Friday, October 8, 2010

Today's Topic- Food Irradiation- What is it, and is it safe?

Logo for Irradiated Foods

I have had a request on my opinion on the irradiation of food. Also known as ionizing radiation, it has become an accepted way of preserving food, killing insects and bacteria, and much more with meat, produce, and poultry, grains, and spices. It is not only used in food, it is a widely used method in many areas. Car parts, technical devices, medical equipment, and other things that are a necessity to sterilize also use irradiation. What is it? It is defined as eliminating harmful food-borne bacteria in meats and poultry, and inhibits spoilage by fungus. In the United States, the process typically involves exposing food and its packaging to the energy of gamma rays from radioactive metals. Most of the energy simply passes through the food, leaving no residue. While the food remains, relatively unchanged, bacteria and fungi are killed or left unable to reproduce. Food irradiation was first used on small amount of food in 1963 but until 1992 was not used on raw poultry (to kill salmonella) and 1997 for red meat. In my personal opinion, 13-18 years of being used for things most Americans consume in their daily diet is not a long enough amount of time to see all of the possible side effects down the road on the people consuming these foods, although the FDA claims their safety over and over again. The real question is, do the benefits outweigh the possible and unproven risks this process has?
It is statistically shown that childhood cancer and diseases are increasing, but what is the blame? We really don't know. It could possibly be the toxins in the air, genetics, irradiated foods, cell phones, unhealthy and poor diet, the list can go on and on. Most of these problems are caused by genetic mutations within the human body, which we know, but what causes the mutations can leave people wondering and with a lifetime of guessing. What I do know is that I wish they could find a less questionable and healthier way to sterilize these foods, rather than using ionizing radiation. It is still too new, and scientists do not know (in my opinion) enough about the long term affects (over decades or even centuries) it can potentially have.
There are pros and cons to everything, including the irradiation of food. To food companies, it is considered a miracle. They can produce more food, and increase shelf life while keeping insects and other disturbances from overtaking their products. But whether it's really worth it or not, research may not show for years to come. We can only take the necessary precautions, if it concerns us that much. We can all have an opinion, and no one opinion in particular is better than the other. I am not going to start eating organic raw foods, because is it really going to help me live another 10 or 20 years? Who knows? The majority of us consume these foods. It's not like I don't, some of us may not even have too much of a choice in the matter, depending on the foods your eat and where you purchase them. Ionizing radiation IS FDA approved, in small doses, but is even a tiny amount of ionizing radiation safe over long periods of time? Or is no different than using a microwave? Although the FDA swears it has been thoroughly tested and that there is no harm, many people argue that there is simply no way to know for sure. Back in 1992, Maine, New Jersey, and New York along with several countries prohibited the sale of irradiated foods, but now it has been approved for use by fifty countries (Including ours of course) and endorsed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
In the United States, many foods are preserved using irradiation; among them are spices, grains, fruit, pork products, beef, and poultry. NASA also uses irradiated foods up in space, f.y.i. While many foods can show being (safely) irradiated without any noticeable changes, a recent consumer report on irradiated meat did note "that the flavor of both beef and chicken had a subtle and off-taste and smell, but that many consumers might not notice". Another PROVEN issue with irradiation is the fact that a few nutrients (Vitamins A, E, K and thiamin) seem to be affected and depleted during irradiation. Losses of these nutrients are only comparable, though, to what would be lost in conventional processing and preparation. Here are some opinions on both the pros and cons of food irradiation.


Pathogen Elimination Pros & Cons:


  • Irradiation can kill or substantially reduce the number of potentially dangerous organisms in foods.  Estimates range for 90 to 99.9%.
  • Irradiation can kill insects and pests infesting foods such as grains and flours without leaving chemical residues.
  • Irradiation can be used to sterilize food for immune-compromised individuals such as AIDS patients.


  • Irradiation at recommended doses will not eradicate all pathogens. The remaining organisms are by definition "radiation resistant" and may create super strains of hard-to-kill pathogens.
  • Irradiation at current allowable levels is ineffective against viruses such as the Norwalk virus found in seafood.
  • Irradiation can only be used on a limited number of foods.  Fresh produce such as lettuce, grapes, tomatoes, and cucumbers turn mushy and unpalatable.  Thus, the risk from contaminated fresh produce, a major carrier of food borne disease, cannot be fully addressed by irradiation.

Chemical Changes in Foods


  • Irradiation has been deemed safe by various governmental agencies.
  • Proponents of irradiation compare the changes in food caused by irradiation (called radiolytic products) to products created by other processes such as cooking or freeze-drying.
  • Irradiation delays ripening and sprouting so food can be stored longer.


  • Studies used to approve irradiation in food have been criticized as flawed.   Even the FDA acknowledges that the studies are inadequate when reviewed singly.
  • Critics  contend that not enough is known about the potential health effects of radiolytic products, particularly about radiolytic products formed from pesticide residues on foods.
  • Longer shelf lives may provide the most benefit to food producers; consumers prefer authentically fresh foods.

Environmental Impact


  • Proponents claim there is no potential for environmental impact because the radioactive materials are fully enclosed and are returned to the manufacturer for recycling or disposal.
  • Proponents cite a good safety and regulatory record for existing irradiation facilities.


  • Consumers remain wary of the potential for devastating accidents presented by nuclear facilities
  • If irradiation is adopted to the extent desired by its proponents, hundreds more irradiation facilities (currently there are only several used for commercial foods) would need to be built, increasing the risk of accidents.

Nutrition of Irradiated Foods


  • Proponents argue that the nutrient losses from irradiation (such as 25% reduction in vitamin E, a 5-10% reduction in vitamin C, as well as decreases in vitamin B1) are no worse than those produced by cooking and other conventional treatments.


  • Unlike losses due to conventional processes like cooking, consumers have not been educated to compensate for irradiation-induced losses elsewhere in their diets.
So there you have it, make your decision based on the information give to you. And note: It is required that all irradiated foods have a logo with the words "treated by irradiation" below it.


1 comment:

  1. THanks Jill this was a great article! Opened up a lot of insight to the world of irradiated foods.