FOOD & DRINK
01/14/2015 09:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Imitation Crab Isn't Crab At All. So What Exactly Is It?

It's basically the hot dog of the sea.

The California roll is like the gateway drug of sushi. It may have been your first stint, easing your way into the world of a cuisine that first feels exotic to many Western eyes and palates. And while you were comfortable eating that roll, so simple with its perfect balance of crab meat, creamy avocado and seaweed, there's something you might not have known. Here's the truth: The California roll contains no crab meat at all.

The red and white "crab stick" -- often referred to as imitation crab -- does indeed come from the sea. In Japanese, crab stick is called "surimi," which actually means "ground meat." It's kind of the ocean's version of the hot dog, if you need an analogy.

Surimi is made of different kinds of fish, which are ground together into a paste. According to SF Gate, manufacturers add starch, artificial flavors, sodium and sometimes MSG. Because starch is often made from wheat, imitation crab meat is not gluten free. True crab meat, on the other hand, is safe for the gluten-averse. In fact, on most nutritional counts, this processed seafood pales in comparison to the real thing.

The meat from real crab boasts more than double the protein and potassium of its imitator with none of the artificial enhancers. Why, then, is the poor man's crab featured on nearly every menu? Western sushi joints stick with the fishy fraud because it's much less costly than genuine crab -- an obvious benefit for businesses -- and it is also incredibly malleable. It can be shaped into anything to make dishes appear more appetizing.

There's nothing wrong with enjoying crab's wannabe in a rice-packed seaweed roll, just like there's nothing wrong with eating a hotdog at a baseball game. But if it's authenticity or nutritional value you're after, you'd be better off ordering something that comes straight from the sea.

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