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The crustacean stand-in is used in a variety of dishes and in restaurants. Learn how it’s made and how to recognize it in your next sushi roll.

What Is Imitation Crab?

Who doesn’t love sweet, briny crab meat? Silly question. Unfortunately, that kind of fresh-from-the-ocean haul can be cost prohibitive. That’s why several decades ago, food manufacturers and chefs went looking for a less expensive alternative to the much sought-after shellfish. In the 1970s, the Japanese introduced imitation crab, a processed seafood proxy that tastes and looks like the original.

The key is surimi, a seafood paste made from white fish, artificial and natural flavors, starch, sugar, and sodium. And the preferred white fish in this amalgam is Alaskan Pollock—the same variety most commonly utilized in frozen fish sticks and fast-food seafood sandwiches.

Once the surimi paste is made and piped into molds, a thin coat of orange food dye is painted onto the exterior in order to mimic the crab’s natural hue.

Related: 5 Things You Didn't Know About Blue Crab

A decade after its Asian introduction, the imitation product made its way overseas and began appearing in American restaurants and grocery stores. Today, it’s used widely, in sushi (you’re likely eating it in that grocery store California roll), fast food sandwiches and seafood salads, and more.  

Why Was Imitation Crab Created?

Even processed crab—packaged and sold in refrigerated containers or cans—can wield a heavy price tag.

Imitation crab meat, on the other hand, is not only more affordable, but a serviceable substitute in sushi rolls, salads, and dips.

But nutritionally, these are two very different products. Real crab meat has almost three times the protein of imitation crab. (A three-ounce serving of crab has 16 grams of protein versus only 6 grams in imitation examples). Additionally, artificial crab has more sodium and sugar. And people with gluten sensitivities should avoid the faux fish product as it is often processed with starch and other gluten-based thickeners.

How to Tell if Your Crab Is Real or Not

The easiest way to know if what you’re buying is real or not is to read the label. Imitation crab is often labeled as “crab sticks” or “krab,” if not clearly marked as “imitation.”

Related: Video: How to Eat Crab:

If the front of the carton isn’t clear, be sure to flip the package over and read the ingredients. Processed crab typically only two components—crab and water (it may also include citric acid or another ingredient to prevent discoloration)—whereas imitation crab meat has a litany of ingredients.

In a pinch, you can use imitation crab in any recipe that calls for the real thing, and you’ll save money in the process. It cooks and tastes almost identical to real crab meat, so use it in salads, spreads, and sandwiches to taste a bit of the sea any time of the year.