Irradiated Food: An Overview
Irradiation is the use of radiation from x-rays or radioactive materials on food. The process sterilizes food and kills bacteria. The benefits of irradiating food include the ability to control insects and bacteria, such as Salmonella. The process can give foods (especially fruits and vegetables) a longer shelf life and cause less food poisoning.
But the topic of irradiation seems to be one surrounded by as much myth as fact. For example, food irradiation does not make the food radioactive, nor will it make you glow in the dark. In fact, it can actually prevent you from taking on the greenish-tinge that comes with food poisoning.
What Is Food Irradiation?
Food irradiation, like pasteurization or canning, is a food safety technology designed to eliminate the germs, bacteria, and parasites that would otherwise cause foodborne diseases from the foods we eat. It is used in many other countries beyond the United States (eg, China, Russia, Portugal), and the World Health Organization (WHO) and government agencies support the use of irradiation.
What Is it Used for?
According to the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, there are four main purposes of food irradiation:
What Does the Process Involve?
The process can involve these technologies:
Does the Process Change Food?
Despite some of the myths you may have heard, food irradiation does not change the nutritional value of the food or make it dangerous to consume. Some foods may be slightly warmed by the process, and others may taste somewhat different. (Imagine the difference in taste between pasteurized and unpasteurized milk). Afterwards, food that has been irradiated needs to be handled (eg, stored and cooked properly) in the same way that you would any other food.
How Can You Tell?
In general, the changes to food caused by the irradiation process are so minimal that distinguishing an irradiated food from a nonirradiated food can be difficult. In the US, all manufacturers of irradiated foods are required to put an international symbol, called the Radura, on their products and to include a description of the process on their product labels.
A Final Word
It is important to remember, however, that purchasing irradiated food is no guarantee of its safety. Food irradiation does not replace proper food production, processing, handling, or preparation, nor can it enhance the quality of or prevent contact with foodborne bacteria after irradiation. Therefore, the rules of basic food safety must still be followed:
American Dietetic Association
Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition
Canadian Council on Food and Nutrition
Food irradiation. American Dietetic Association. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/ . Accessed December 15, 2003.
Frequently asked questions about food irradiation. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dbmd/diseaseinfo/foodirradiation.htm . Accessed May 11, 2011.
Loaharanu P. Irradiated foods. American Council on Science and Health website. Available at: http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1562/pub_detail.asp. Published July 3, 2007. Accessed May 9, 2011.
Handling your food safely. American Dietetic Association website. Available at: http://www.eatright.org/ . Accessed December 15, 2003.
Irradiated foods. American Council on Science and Health website. Available at: http://www.acsh.org/publications/pubID.1562/pub_detail.asp . Accessed October 14, 2007.
Last reviewed May 2011 by Brian Randall, MD