Is Imitation Crab Meat Vegan? Overview, Ethics, and Alternatives

Here's everything you need to know about the popular sushi ingredient.

is imitation crab meat vegan on plate

Treehugger / Joshua Seong

Imitation crab meat commonly shows up in California rolls, kani salads, and plenty of other items on a Japanese restaurant menu. While the food's name tells you what it's not (crab), it fails to shed light on what it is.

You might expect imitation crab to be vegan—after all, imitation chicken, duck, and other proteins tend to be cruelty-free—but this sushi ingredient does contain animal products.

Here, we explore why imitation crab is usually off-limits for vegans and offer some alternatives to order when you're dining out for sushi.

Why Most Imitation Crab Isn't Vegan

While imitation crab meat isn't crab, it also isn't vegan. The red and white crab stick is called "surimi" in Japanese, which roughly translates to "ground meat."

Surimi is composed of white-fleshed fish and other fish body parts that are ground into a kind of paste. Manufacturers add in some artificial flavoring and sometimes ingredients like starch, sodium, and MSG to the paste, then shape it to mimic the flesh of a crab.

So imitation crab is considered pescatarian, but it is not vegetarian or vegan. It's often used in place of crab because of its affordability.

Is There Such a Thing as Vegan Imitation Crab?

The fake crab meat you'll find at many Western sushi spots isn't typically vegan, but that doesn't mean vegan imitation crab—as weird as it sounds—doesn't exist.

Some kitchen-savvy vegans have discovered several vegetables and plant-based foods that can mimic both the flavor and texture of imitation crab when given the right treatment. These include:

  • Tofu
  • Hearts of palm
  • Artichoke hearts
  • Shredded jackfruit

Do a quick online search and you'll find a number of recipes for making your own vegan imitation crab at home.

If you'd rather skip the cooking process and just buy vegan crab, there are a few different options in stores and online. Just be sure to read the ingredients label so you can be fully confident that what you're buying is vegan.

The vegan fish space is only growing, so while the options are somewhat limited now, you can expect to see more vegan crab in the coming years. Some of the currently available products include:

Sushi to Avoid That Contains Imitation Crab

There are certain Japanese dishes and sushi rolls that center around imitation crab meat, and others sneak the ingredient in. You'll want to avoid both if you're eating vegan.

Unless a menu specifically calls out its vegan status, you can assume that if it contains imitation crab (aka surimi), it isn't vegan. Here are some of the common culprits you might find on a typical Japanese restaurant menu:

  • California roll
  • Kani salad
  • Kani roll
  • Alaska roll
  • Dragon roll

Vegan Sushi Rolls and Dishes Without Imitation Crab

Vegetable Roll
whitewish / Getty Images

If you like sushi, you know that there are plenty of options for vegans. The foundation of most sushi rolls is made of rice and seaweed—both vegan and both delicious. The ingredients on the inside of the roll will determine whether or not the dish is cruelty-free.

The foods listed below are typically vegan. Just be sure to tell the restaurant about your dietary restrictions and pay close attention to any sauces—like eel sauce or mayo—that might be included with the food so you can request a dish made without them.

  • Edamame: The vibrant soybeans you know and love.
  • Miso soup: This miso-based broth often comes with tofu cubes, seaweed pieces, and scallions—all vegan.
  • Kappa maki: This is a cucumber roll.
  • Shinko maki: Also known as Takuan Maki, this roll's main ingredient is pickled radish.
  • Kampyo maki: This sushi roll features kampyo, which is a dried Japanese gourd.
  • Seaweed gunkanmaki: Seaweed, often seasoned with soy sauce, mirin, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and red chili, is piled atop sushi rice and wrapped in nori (seaweed).
  • Avocado roll: Just as its name implies, this roll features avocado as the main event.
  • Vegetable tempura: These tempura-fried veggies are crispy and delicious. Some establishments may add egg to their batter, so check in with the restaurant before placing your order.
  • Sweet potato tempura roll: The tempura-fried sweet potato is extra sweet and wonderfully crunchy; just ask the restaurant if its tempura batter contains egg.
  • Natto: This ingredient, which often comes topped on sushi, is simply fermented soybeans.
Frequently Asked Questions
  • What types of sushi are vegan?

    There are many types of vegan sushi rolls. They tend to feature a single or a few vegetables and are often less expensive compared to the more complicated, fish-based rolls. Some common vegan sushi rolls include the cucumber roll, avocado roll, pumpkin roll, and sweet potato tempura roll.

  • Does vegan sushi have fish?

    No. If the sushi is truly vegan, it won't contain any fish.

  • Where can I buy vegan sushi?

    Many Japanese restaurants will have vegan sushi rolls on their menu, even if the restaurant isn't explicitly vegan. Rolls that only contain vegetables are generally vegan, and these are often available at the fish counters of grocery stores. Vegan-only Japanese restaurants are growing in popularity, so search online to see if there's a location near you.