Are you wondering if it is safe to eat irradiated foods? A growing body of scientific evidence has shown that irradiation does not cause any noticeable nutritional damage. In fact, it has been effective in handling the menace of contamination of food from pathogenic bacteria.
Did You Know?
Quite a few vegetables and fruits imported into United States are irradiated before finally making them available to the general public.
Food irradiation is a technology that adds a new layer of protection against foodborne ailments. It is a method to prevent early spoilage of food and increase their shelf life. Although pasteurization is also useful to destroy disease-causing microorganisms, irradiation does not use heat, instead it depends on ionizing radiation to eliminate foodborne pathogens, including bacteria, fungi, mold, and insects. Ionizing radiation refers to the energy released in the form of electromagnetic waves.
In this method, the food is briefly bombarded with low-energy gamma rays, X-rays, or an electron beam. The energy generated penetrates through food, destroying the pathogens responsible for causing foodborne illnesses. For instance, poultry products are exposed to ionizing radiation to get rid of bacteria such as Campylobacter and Salmonella that not only reduce shelf life, but also cause food poisoning. Irradiation is also necessary for red meat, such as pork, to eliminate the trichina parasite. The dose of exposed radiation (expressed in kGy) varies depending on the type of food. In most cases, foods are irradiated with energy doses of up to 10kGy, which is found to be safe.
Usage of food irradiation is not just restricted to improving food hygiene. It is also found to be useful to slacken the pace of ripening. This ensures that fruit does not ripe to its fullest and spoil before it makes its way to the marketplace. Irradiation also helps to suppress the sprouting of onions and potatoes. The technology is especially useful for perishable foods that have a short shelf life.
Safety Aspect of Irradiated Foods
How safe is it to consume foods after exposure to ionizing radiation can be best answered by discussing some frequently asked questions:
Does Irradiation Make the Food Radioactive?
There is no scientific evidence that foods after irradiation are harmful to human beings. Therefore, it would be absolutely wrong to conclude that just because the food is treated with irradiation, it turns radioactive. The amount of energy that is allowed to infiltrate is too weak to cause energy imbalance within the nucleus of food atoms. In simple words, irradiation cannot make food atoms unstable and turn them radioactive. The dose of radiation is too low to induce any kind of radioactivity. Also, during irradiation, the radiation source is not near the food item under consideration. The energy waves target the pathogens and then merely pass through the food without leaving any traces of radiation residue. So, irradiated foods never become a source of secondary radiation. Microwaves and toasters also emit small amounts of radiation, but nothing is retained in cooked food. When you undergo a chest X-ray, you are exposed to a certain amount of radiation, but your body does not retain these energy waves and become radioactive.
Does Irradiation Affect the Nutritional Value of Food?
Results analyzed from several studies reveal that exposing food to ionizing radiation does not have any significant impact on its nutritional value. As food is exposed to low levels of energy, any change in their nutritional profile is marginal. A small amount of vitamin B loss, especially thiamine, is observed after irradiation. However, any loss in nutritional content by irradiation is more or less the same as observed in pasteurization and cooking. Irradiation also has marginal impact on the percentage of proteins, carbohydrates, and minerals present in food. So, one can say that the nutritional value remains largely unchanged in irradiated foods.
Does Irradiation Alter the Chemical Composition of Food?
Chemical changes have been observed in foods treated with irradiation. Exposure to ionizing radiation does trigger molecular decomposition, resulting in production of radiolytic products. However, quite a few studies have analyzed these radiolytic products and found them safe. Also, the process of irradiation can lead to generation of free radicals, which resemble those produced during pasteurization, canning, and even cooking. So, production of free radicals and any changes in chemical composition of food during irradiation is not a cause for concern. Irradiated foods are also able to retain their original taste, flavor, and texture. No wonder, an irradiated apple or pear has the same taste and is still crunchy to eat.
Is Food Irradiation Approved by the FDA?
The USFDA has given a thumbs-up to the process of food irradiation, way back in 1963. To put it simply, the FDA deems this method as a safe way to control food contamination. It has given permission to use irradiation on a wide range of foods including vegetables, fruits, poultry, red meat, spices, herbs, and even wheat flour for pest control. Most fruits imported to United States are irradiated. Also, food irradiation in United States is strictly monitored by the FDA. Moreover, the American Medical Association and United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) also support the use of food irradiation. This certainly assures no harm from eating irradiated foods.
Is it an Alternative to Sanitation Practices in Food Preparation?
Absolutely not! Food irradiation does help to kill harmful pathogens and insects, but that does not mean one should ignore proper hygiene when cooking and handling food. One can still get foodborne illnesses by eating irradiated foods, if basic sanitary practices are thrown to the wind. In other words, irradiated food can become hazardous if poor sanitation practices are prevalent in your kitchen. Irradiation is not analogous to sterilization of food as not all pathogens are destroyed. So, safe food preparation and handling is also extremely important to prevent food poisoning.
Also, irradiation is no substitute for conventional preservation methods such as refrigeration. However, you can keep irradiated foods in refrigerator for a longer duration than non-irradiated foods. For instance, irradiated strawberries, when refrigerated, remain fit for consumption for around 2-3 weeks, but non-irradiated strawberries spoil after a few days of refrigeration. Buying irradiated foods also does not mean that cooking is unnecessary. You need to cook food properly before eating it. Remember, irradiation does not provide any protection from re-contamination, which can always occur from poor handling procedures.
Are Irradiation Foods Expensive?
Irradiated vegetables, fruits, and meat are priced higher than conventional foods. The additional cost is due to the additional processing associated with irradiation. However, that shouldn’t deter you from buying irradiated food as they have a longer shelf life and chances of spoilage from bacteria is minimum.
Do Food Labels Specify Whether the Product is Irradiated?
By simply looking at the food item, it is impossible to know whether it has undergone irradiation treatment, unless you check its label. It is compulsory that the labeling bears wordings like ‘treated by irradiation’, indicating that the food item has been irradiated. The label should also have a ‘radura’ symbol, which is internationally recognized as the symbol for irradiation.
Bone of Contention
Although the FDA has given permission for irradiation of eggs, the decision has not gone down well with some nonprofit healthcare organizations. It is observed that irradiated eggs tend to have a runny light-colored yolk, which is otherwise thick, firm, and bright. Moreover, it is not easy to whip up and cook irradiated eggs. Also, the vitamin A content of eggs drops by 24% after being exposed to irradiation. However, the FDA has justified its decision by pointing out the rising cases of foodborne illnesses in United States resulting from Salmonella contamination in eggs. Other public interest organizations have also expressed health concerns over the use of this expensive technology and claim higher nutritional loss from irradiation.
Some members from the medical fraternity have expressed fear over irradiation inducing mutations in bacteria and viruses, in turn making them immune to the effects of ionizing radiation. Also, some scientific journals have published studies that show the negative effects of feeding irradiated foods on animals. However, there is no scientific evidence that suggests food after irradiation is harmful to human beings.
On the whole, it is up to you to decide whether to purchase irradiated foods or not. With the FDA making it compulsory to have the ‘radura’ symbol on packages of irradiated foods, you always have the option of choosing foods that are treated with only conventional methods of controlling foodborne pathogens. Just don’t forget to follow proper hygiene when handling and cooking food.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is solely for educating the reader. It is not intended to be a substitute for the advice of a medical expert.