Crab sticks

by Kevin Farrell for USA TODAY 10Best

What 'imitation crab' meat is actually made of

To understand the prevalence of imitation crab today, we first need to travel back in time nearly 1,000 years to Japan’s late Heian period. During a time of cultural elegance, wealth and luxury, Japanese chefs invented a new culinary delicacy called surimi.

In its original incarnation, surimi was a paste made from minced white fish mixed with primitive preservatives like salt. This would draw out the shelf life of seafood for noble families who lived inland and lacked access to the daily catches of coastal fishermen.

In the 1970s, U.S. food manufacturers discovered surimi. Thanks to seafood assembly line technology that had introduced products like frozen fish sticks and crab cakes, the American take on surimi was cut into strips and chunks that mimicked the size and texture of crab meat.

In the same way that surimi had allowed inland Japanese towns to enjoy seafood without fear of getting sick, imitation crab was a hit among interior U.S. middle class households, owing to both its preservative-induced extended shelf life and its modest price point.

So is imitation crab meat a safe option for those allergic to shellfish? Hardly. Small amounts of denser sea proteins like oysters, scallops, salmon, actual crabmeat and even lobster are often mixed into imitation recipes to mimic the texture and taste of the real deal.

Many states allow grocers and food manufacturers to simply label foods "imitation crab" without offering contextual ingredient warnings. So shellfish allergy sufferers take heed, it’s best to play it safe and avoid the imitation along with the real thing.

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