“When food is exposed to high doses of ionising radiation, the chemical composition and nutritional content of food can change. Radiolytic by-products are often formed in irradiated food. Very few of these chemicals have been adequately studied for toxicity. One such chemical – 2-DCB – can cause DNA damage in rat colon cells at high doses.” This is just one of the numerous claims I came across in an article titled “Food Irradiation – the problems and concerns” on www.foodcomm.org.uk.
I am a graduate of Food Science & Technology and I studied Food Irradiation a little extensively at Masters level. I read a lot of reports and I know that consumer perception of foods treated with irradiation is more negative than those processed by other means. As a Food Scientist, I know that every food processing method changes the composition of our food material, loss of nutrients, binding of different components and/or formation of toxic substances in food.
The Important Benefits of Irradiating Food Materials
Before I address the issue of whether irradiated foods are safe or not, let me tell you why we irradiate foods and what advantages it comes with.
- We irradiate our foods to prevent food-borne illness. During irradiation, the genetic materials of illness-causing microorganisms in our foods are destroyed.
- Irradiation is being used to destroy or inactivate organisms that cause spoilage and decomposition of food. This extends the shelf life of foods.
- Irradiation can effectively replace the use of pesticides to get rid of insect pests in tropical fruits. Irradiation destroys insects and their eggs in fruits, thereby preserving the food material.
- Irradiation can also be used to prevent sprouting in food such as yam, potatoes, onions and delay ripening of fruit to increase longevity.
Irradiated food is a cold process unlike pasteurization and other thermal processes: hence the food is still essentially “raw or fresh”, because it hasn’t undergone any thermal process.
To cap it all, food can be subjected to irradiation to make them sterile for people with very poor immune system to consume. People who have poor immune system would have complications when they consumed food with even mild contamination. Irradiation can create the appropriate and essential foods for them.
Are irradiated foods safe or should you avoid them?
Let us get the the issue of whether it is safe or not. As far as people like me are concerned, food irradiation is a processing and preservation technique with similar results to freezing or pasteurisation. I have read many arguments for and against food irradiation – research has shown that when food are exposed to the right amount of dose, they are safe to consume. This is just like taking prescription drugs; there is dosage and when you take more than the right amount of dose, problem starts.
Also, the exposure time matters a lot. This is the length of time for which a food material was exposed to radiation treatment.
The opponents of irradiated foods have not been able to prove that irradiated foods will cause adverse health effects. What they all say is that “science has not been able to prove that irradiated foods do not cause adverse health effects after long term consumption”.
Studies have shown that foods are not significantly changed in nutritional value and they don’t become dangerous as a result of irradiation. For example, at irradiation levels approved for use on specific foods, levels of the thiamine are slightly reduced, but not enough to result in vitamin deficiency. This occurs in other forms of processing where heats destroys nutrients, vitamins are leached when we cook in water and so on like that.
Let me use this opportunity to make it clear that irradiation does not make food radioactive. In food processing, the radioactive sources permitted do not generate gamma, electrons or x-rays of sufficient high energy to make food radioactive. Radioactive energy does not remain in food after treatment.
To conclude my argument for irradiated foods, the FDA website states on irradiated foods: “The FDA has evaluated the safety of irradiated food for more than thirty years and has found the process to be safe. The World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have also endorsed the safety of irradiated food.”
Your Own Take On Irradiated Foods…
You can tell me what you think about irradiated foods or ask any questions using the comment section on this page.
Please note that irradiated foods can easily be identified in the market and you can decide if you want to buy and eat them or not. How do you identify irradiated food? Just click here to see what they look like.