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Is Imitation Crab Vegan: Under the Sea or Plant-Based Food?


Imitation crab isn't real crab, but does it still contain other animal products? We're digging through the ingredients list below to uncover the truth, and offering our favorite vegan alternatives to crab.

We see imitation crab everywhere, from California rolls to crab cakes. Though most would argue that artificial crab isn't as tasty as real crab meat, it overshadowes the original in terms of popularity, likely due to its inexpensive cost and greater availability. 

Imitation crab isn't crab, but is it vegan?

Usually, no. Most imitation crab found in the supermarket contains animal-based ingredients. However, some vegan brands exist, and there are several ways to make tasty alternatives at home. 

Read below to find out everything you need to know about this artificial crustacean!

What is imitation crab?

A little history on fake crab meat

The two words don't seem to fit together, but somehow we still see this strange food all over the place, from your favorite California roll to crab cakes and beyond. 

Real crab is a bright orange crustacean that lives in the sea, but imitation crab meat, aka kanikama, is a Japanese substitute produced and patented in 1973. Within a year, the product started gaining popularity across Japan, and in 1976, Sugiyo - the company that invented it - worked with an American company to bring artificial crab meat across the Pacific and to the rest of the world. 

It's a staple ingredient that's arguably more popular than real crab meat, likely due to its greater availability and lower price. 

What's in the Franken-crab?

The main ingredient in imitation crab is kani surimi, a gel-like substance made of ground fish paste. Other imitation crab ingredients like fillers, starch, food coloring, and artificial flavoring work to copy the flavor, look, and texture of real crab as best they can. 

A whopping 2-3% of the world's fishery supplies make surimi-based products, like imitation crab - that's 2 to 3 million tons of fish annually. 

The most common fish used is pollock, as it's very mild and readily available, though sometimes it's made with cod, barracuda, or mackerel. 

Imitation Crab Nutrition - The Hot Dog of the Sea

If the words "gel-like substance" weren't enough to give you a hint, surimi crab is highly processed, contains artificial ingredients, and lacks nutrition compared to its real-world counterpart. Some brands have added sugar and MSG, a very avoidable food chemical. 

It contains 6 grams of lean protein per serving and 9% of your daily magnesium dose, so it's not all bad news!

Additionally, it is pretty inexpensive and people enjoy the flavor, which allows it to continue as a popular alternative to crab. 

Can vegans eat imitation crab meat?

As far as vegan seafood alternatives are concerned, imitation crab is a no-go. Though it's not real crab, it's still real fish, which isn't suitable for a vegan, plant-based diet. 

If you love crab or imitation crab and are eating plant-based, there are still some vegan alternatives for you to try! Follow our list below to find your new vegan favorite. 

6 Best Vegan Crab Alternatives 

#1: Hearts of Palm

Hearts of palm have a mild flavor, a decent crunch, and commonly imitate crab meat in vegan cooking. These veggies have a light beige hue and a flavor similar to artichoke hearts with a slightly sweet, less acidic bite. 

Hearts of palm are low-calorie, high-fiber, and loaded with crucial minerals for vegans like iron and manganese. 

Try hearts of palm in your no-crab cakes, stews, salads, and chowders. 

#2: Jackfruit

Vegans around the world rejoiced the day they discovered jackfruit (we assume). This large tree fruit is the main ingredient in many vegan "pulled pork" recipes, and its meatiness works well as a substitute for crab, too. 

This mild fruit takes on almost any flavor. It’s available fresh or canned and works well in various vegan meatless meals. It flakes nicely, which lends itself exceptionally well to crab cakes. 

Jackfruit contains loads of vitamin C, magnesium, manganese and potassium, so eat up!

Use jackfruit in imitation crab meat salad, crab rangoon dip or crabless crab cakes. 

#3: Artichoke Hearts

Artichoke hearts are soft and juicy and high in fiber, promoting excellent digestive health and balance. They come in various formats, allowing you to enjoy this seafood substitute fresh, marinated, or canned.

Not only that, their tender flake lends perfectly to use as a vegan crab alternative. 

Use flaked artichoke hearts in seafood tarts, soups, crab dips, or no-crab crab cakes.

#4: Lion's Mane Mushrooms

Mushrooms are a popular vegan meat alternative as they already have a juicy, naturally meaty texture to them. This fungus doesn't just taste delicious, it has many traditional medicinal uses, too. Many believe that Lion's Mane may help your brain, liver, heart, and overall health.

Saute or steam your Lion's Mane mushrooms and add them to vegan seafood pasta, soups, or crabless cakes. 

#5: Tofu

Tofu doesn't work as a crab alternative everywhere, but it's an excellent option if you're looking to make some tasty vegan sushi, like plant-based California rolls. 

Marinate the tofu block for a few hours, then thinly slice and give it a quick pan fry to reduce some of the water content. You then roll it up in a delicious piece of nori with some sushi rice into some vegan California rolls!

Use thinly sliced tofu in place of imitation crab in all your favorite sushi rolls or imitation crab sticks.

#6: Store-Bought Alternative Brands

With the number of vegans rising faster than ever before, we see better plant-based grocery store options popping up on a near-weekly basis. There are some vegan crab alternatives available, especially at specialty health stores.

You may find some great options at Asian supermarkets. Plant-based foods, like tofu, have been adopted by Asian cultures far sooner than western ones. 

The Secret Ingredient in Vegan Crab: Old Bay Seasoning 

The Chesapeake Bay, in the heart of Maryland, is synonymous with crab. Uncoincidentally, with all that blue crab floating around, they discovered some of the best ways to flavor and prepare crab meat. 

Luckily, much of that flavor can be imitated without the need for crab, as much of it comes from Maryland's favorite ingredient, Old Bay seasoning!

Old Bay seasoning usually contains a blend of celery salt, crushed red pepper flakes, black pepper, paprika, and sometimes mustard. You’ll also find cardamom, ginger, or cloves. 

Try adding Old Bay to any vegan crab cake recipes - you'll be impressed at how well it transforms the plant-based ingredients' flavor. 

Is vegan imitation crab healthy?

Unlike traditional imitation crab, the vegan imitation crab options above, are far less processed and much richer in nutrition. The veggie and fruit-based vegan crab options are high in specific essential vitamins, minerals, and fiber, while the mushroom and tofu-based choices contain loads of vegan protein and a mineral blend. 

Whether you choose to follow a plant-based diet or not, from a health perspective, you're much better off choosing vegan crab alternatives over imitation crab, made from that unappealing fish gel.  

Final Verdict: Is imitation crab vegan?

By now, we know that imitation crab belongs on the definitive list of foods vegans can't eat, as imitation crab meat contains fish and sometimes egg ingredients. 

Luckily, our six vegan alternatives to imitation crab meat have you covered. You can now make delicious vegan crab cakes as the appetizer at your next plant-based dinner party!

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