ingredient when used in the preparation of packaged food. However, FDA regulations do not require the same labeling when a food contains hydrolyzed soy protein, despite the fact that this type of soy contains large quantities of MSG. In fact, some food manufacturers use hydrolyzed soy protein as a flavor enhancer to work around the FDA’s MSG labeling requirement.”
6. High Sodium Content
While low in fat, surimi has a high sodium content—just two “leg” pieces contain 20 percent of your recommended total daily sodium intake.
7. Not Your Best Protein Source
Since surimi is basically fish, it is a source of protein, however, by weight lentils have over 3 times more protein, cheese and tuna 5 times more. Considering everything, nutrition isn’t really why you’re eating this product.