Whether you’re looking for vegan-friendly sushi, poke bowls, or you’re trying to find vegan Chinese food, one of the most common ingredients to see is imitation crab.
Usually, imitation meat is vegan-friendly. In fact, there are entire companies like Beyond Meat that make vegan alternatives to real meat.
So, is imitation crab vegan?
Unfortunately, imitation crab is not vegan-friendly. Unlike most meat substitutes that are made using plant-based ingredients, imitation crab is made using real fish by-products. It may also contain refined sugars and animal-derived flavoring.
It’s a bit shocking, right?
Before I knew any better, I myself consumed my fair share of imitation crab thinking that my California rolls were perfectly vegan. Boy, was I wrong!
I’m making this post today so that you don’t mess up and make the same mistake that I did when I first went vegan.
Below, I’ll give you a full breakdown of the ingredients in imitation crab and show you some of the best vegan alternatives to crab meat that you can cook with.
Can Vegans Eat Imitation Crab?
It’s easy to see why somebody would think that imitation crab is vegan-friendly. For one, it has the word “imitation,” implying that it’s not real meat.
Secondly, it kind of looks fake too, which would lead one to believe that it’s artificially made and produced using some kind of alternative protein source.
Unfortunately, this is not the case.
The main ingredient in imitation crab is pulverized fish, meaning that vegans can’t consume imitation crab in good conscience.
What Is Imitation Crab Made From?
At this point, you’re probably wondering, “What the heck is imitation crab REALLY made from, then?”
It’s made from a number of ingredients, many of which are unsavory, to say the least. To put it simply, once you know what imitation crab is really made of, I promise that you’ll never crave it again.
Even the worst vegan meat substitute is probably healthier than the “mystery meat” you’ll find in imitation crab.
That being said, let’s take a good hard look at what imitation crab is made from!
“Surimi” is the Japanese word for “ground meat.” By itself, surimi looks kind of like the cheap ground beef that you’d find at the grocery store. The only difference is that it’s usually pinkish-white instead of red.
Surimi is basically a “paste” that’s made from ground-up fish. Since it’s a paste, there’s no way to know exactly what was used to make the fish paste.
Sometimes, it’s made from fish by-products (the parts that they can’t sell in the store), and other times it’s made from abundant supplies of farmed fish like pollock.
The fish cuts are ground and pulverized into a thick paste that serves as the main protein base for imitation crab. Essentially, by eating surimi, you’re consuming fish that you’d never want to eat by itself if you saw it on a store shelf.
The thing about fish paste (and any paste in general) is that it tends to fall apart. Just imagine if you were to try and squeeze your toothpaste out in the shape of a crab leg… It probably wouldn’t go so well, right?
This is where starch comes in. In fact, starch is the only plant-based ingredient in imitation crab. Starch is usually derived from plants like tapioca, corn, wheat, or potatoes.
It’s readily available in most plants and is one of the three basic types of carbohydrates, alongside sugar and fiber. Most plant-based foods contain at least a small amount of starch.
Starch is often used in baking and commercial food production as a thickening agent. When exposed to moisture, it acts as an adhesive agent, binding the food together and creating a thicker, more solid product.
Without starch, imitation crab meat wouldn’t be possible. It’d just look like a gooey mess.
If you’ve ever tried a bite of imitation crab before, then you may remember that it has a bit of a sweet aftertaste. This is thanks to the added sugar in the paste. Although sugar would never be added to real crab, it’s one of the most common ingredients in imitation crab.
The sugar helps to mask the off-putting taste of the processed fish paste and disguises the powdery taste of the added starch.
The sugar used by most brands of imitation crab is almost always processed and refined as well.
For those of you who are unaware, refined sugar is filtered using animal bone char, making it non-vegan. This is why vegans consume natural, unrefined sugar like brown sugar or raw sugar.
Imagine eating fish paste with starch and sugar… Sounds a bit disgusting, right?
Well, to help mask the otherwise-awful flavor, most imitation crab includes artificial fish flavoring, which is almost always derived from actual fish, making it all the more unfriendly for vegans.
Artificially produced Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is commonly used to add a “savory” flavor profile to food.
While MSG is often vegan, it’s associated with a host of health problems and often overloads our bodies with excess sodium.
Pro Tip: If you’re looking to add a savory kick to your food, try one of these healthy vegan alternatives!
Before dye is added, the artificial crab meat looks like a colorless white chunk of hardened paste. The only way to get it to look remotely like real crab meat is to use artificial dye.
Using pink and red food coloring, manufacturers can create an imitation crab that looks almost like the real thing.
What Are The Best Vegan Substitutes For Crab Meat?
Learning about how imitation crab meat is made is usually enough to make non-vegans avoid it! Aside from the obvious fact that it contains meat, it’s unhealthy and tastes weird.
Thankfully, there are several great vegan substitutes for crab meat. They may not taste exactly like crab, but with the right seasoning, they’re close enough.
If you’re looking to get that extra-soft texture that most people expect from crab, then tofu is a great place to start! It’s made from coagulated soy milk and is a healthy, complete source of protein and healthy amino acids.
Tofu is sold with different levels of firmness, so if you want to get something with a similar texture to crab meat, I’d suggest a soft or medium level of firmness.
Like tofu, tempeh is made from soy. However, it’s made from fermented, pressed soybeans instead of soy milk. This gives tempeh a firmer texture and a smoother flavor profile.
When it’s heated, tempeh adopts a soft, meat-like texture, making it a perfect substitute for crab meat.
3) Vegan “Fish”
Believe it or not, there are several brands of vegan “fish” sold by specialty retailers!
Vegan fish are typically made using a soy protein base along with other seasonings and additives to create that savory, umami flavor profile that seafood is best known for.
Alternatively, you can make your own vegan fish using simple ingredients:
The Verdict – Vegans Should Steer Clear Of Imitation Crab
All in all, both vegans and non-vegans should avoid imitation crab. Not only is it made using animal by-products but it’s just downright unhealthy.
You’re much better off choosing one of the great-tasting, healthy vegan crab substitutes instead.
If you really want a savory kick, then you might be interested in natto. This Japanese superfood is becoming very popular in cities like New York and San Francisco. To learn more about natto and where to buy it, check out my latest post here!