DEAR DR. BLONZ: You recently wrote about imitation crab, or surimi, and I am curious about its nutritional value relative to the real thing. Even though it is made from fish, I wonder how much nutrition is destroyed in the manufacturing process. I am specifically interested in the relative amounts of protein, omega-3 fats, carbohydrates and sodium, and I try to avoid anything loaded with preservatives. -- J.K., Hayward, California
DEAR J.K.: Surimi is a type of processed seafood made up of less expensive varieties of fish, such as pollock, that are deboned, rinsed and minced until there’s nothing more than a bland and colorless mass. The surimi gets extruded into filaments that are woven together to resemble the texture and appearance of crabmeat muscle fibers, or other shapes.
Next comes flavoring and coloring. In addition to crab, surimi is used to form imitations of more expensive fish such as lobster, scallops or shrimp. The flavoring used is usually a concentrate made from real shellfish. This should serve as an alert to those with shellfish allergies: Surimi-based foods are not necessarily a safe alternative.
It may be difficult to tell the difference between surimi-based seafood salad and one containing the genuine article, especially if many other ingredients are present in the salad. Check the price, though, as surimi costs only a fraction of the price of genuine shellfish. And read the ingredient statement, which should be available from the clerk if you are purchasing bulk food from a deli counter.
Nonfish ingredients in surimi include sugar, carbohydrate-based binding agents, and flavorings (which may or may not include glutamate). Surimi is lower in fat than real fish, and it is not a significant source of the omega-3 fatty acids found in other types of seafood. A 3.5-ounce serving of surimi contains 10 grams of carbohydrate, while there is less than 1 gram in real crabmeat. The serving of surimi has about 12 grams of protein, compared with real crab’s 22 grams. Surimi is higher in sodium and lower in potassium than real crabmeat: Surimi contains 841 milligrams of sodium and 90 milligrams of potassium, versus crab meat’s 378 milligrams of sodium and 408 milligrams of potassium.
Surimi is not “loaded” with preservatives, and the flavoring is usually from natural substances. But as with most foods, there can be a variance in quality among the different brands. Read the ingredient statement to see what you are getting. You can find surimi-type imitation seafood in prepared salads in the deli case, but also in sealed containers in your store’s refrigerator or freezer section. Once opened, surimi should be consumed with a few days. Unopened, refrigerated packages can be kept for up to two months, and frozen surimi can be kept for up to six months. Check expiration dates for guidance.
Send questions to: “On Nutrition,” Ed Blonz, c/o Andrews McMeel Syndication, 1130 Walnut St., Kansas City, MO, 64106. Send email inquiries to email@example.com. Due to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.