It’s likely you’ve encountered imitation crab before, whether you knew it or not. It was probably when you thought you were eating actual crab. But why was it called krab, crabstick, “crab”, processed crab, crab-fish protein, Japanese crab, French crab or any of the various ways imitation crab is marketed and sold throughout the world? More importantly, when exactly does crab cross the line into imitation crab in the foods we’re served in restaurants or in the comfort of our own homes?
In order to understand the popularity of imitation crab and its use in kitchens and restaurants across the world, there is a need for a clear understanding of where it derived from. Nearly 1,000 years ago, Japan’s Late Heian period was a time of cultural elegance, wealth and luxury. During this time, Japanese chefs concocted a culinary delicacy known as surimi. In its original form, surimi was a paste made from minced whitefish and mixed with preservatives like salt in order to extend the shelf life of seafood for noble families who lived in inland territories and were unable to access daily catches from fishermen.
Surimi was an extremely versatile and innovative food and belonged to an entirely new category unto itself. Some of Japan’s culinary masters incorporated the new product into various dishes and eventually transformed this once paste-like food into a solid by way of the fish cake. Over the course of more than 900 years, surimi recipes were modified and changed by the following generations, resulting in surimi containing everything from MSG to egg whites.
During the 1970s, U.S. food manufacturers discovered the Japanese culinary delight and decided to bring the product to American consumers. Sugar, salt, fish oil and corn starch were added to further solidify the paste and enhance the taste. However, thanks to the seafood assembly line technology that had previously introduced praised products such as frozen fish sticks and crab cakes, the American take on surimi was cut into strips and chunks that resembled the size and texture of actual crab meat.
In the same way that surimi allowed inland Japanese towns to enjoy seafood, imitation crab was also being consumed in middle-class U.S. homes, owing to both its preservative-induced shelf life and its modest price. But U.S. consumers weren’t the only ones enjoying imitation crab meat, as Spanish and French restaurants and fish markets grew very fond of the celebrated food item.
So is imitation crab meat safe to eat for those who suffer from shellfish allergies? After all, it is imitation, right? Hardly. While the majority of today’s imitation crab is made from Alaska pollock, and recipes can differ from manufacturer to manufacturer, most imitation crab labels have a warning about the possible use of shellfish. Small amounts of denser sea proteins like oysters, scallops, salmon, actual crab meat and even lobster are frequently mixed into imitation crab meat recipes to better mimic the texture and flavor of the real thing. Although imitation crab can contain up to 2 percent actual crab, that is more than enough to send a diner with shellfish allergies into anaphylactic shock.
It is the fine line between real and artificial that makes this food product one of the most dangerous processed foods on restaurant menus today. For instance, the majority of California rolls, which are one of the top-selling items in U.S. sushi restaurants, are made with imitation crab meat. Tentative servers may disclose this information to patrons, yet are unaware that the imitation crab–whether pre-processed or a house recipe–may, in fact, contain real shellfish.
The same can be expected of crab sticks, crab cakes, and even fish cakes, all of which often include high amounts of imitation crab. To make matters worse, there are several states that allow grocers and food manufacturers to label food products “imitation crab” without offering additional ingredient information. If you’re wondering if you should avoid imitation crab meat due to your shellfish allergy, the answer is an undisputed yes. In fact, you should also avoid the real thing to be on the safe side. The truth is that there really is no telling what is inside your favorite sushi rolls or crab cakes unless you make them yourself.