What is that Yellow Stuff in Crabs & Can You Eat It?

The yellow stuff in crabs is called the hepatopancreas and though it does not look very appealing, it is edible. It is also referred to as crab fat or tomalley. It can also be yellow-green. When eating boiled or steamed crabs, it is considered a delicacy. It should be eaten in moderation as it does contain a high level of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s). In large concentrations, it can have some negative health effects. It can also contain toxins associated with paralytic shellfish poisoning.

What is Hepatopancreas (Yellow Stuff in Crabs)?

This is a gland that you find inside crabs that filter the impurities from the blood of the crab and works to produce digestive enzymes. It is similar to our digestive system. When you are ready to eat your crab, you pry off the top of the shell and you will see inside some slimy guts and lungs, which you do not want to eat. Just scrape them away and you will have the yellow stuff and the crab meat. Basically, the Hepatopancreas is a filter that will catch all the toxins in their body. This gland will have small branched tubes that are located on both sides of the crab’s mid-gut. It is found directly under their top shell.

Learn more about the crab biology at Chesapeake Quarterly.

Can You Eat the Yellow Stuff in Crabs?

Yes, you can eat it with two exceptions; if you are under the age of five or still at a childbearing age, you should not eat it. It is thought that it can increase your chances of causing cancer and miscarriage if the woman is pregnant so be cautious if you eat it. It is also recommended that if you eat a lot of crabs, you should not eat the yellow stuff from more than six crabs a week.

If the crabs were caught in polluted waters or advisory areas, then you should not eat it. If you buy crabs, make sure it is from a reputable place and that they fish in clean waters. If you are concerned, then do not eat it.

How to Clean Crabs Before Cooking

If you have decided that you do not want to eat the yellow stuff in crabs, here is how you should clean them before you cook them. At first, it can seem intimidating but once you learn how it will be easier. One reason that it is intimidating is that they are still alive and you have to kill it, which some people have trouble doing. They also tend to stick with each other using their claws as if to protect each other from being killed and eaten.

To avoid being clawed, you need to submerge them in hot water as this will make them limp and lifeless in a bit. You should boil it for one minute and use tongs to remove it from the hot water to put it in an ice bath to cool it so you can handle it. Once the crab has cooled, use a toothbrush or scouring pad to brush both sides to get rid of all the dirt and grime from its shell. If you are using frozen crab you will need to let it thaw in cool water for about 15-20 minutes before it will be thawed enough to clean. Always let the crab, no matter which one it is, dry before you try to clean it.

Before you start to clean your crabs, you have to cut the face off the crab using a pair of scissors. This includes their mouth and eyes. Just cut a straight line across the front just behind the mouth and eyes. You can also use a sharp knife. Remove the abdomen, which is the small flap of the shell that is on the underside of the crab. Just pull it off with your fingers. Under the abdomen, they look like small beige tongues, which are the gills you have to remove using your fingers.

The next step is to clean it underwater to rinse out the guts. The guts are the greenish-brown stuff that is found inside the crab. You have to just keep rinsing the crab until they are all gone. To get at the meat you have to break the crab open. You can cook the meat after you have it out. Turn it upside down and hold the crab with both hands, your thumbs underneath near the midline of the back. Push with your thumbs and pull down with your hands to crack it open.

At this time, you can take the meat out of the shell along with removing the yellow parts or you can cook the two halves in boiling water for 12 minutes with a little salt added to the water. If you boil them before taking out the yellow parts, you can do it at this time before eating the meat. 

If you prefer, you can also steam them after you have cleaned them while they are still in the shell. Just bring about an inch of salted water to boil in the bottom of a big pot and then put in a steamer basket to put the crabs in. You can also just dump the crabs in the pot without the basket. Cover and steam for about 10 minutes with the lid on the pot. Keep it on low so you do not boil out the water.


As stated the yellow part of the crab is called the Hepatopancreas and is part of the crab’s digestive system. It is edible although some will not eat it because of what it does for the crab while it is alive. Yes, it is gross looking but for some, that is considered a delicacy. It is your choice if you want to eat it or not as it is not going to hurt you unless you eat too much of it or fall into one of the categories that suggest you not eat it. There is some that when they see this yellow stuff, call it ‘mustard.’ It does have a strong taste that may turn some people off.

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