How Imitation Crab Gets Its Pink Color

If you've ever bought sushi from the grocery store, you might have noticed that one of the ingredients is often "imitation crab." The product was originally created in Japan in the '70s, per All Recipes, "as a cheaper, processed alternative to pricey crab meat." Now, according to the same article, U.S. consumption of imitation crab has risen to about 135 million pounds per year.

If you didn't know that most pre-packaged sushi — particularly California rolls — use imitation crab, no need to freak out. It is real fish, just not crab. According to All Recipes, the product is made from surimi, which is "white fish flesh that has been deboned and minced into a paste," then the fish is mixed with natural and artificial flavors and other ingredients, including starch, sugar, and sodium.

Usually, the producer's white fish of choice for the surimi is Alaskan Pollock — the same fish commonly found in fish sticks and fast-food fish items.

Yet, it's not just the taste that makes imitation crab pass for crab, you may have noticed that it has a reddish-pink color, just like the real meat. But nothing mentioned so far would give it that color, so how does it come to look like this?

Imitation crab's color comes from food coloring

Like many things in the food world that are in need of some color, imitation crab gets its coloring from orange food dye. According to All Recipes, once the surimi paste is made, it's piped into rectangular molds to set. It is then "painted with a thin coat of orange food dye to mimic crab's natural hue."

According to Healthline, the dye used may change depending on the manufacturer. Some use carmine, which "is extracted from tiny bugs called cochineals." Other times, paprika, beet juice extract, or lycopene from tomatoes may be the color's source.

As explained by Healthline, imitation crab has pros and cons. The biggest reason it's remained so popular across the states is because of its low-cost and easy preparation. However, the additives may deter some. Luckily, "some brands include more natural ingredients, such as pea starch, cane sugar, sea salt, oat fiber and natural flavors," the article explained. These products offer a way to maximize the benefits while minimizing the losses.