To be honest, before this article I had no idea what irradiation was and I was surprised to find out that it’s a process that is likened to pasteurizing milk or canning fruits and veggies. I have to admit that I was definitely wary of a process in which radiation is applied to my food. Before making any hasty changes, I decided to learn more about irradiation, why it’s practiced, how it’s practiced, and the pros and cons of irradiated foods.

Let’s dive right into the discussion and figure out all there is to irradiated foods!

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What is Irradiation?

While many people have no idea what irradiation refers to, it’s actually a commonly practiced way of pasteurizing food around the globe where bacteria and pathogens are huge problems. So, what exactly is irradiation?

Per the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), food irradiation is the “application of ionizing radiation to food” and is said to “improve the safety and extend the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects.” Basically, to make food safe, companies must process it to a state of cleanliness using ionizing radiation.

With that said, irradiated food is not a “replacement for proper food handling practices by producers, processors, and consumers.” This means that, even though the food item has been pasteurized via irradiation, it can still become “contaminated with disease-causing organisms after irradiation” if the food is not stored, handled, or cooked appropriately.

Ionizing Radiation

This brings us to the next step of the question, what is ionizing radiation? To begin, radiation exists in two forms, ionizing and non-ionizing. When it comes to irradiation pasteurization, the former is used, ionizing.

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Ionizing radiation “is a form of energy that acts by removing electrons from atoms and molecules of materials that include air, water, and living tissue,” meaning it can “travel unseen and pass through these materials.” This form of energy is used in x-rays, which “penetrate our body and reveal pictures of our bones” by removing “electrons from atoms and molecules in the matter through which they pass.” After a certain amount of exposure, this type of radiation can “produce skin or tissue damage.” With that said, ionizing radiation exists in both nature — cosmic, solar, terrestrial, and buildings — and is manmade — x-rays, computed tomography scans, positron emission tomography scans, fluoroscopy, and in nuclear medicine procedures.

Why are we using this type of radiation to cleanse our food? The FDA has approved this type of pasteurization with promises that the “changes made by irradiation are so minimal that it is not easy to tell if a food has been irradiated.” They purport that “irradiation does not make foods radioactive, compromise nutritional quality, or noticeably change the taste, texture, or appearance of food.”

Process of Irradiation

Food irradiation can be done using three different types of ionizing radiation: gamma rays — “emitted from radioactive forms of the element cobalt or of the element cesium” — x-rays — “produced by reflecting a high-energy stream of electrons off a target substance (usually one of the heavy metals) into food” — and electron beams — “a stream of high-energy electrons propelled from an electron accelerator into food.” All three of these techniques have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

Pros and Cons of Irradiated Food

Food irradiation is meant to keep us safe in a world of mass-produced food where cleanliness is incredibly hard to guarantee. This type of pasteurization was developed to benefit the consumer and has been approved for safety by not only the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but also the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). With that said, what are the downsides (if any) to consuming foods that have been treated with ionizing radiation? Let’s take a closer look at benefits versus cost.

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Pros

The Food and Drug Administration lays out the case for pasteurization via irradiation with a list of benefits for both the consumer and the producer. First off, irradiation prevents foodborne illnesses by “effectively [eliminating] organisms that cause foodborne illness” including Salmonella and E. coli. 

Irradiation is also a highly effective form of preservation, — reduces spoilage and decomposition and increasing shelf life — controls insects on imported fruits, — destroys imported insects and reduces the “need for other pest-control practices that may harm the fruit” — and delays the sprouting and ripening of foods — increases the longevity of the food product.

Plus, irradiation is also a useful form of sterilization. While thermal (heat processed) sterilization has been found to have many potential problems — reduces the nutritional content of the product, “deteriorates the quality of the food,” and has been found “ineffective against certain types of bacteria” — irradiated sterilization (nonthermal processing) is “considered an effective method that does not cause any deterioration of quality.” Sterilized foods can be “stored for years without refrigeration” and are widely used in “hospitals for patients with severely impaired immune systems.” It’s important to note that “foods that are sterilized by irradiation are exposed to substantially higher levels of treatment.”

Cons

While there are quite a few benefits to irradiating food, there are also a few downsides.  Even though irradiation “leaves macronutrients unaffected … as well as minerals,” the vitamin content of irradiated food is affected. In particular, “thiamin, vitamin E and C are reduced or even eliminated through irradiation.”

Another concern is in regards to microbial strains of harmful bacteria. If there are “insufficient amounts of radiation” there is the possibility of “mutations among microbial strains,” which potentially could create even more dangerous strains of bacteria. On top of that, researches are considering the possibility that long-term use of irradiation may “cause bacteria and microbes to adapt, becoming resistant to the radiation and harder to kill.”

As mentioned earlier, irradiation is not a substitute for safe handling practices. Just because a food is labeled as irradiated does not mean that it is safe to eat. Plus, irradiated food “can be more expensive, due to the upfront costs of a food irradiation facility.” You may be paying a higher price for a pasteurized food that has been “handled and packed in unsanitary conditions.”
Therefore, even if you buy irradiated foods, vigilance in knowing the handling and processing practices is still important.

Common Irradiated Products

When you’re wandering the aisles at the grocery store, keep in mind if a product is irradiated or not. Per FDA guidelines, companies must identify their product as irradiated, which is outlined in the next section. With that said, it’s important to know the most popularly irradiated foods, therefore you immediately know what to look out for. While animal products are also irradiated — beef, pork, crustaceans, poultry, shell eggs, and shellfish/molluscan — many plant-based food groups are also irradiated.

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Here are a few of the most commonly irradiated plant-based food groups:

  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
  • Lettuce and Spinach
  • Seeds for Sprouting (e.g., for alfalfa sprouts)
  • Spices and Seasonings

Identifying Irradiated Foods at the Grocery Store

Now that you’ve got the info about food irradiation, it’s time to decide if and when to consume irradiated foods. A large amount of the foods in your local grocery store have been irradiated, which means it may be difficult to completely cut out irradiated food. Also, after reviewing the information, you may have decided that there’s simply no need to cut out irradiated food.

No matter where you land on the irradiated food consumption spectrum, it’s good to know if a food has been irradiated or not.

Luckily, thanks to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), foods that have been irradiated must be labeled with the international symbol for radiation (pictured above) referred to as Radura. If you see this on a package, then the food has been pasteurized via irradiation. Companies must also include a statement notifying consumers of irradiation such as “Treated with/by radiation.”

What about bulk food bins of nuts, seeds, and grains? How about those bulk fruits and veggies? If your grocer is responsible and compliant, then they will have irradiated foods either individually labeled or have a “label next to the sale container” indicating if the bulk food item has been irradiated.

With all of these labeling practices, it’s important to note that the FDA “does not require that individual ingredients in multi-ingredient foods (e.g. spices) be labeled,” which means if you are trying to avoid very certain irradiated ingredients, this may be difficult to do with packaged foods.

We also highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App  — with over 15,000 delicious recipes it is the largest meatless, vegan, plant-based and allergy-friendly recipe resource to help you get healthy! And, don’t forget to check out our Popular Trends Archives!

For those of you interested in eating more plant-based, we highly recommend downloading the Food Monster App — with over 15,000 delicious recipes. It is the largest plant-based recipe resource to help reduce your environmental footprint, save animals and get healthy! And, while you are at it, we encourage you to also learn about the environmental and health benefits of a plant-based diet.

Here are some great resources to get you started:

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