What Is the Difference Between Imitation Crab Meat & Crab Meat?

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Imitation crab meat is often served in cold preparations.

Processed crab meat was developed around 1910, but didn't gain popularity in the United States until the late 1950s. To combat the high prices of crab meat, Japanese food manufacturers developed a less-expensive alternative in the mid-1970s, an imitation that resembled cooked crab legs. By the early 1980s the Japanese extended their product line to lump crab meat and started distributing imitation crab to the United States.


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Processed Crab Meat

Prized for its subtle flavors, commercial crab meat usually comes from the brown or blue crab. Processed crab meat is available frozen or pasteurized, or canned. For the frozen process, the meat is cooked while it is in the shell, before it is frozen inside the shell or removed from the shell. The meat is chilled to below 32 degrees within two hours after boiling and remains frozen until consumed. Canned crab meat is double-sealed in the can, before the closed containers are pasteurized by immersion into 175 degree water. They are heated for 70 to 100 minutes, depending on the size of the can.


Imitation Crab Meat

Imitation crab meat, known in Japan as kani kama, is made from finely minced white fish such as pollock or hake and is molded to look like crab meat. The Japanese grinding technique used to produce the crab sticks is called "surimi," which means chopped meat. The fish is made into paste, combined with preservatives -- monosodium glutamate and a sugar alcohol called sorbitol -- flavorings and colorings and cooked to get its rubbery texture. Afterward, the rolls of imitation meat are either chopped up to imitate lump crab meat or packaged as crab sticks.



The quality of crab meat usually is determined by the part of the crab the meat comes from. The most prized meat comes from the rear swimmer's legs, which is known as lump meat. Depending on the size of the crab, this white meat can be categorized as colossal, jumbo or regular size. Other grades include the back fin, claw and pincher, which are dark meats with a stronger taste.


Imitation crab meat also comes in different qualities depending on the manufacturer. Japanese brands like Osaki or Yamasa create restaurant-grade imitation crab meat that can be lower in calories when compared to cheaper brands, according to the paper "Surimi Quality Improvements." Additionally, quality imitation meat is firmer, enhanced with natural crab flavoring and have a more natural coloring.


Culinary Applications

Imitation crab meat is often common in sushi, as it is popular in California roll and crab maki. The meat is also used in salads, such as green, potato or pasta salads. Though real crab meat also can be used in salads, it works well with hot preparations, such as crab cakes, soups and hot pasta dishes. Furthermore, the shellfish can be used to stuff other foods, adding flavor to Portobello mushrooms, lobsters and flounder fillets.