A guide to the risks and benefits of food irradiation

There's no magic wand we can wave over the food supply to make it safer to eat, but there is food irradiation. Read on to get a better understanding of how this sterilization technique might benefit you.

A guide to the risks and benefits of food irradiation

Keep food fresh longer

Previously, heat and the use of chemicals were the major methods of sterilization, but that had its drawbacks. Heat sterilization entails cooking foods, so they are no longer fresh; chemicals that kill bacteria and other microorganisms often make foods inedible. With irradiation, however:

  • Exposure of foods to X-rays and other forms of ionizing radiation kills the moulds, bacteria and insects that cause spoilage
  • It delays the ripening of fruits and berries, so extends shelf life
  • It inhibits the sprouting of potatoes and other foods, which means they stay fresh longer

Be aware of the criticism

Irradiation would seem to be an ideal means of sterilization, but the public has been slow to accept it.

  • Despite assurances that irradiation with X-rays or certain isotopes does not make foods radioactive, some consumer and environmental groups remain unconvinced. They worry that any radiation exposure poses a potential environmental hazard, even if the foods themselves are not made radioactive
  • They also fear the radiation may foster the development of dangerous mutant organisms or "unique radiolytic products." The latter refer to compounds such as 2-alkylcyclobutanones, which form when animal fat is irradiated
  • Some studies have shown that such compounds can cause strand breaks in DNA, which raises the prospect of cancer. Most researchers, however, do not attach much importance to this finding

Understand the risks

As in cooking, the benefits of irradiation greatly outweigh the risks.

  • There are roughly 50 million cases of food-borne illness in North America every year and a large number of these are caused by E. coli and salmonella, which could be controlled by irradiation
  • Foods such as wheat, flour, potatoes and spices have been irradiated in many countries for decades without any link to harmful effects
  • The government mandates that only certain forms of irradiation can be applied to foods to ensure that they don't absorb the radioactive material
  • X-rays, which pass through an object without leaving behind radioactive material, and exposure to certain cobalt and cesium isotopes are all acceptable methods
  • These methods of cold sterilization allow most irradiated foods to retain their fresh appearance and taste. When meat, fish and seafood are exposed to the high doses of radiation needed to destroy parasites, salmonella bacteria and other organisms, however, the flesh of some meat may darken, and fish and seafood may become mushy
  • Irradiation can also oxidize the fats in whole grains, causing them to taste rancid

Preserve more nutrients

  • In general, irradiation preserves more nutrients — particularly niacin, riboflavin, thiamine and other B-group vitamins — than other sterilization methods do
  • But very high radiation doses, such as those needed to sterilize meat, will destroy some of the fat-soluble vitamins A, E and K
  • The effects of irradiation on vitamin C remain unknown; some studies show no loss of this nutrient, while others indicate major losses

Protect a compromised immune system

Irradiation helps to protect people with compromised immune systems:

  • Food irradiation adds an extra measure of food safety for AIDS patients and others with lowered immunity.
  • People with compromised immune systems are cautioned not to eat uncooked fruits and vegetables and to make sure that all meat, fish, eggs and other foods that may harbour disease-causing bacteria or parasites are cooked until well-done
  • Even after these precautions are taken, food-borne diseases are a major hazard for people with compromised immunity
  • High-dose irradiation can eliminate these dangers.

If you're looking for a method of sterilizing foods that safely kills bacteria, extends shelf life and preserves nutrients, food irradiation may be the answer. Understanding the risks and benefits is an important first step.

The material on this website is provided for entertainment, informational and educational purposes only and should never act as a substitute to the advice of an applicable professional. Use of this website is subject to our terms of use and privacy policy.
Close menu