Question: I don't understand what is meant by "food irradiation" and why it's done in the first place. I don't like the idea of my food being radioactive or altered by something that might be dangerous. Is it like an x-ray or does irradiation cook food like a microwave oven? What foods are irradiated? Does it ruin the nutritional value of food?
Susan - About.com User
Answer: Food irradiation is a technology that can be used to prevent food spoilage and kill bacteria and other bad bugs that can cause foodborne illness. So, in a way, it's similar to pasteurization, food canning and other food preservation methods. Foods are exposed to radiation in the form of gamma rays, electron beams or x-rays before they arrive at your grocery store. The food products don't touch any radioactive material, they simply sit on a conveyor belt and pass through energy beams produced by a radiation energy source.
It might sound scary, but the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined food irradiation was safe for the general public back in the 1960s. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there's been plenty of research demonstrating both safety and effectiveness. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has sent irradiated foods with into space to feed the astronauts and currently, irradiation is used in 37 countries. Irradiation doesn't harm the foods, it just makes them safer.
Not all foods are irradiated -- the most commonly irradiated foods are meat and poultry, although a few fruits, spinach, lettuce, herbs and spices are irradiated as well. Irradiated foods are labeled and may have a green and white symbol called a radura.
Preventing Foodborne Illness
Foodborne illness is fairly common. According to the CDC, one of every six Americans suffers from some sort of food poisoning every year, resulting in nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. Usually the disease is due to bacteria, viruses or parasites, like salmonella, campylobactor or E. Coli, that are spread through contaminated foods or water. Food irradiation can reduce the risk of spreading foodborne infection by reducing the number of pathogens that may be lurking on your food. The radiation damages the integrity of the germs' cells so they either die or lose the ability to reproduce.
Irradiation's Effect on Foods
During irradiation, energy is absorbed by the food, which warms it just slightly, but it doesn't cook it. The process might change the flavor of the food, which isn't unusual - pasteurization does the same thing. Irradiation doesn't cause much change in the nutritional value of the foods, although it will lower thiamine levels just a little bit. It doesn't reduce any other levels of vitamins and doesn't alter the fat or protein content.
Continue Food Safety PracticesFood irradiation doesn't replace good food safety practices at home. Keep all raw meat and poultry separate from other foods and keep cutting surfaces and utensils clean. Cook foods to the proper temperature and keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Foodborne Illness, Foodborne Disease, (Sometimes Called Food Poisoning)." Accessed October 21, 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/foodirradiation.htm.
United States Department of Agriculture. "Irradiation and Food Safety - Answers to Frequently Asked Questions." Accessed October 21, 2012. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Irradiation_and_Food_Safety/index.asp.
United States Environmental Protection Agency. "Food Irradiation." Accessed October 21, 2012. http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/sources/food_irrad.html.