Irradiation is the use of radiation from x-rays or radioactive materials on food. The process kills bacteria to sterilize food. The benefits of irradiating food include the ability to control insects and bacteria. 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.
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, including, China, Russia, and Portugal. The World Health Organization (WHO) and government agencies support the use of irradiation.
There are four main purposes of food irradiation:
The process can involve these technologies:
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. Afterwards, food that has been irradiated can be handled in the same way that you would any other food.
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.
It is important to remember that purchasing irradiated food is no guarantee of its safety. Food irradiation does not replace proper food production, processing, handling, storage, 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
US Food and Drug Administration
The good, the bad, the reheated: Cooking and handling leftovers. FoodSafety.gov website. Available at: http://www.foodsafety.gov/blog/holiday_leftovers.html. Published November 26, 2012. Accessed September 12, 2013.
Irradiation of food. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/irradiation_food/ . Updated November 19, 2009. Accessed September 12, 2013.
Loaharanu P. Irradiated foods. American Council on Science and Health website. Available at: http://acsh.org/2003/05/irradiated-foods-2/. Updated March 1996. Accessed September 12, 2013.
Refrigerator thermometers: Cold facts about food safety. US Food and Drug Administration website. Available at: http://www.fda.gov/Food/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm253954.htm. Updated June 17, 2013. Accessed September 12, 2013.
Last reviewed September 2013 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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