Made-over cream of crab soup, left, and crab dip, right, developed… (Barbara Haddock Taylor,…)
Marylanders love their crabs — especially when the meat is picked and mixed with cream, cheese, mayo and Old Bay.
And while crabs are generally not an unhealthy choice right out of the shell, one serving of a crab dish can pack a third or more of the total recommended daily intake of fat, sodium and calories once the meat is drowned in fatty oils and salt. Area waters in which they are harvested can also mean pollutants.
As with any treat, nutritionists say, moderation is key. And when consumers do indulge, an obvious choice is the broiled crab cake that isn't doused in tartar sauce or other goopy toppings. But harder is putting rich crab dips and soups on a diet.
For help, we enlisted Holly Wildberger, the food services development coordinator at Let's Dish, the self-assembly and meal delivery shop, though crab dishes aren't served there. She's always creating new recipes, she says, and keeps nutrition in mind and thinks about who will be eating her food.
"Whenever there are options for top-quality lower-sodium, lower-fat or multigrain items, I like to offer those to our customers," she said. "I always write a recipe thinking, 'Would I serve this to my family?' My answer is always, 'Yes, without a doubt.'"
Wildberger worked from two traditional recipes we provided. For a skinnier crab dip, she turned to reduced-fat mayo and cheese and some yogurt to maintain the dip's protein but significantly cut the fat, calories and cholesterol. In fact, the made-over dip had 53 percent fewer calories, 73 percent less fat, 32 percent less saturated fat and 39 percent less cholesterol than the original.
For the soup, she used reduced-fat cream cheese, fat-free half-and-half and lots of spices, which led to a soup with a creamy feel but 39 percent fewer calories, 48 percent less fat, 58 percent less saturated fat and 56 percent less cholesterol.
Registered dietitian and dietary consultant Judith Feola Gordon agrees that high-fat mayo and cream aren't necessary for taste with crabs, and can ruin the healthful benefits.
While not as packed with nutritional value as some seafood, crab has vitamins and proteins and minerals such as iron, zinc, copper, phosphorus and calcium. It also has lower levels of fat and carbohydrates, as well as mercury, a harmful mineral found in higher amounts in tuna and other seafood.
"Flavoring crab meat dishes with fresh herbs instead of high-fat additives offers more healthful benefits," Gordon said. "Fresh rosemary is great for crab dip and basil for crab soup."
Still, crab shouldn't be an everyday dish. The meat naturally comes with some cholesterol and sodium and a warning from the Maryland Department of the Environment. The agency recommends no more than six meals a month for adults and five for children of crabs from the Back, Middle or Patapsco rivers. It also recommends against eating the "mustard" (the gland called the hepatopancreas), where pollutants tend to collect.
The official recommendations are based on testing of the contaminants methylmercury and PCBs and were last revised in the spring.
The health of the local blue crab is directly linked to the health of the Chesapeake Bay, said Mindy Athas, a nutrition educator at the University of Maryland Medical Center's Greenebaum Cancer Center. She recommends no more than two servings of crab a month.
"Crabs are bottom-feeders. They eat up all the junk on the bottom of the bay. They're going to take in all the pollution. That's their nature. The healthier the bay, the healthier the crab will be. It always comes back to that," she said.
But still, she says, go ahead and enjoy the state crustacean from time to time.
"Pick crabs once a month. Eat a crab cake once a month, and vary your seafood the rest of the time."
Baltimore Sun reporter Sean Varner contributed to this article.
Reduced-fat hot crab dip
Makes: 10 servings
8 ounces reduced-fat cream cheese
1 package of 8 light creamy Swiss spreadable cheese wedges (like Laughing Cow)
4 tablespoons fat-free Greek yogurt
2 tablespoons low-fat mayonnaise
1 teaspoon onion powder
2 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon or Creole mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 pound lump blue crab meat
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut cream cheese into small pieces and place into microwave-safe bowl. Remove foil from cheese wedges and add to cream cheese. Microwave in 45 second intervals, stirring between each interval until spread is smooth. Add remaining ingredients except crab, and stir until smooth. More or less Old Bay can be used to taste. Gently fold in crab meat. Spoon into an oven-safe baking dish and bake, uncovered, about 15-20 minutes until hot and bubbly. Serve with toasted pita wedges, tortilla chips or crackers.
134 calories, 6.8 grams fat, 4.1 grams saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams fiber, 55 milligrams cholesterol, 572 milligrams sodium, 13.2 grams protein