Scallops are a popular seafood dish that is served in mid-range to high-end restaurants around the world. When cooked properly, they are juicy and have a pleasing texture – just firm enough but not too chewy.
Contrary to popular belief, scallops aren’t that difficult to prepare, so you can serve them at a dinner party to impress your guests.
You may have come across the term ‘fake scallops’ and wondered what it means; it might surprise you to learn that a large proportion of the scallops sold to consumers and businesses are actually imitation scallops, and wouldn’t fit the requirements of genuine scallops.
But what does it mean if a scallop is fake, and what are these made of instead? Don’t worry, because we can let you into one of the most little-known secrets in the seafood industry.
What Is A Real Scallop?
Scallops are an umbrella term for both various species in the family Pectinidae, and the specific portion of them that is eaten as seafood.
Scallops are clams or bivalve molluscs that live in areas of saltwater all across the world, and you have to prise open the shells to access the edible adductor muscle encased inside.
When alive, the scallops traverse the ocean floor while avoiding predators, and can also attach themselves to stationary objects around the seabed.
As well as being a beloved food, scallops are also prized for their colorful shells. Empty scallop shells are often found washed up on beaches, and many people like to collect them to make ornaments or jewelry.
After conch shells, the scallop shell is probably the most iconic form of shell that appears in popular culture because of how instantly recognizable it is (although not everyone will know what it is called).
Real scallops come in different sizes and shapes; while roughly cylindrical, they won’t usually be perfectly symmetrical. Due to this natural variation, sellers categorize their scallops based on how many of that type would be needed to make up one pound.
For example, size 20/30 indicates that there would be 20-30 of those scallops in every pound. It is true that some species of scallops are bigger than others, but there is also a lot of size diversity between scallops of the same species.
What Makes a Fake Scallop Fake?
Fake scallops fall into the same category as crab sticks, in that they are both imitation seafood products made from some kind of processed fish paste.
Scallops of this kind are often made of shark, skate or stingray meat, that is flavored to make it taste like actual scallop.
Some are made of surimi, which is a particular paste that is used to make all kinds of imitation seafood, because it can take on the characteristics of its target food easily.
Surimi is eaten in Asian cuisines as a food in its own right, rather than being used to mimic other foods.
Sometimes, you might be expecting a certain type of scallops and end up with different ones, for example bay scallops being substituted for sea scallops.
Bay scallops are typically much smaller than sea scallops, but some places try to pass them off as such so they can buy them cheaper and charge more money.
In these cases, they are still genuine scallops that aren’t made from fish paste, but it still feels like you’ve been tricked. It is fraudulent for restaurants to pretend they are serving one type but give you another.
How Can You Identify Fake Scallops?
Unfortunately, fake scallops are not legally required to be labelled as such, so it is easy to be tricked into eating them without suspecting a thing.
If you find it necessary to determine whether your scallops are the real deal or not, here are some useful tips to help you do this.
You may need to examine them closely, as some chefs are skilled at disguising fake scallops to look like genuine ones. With a bit of practice, you should be able to tell at a glance.
While real scallops vary in size as mentioned above, fake scallops will all be exactly the same size and shape.
This is because they are made to certain specifications using a cutter to shape the paste. If all the scallops on your plate or in the packet you’ve bought from the grocery store look uniform, it’s very likely that they are counterfeit scallops.
The other main indicator of a real scallop is its texture. Since the scallop meat functions as a muscle to hold the two shells together when alive, it will contain horizontal fibers running across the flesh.
Fake scallops will not have as many of these fibers, and they will be much denser when you bite into them.
They may also have a variable thickness, because the fish used to make them commonly taper at certain parts of their body. Genuine scallops are the same thickness all the way through.
Is It Bad To Eat Fake Scallops?
As well as the obvious downside of paying more money than fake scallops are worth, eating them can also pose a danger to your health. Seafood allergies are very common, but those affected are often only allergic to specific seafoods.
If you don’t know what exactly you’re eating (even though you’ve been told it’s scallops), you run the risk of reacting badly to the ‘scallops’ – you could be perfectly fine to eat genuine scallops, but not ones that are actually pollock, for example.
Even if you don’t have any allergies, you could be unknowingly contributing to harmful fishing practices. Fish that are often used to make pastes for imitation seafood, such as pollock and shark, are harvested in unsustainable ways.
The lives of other species are put at risk by upsetting the food chain in their native habitats. Scallops themselves are a sustainable seafood option, but you could end up doing more harm than good if you are sold a lie.
It is estimated that up to 21% of scallops sold are not actually what they say they are, whether they are a different type of scallop or an entirely different species altogether. Fake scallops can be made of various fish, usually mixed up into a paste and then shaped to resemble the real thing.
If you are tricked into eating fake scallops, you are potentially putting your health at risk, as well as that of underwater ecosystems the counterfeit meat has come from.
However, there are ways of telling if your scallops are real or not – use our handy guide next time you order scallops to give you peace of mind.
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