Is Imitation Crab Vegan? Can You Eat This Fake Shellfish Foodstuff Or Not?

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Can vegans eat imitation crab? What are krab sticks made of? Is this fishy fake foodstuff healthy? So many questions!

Most of us have run across the perplexing “imitation crab” at least once in our lives, whether it’s in a sushi roll, a seafood salad, or even a plain ol’ krab stick.

You know the drill – the california roll looks so good, (avocado anyone?) and just as you’re about to ask if they can make a veggie version, the “imitation crab” catches your eye. Suddenly you’re lost in a thought storm – what exactly is this mysterious “imitation crab?”

If it’s not made of crab, what is it made of? Is imitation crab vegan? Should I be eating it? Never fear, here at Happy Happy Vegan, we are tackling the conundrum of the crab full force. So read on, my friends!

What is imitation crab in the first place?

bowl of krab stick salad

Imitation crab is NOT crab (surprise surprise) but it does still come from the sea.

The main ingredient in imitation crab sticks is surimi, which is literally Japanese for “ground meat.” Surimi in general is an ingredient that has been around in Japanese cuisine for a long time, but traditional surimi is very different than the surimi used to manufacture imitation crab. (1)

Surimi in traditional Japanese cuisine is used to refer to a gel made of ground up different types of white fish. It was originally invented over 800 years ago. To save any fish that couldn’t be used immediately, the chefs would grind up the remaining fish and salt them.

The resulting gel would be able to be used for far longer than the original fish would have. Nowadays, surimi is usually made of Alaskan pollock, although sometimes other fish such as Pacific whiting, mackerel, and barracuda are used.

The fish protein is ground up until it forms a thick paste or gel like substance. Then, starch, sugar, sodium, and flavoring are added in various amounts to thicken and texturize the gel, as well as to preserve it for longer.

Once the additives are in, the gel is poured into molds and allowed to harden. This creates those “crab sticks” you’ve seen in supermarkets everywhere.

Finally, one side of the hardened crab stick is painted with an orange dye so that it more closely mimics the real thing.

Curious to know more about imitation crab? Check out this video by Science Insider!

Is imitation crab good for me?

Similar to most foods, it really depends.

While imitation crab is low in both calories and fat, it does tend to have high levels of sodium. It has high amounts of complete protein, and it is also a good source of B12. (2)

The problem is that determining if something is good for you or not depends on much more than just the nutritional facts. You also have to decide what kind of things you want to put into your body.

As mentioned above, surimi is essentially texturized fish gel. The fish can be kept quite long in this state, so imitation crab is not usually very fresh at all. It is also filled with sodium, starches, artificial flavors, and food dye.

The vegetable oils and starches that are used in surimi are often of poor quality, too. Wheat starch can also be used in this process, so imitation crab is usually not safe for people who have Celiac’s or a gluten intolerance.

If you are planning on consuming either imitation crab or regular crab, just like most things, it is best to go with the simplest and most natural option. Of course, the healthiest thing would be to consume neither!

Which brings us to…

Is imitation crab vegan?

Plate of California rolls with chopsticks looming ready to pick one up

Since imitation crab contains fish, nope, it’s not vegan!

Never fear though, if you aren’t quite ready to give up your California roll fix, there are plenty of vegan alternatives. Jackfruit, which has a reputation for being a wonderful vegan substitute for pulled pork, also works great in crab cakes because of its flaky texture.

Another awesome substitute for imitation crab is hearts of palm. These edible palm tree buds are delicious in a vegan crab salad, perfect for tea sandwiches to impress your friends.

In that same vein, artichoke hearts will do as a crab substitute in a pinch, although they can be a little more difficult due to their stronger natural flavor.

Finally, tofu can serve as a great alternative to imitation crab. This versatile little soy product has a deserved reputation for being flexible in all sorts of recipes! Just decide what flavor you’re going for, add it to your tofu, and voila!

And, of course, there are plenty of pre-made vegan crab options available at vegan and health food stores all around the U.S.


So, what does all this mean?

roll of sushi held in between chopsticks against a pale blue background

Let’s recap. Imitation crab is made out of a fish gel called surimi, which has been present in Japanese cuisine for over 800 years.

It is usually made out of Alaskan pollock or Pacific whiting, and then the fish is mixed with texturizers, fillers, and preservatives. It is poured into a mold to hold its shape, and then painted with food dye to mimic the look of the real thing.

Imitation crab is not necessarily good for you, but it isn’t terrible for you either (although it does contain high levels of sodium and many artificial ingredients and preservatives). It is, however, pretty terrible for the fish that are ground up to make it! (3)

As you may have suspected, then, imitation crab is not vegan. Thankfully, there are a lot of awesome imitation crab substitutes out there, like jackfruit, hearts of palm, artichoke hearts, and tofu, so you’ll still be able to get your sushi on…just in a different, more compassionate, way.

So, what do you think about krab sticks and the like? Do you have any suggestions or tips for vegan imitation crab replacements? Let us know in the comments below!

About The Author:
Lisa Williams
Happy Happy Vegan editor

Lisa Williams is a committed vegan, passionate animal welfare advocate, and keen follower of too many v-friendly food blogs to mention. She started back in 2016 because she felt there was a need for more straightforward information on plant-based living.

Back then, too many sites seem to either concentrate solely on recipes or be too intimidating or inaccessible for the v-curious, and she wanted to change that. The landscape is certainly a whole lot different now!

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  1. Lee Breslouer | The One Ingredient Secretly in a Ton of the Seafood You Eat |
  2. Aglaee Jacob | Nutritional Quality of Fake Crabmeat |
  3. Courtney Giardina and Joel Stice | What Is Imitation Crab Meat Actually Made Of? |


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