Separating the Myths and the Truth About Food Irradiation

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worker in uniform holding tomatoes

Which of the following is true about food irradiation?

  1. It makes food radioactive.
  2. It changes how food tastes.
  3. It makes food less healthy.
  4. It can help prevent illness.

If you said number four, you’d be correct! Food irradiation has all sorts of myths surrounding it, but it actually has a lot of benefits. Read on to find out more.

What is Food Irradiation?

Contrary to what its name implies, food irradiation does not make food radioactive. Actually, food irradiation is simply a common technique used to make food safer. The process is called ionization radiation, and it helps preserve and protect food by zapping pests, mold, and bacteria that carry foodborne illnesses.

How Does Food Irradiation Work?

Food irradiation may be designed to help preserve food, but how does it actually work?

Process of Food Irradiation

The first step in the process of food irradiation is to deliver food from producers (i.e farmers, co-ops, and food manufacturing plants) to the irradiation facility.

The second step is to take the food products from the vehicles they were transported on and place them on the conveyor belts at the irradiation facility leading to the irradiation chamber.

Next, the food products pass beneath a beam of radiation. As the food passes underneath the beam, the beam kills harmful bacteria on the surface of the food products.

Once the food products exit the chamber, most of the harmful bacteria have been destroyed. The food products are then loaded onto trucks and delivered to grocery stores.

Source of Irradiation

There are three types of radiation that can be used in the irradiation process. They are gamma rays from cobalt-60 sources, electron beams, and x-rays. These three types of radiation each have the same effect on food. It is important to note that while food products are exposed to radiation when under the beam, they do not in any way touch radioactive materials, and once they pass through, no radiation remains in the food.

Effects on Food

Irradiation’s main effect on food is that it breaks the chemical bonds inside of harmful bacteria and mold, which either kills them outright or damages them so badly they can no longer reproduce. This extends food products’ shelf lives and provides another layer of protection in our food supply chain to keep people safe and healthy.

What Are the Benefits of Food Irradiation?

alarm clock with fruits and vegetables

The benefits food irradiation brings are important to public safety. Like the pasteurization process, irradiation is just another tool we have to reduce the presence of harmful bacteria in our food.

Shelf Life

Killing or sterilizing germs and mold on food prevents it from spoiling. While irradiation cannot stop all bacterial and mold growth, it does significantly reduce their presence in our food and help it last longer while remaining safe to eat.

Food Safety

There are many food safety practices in place in the U.S. Food irradiation is one of them. For food, contact with bacteria is only a matter of time. Food irradiation essentially turns back the clock midway through the food supply chain to increase the odds that the food remains safe for as long as possible.

Reducing Food Waste

When shelf lives are longer for our food, we waste less because we have more time to consume it safely. Have you ever looked at a best-by date and wished you had more time to use the food instead of throwing it away? Food irradiation makes it possible to safely push that date back as far as it can go.

Are There Any Risks in Consuming Irradiated Food?

Which of the following is true about food irradiation?

  1. It has potential health risks
  2. Your food quality changes.
  3. Consumers view their food differently.

The correct answer is number three. There are no health risks associated with consuming irradiated food products. Scientists have been studying the process of food irradiation for 30 years and have yet to find any correlation between consuming irradiated food and health risks. In fact, the only potential health risk of irradiated food is assuming that food irradiation works better than it does. Always check labels and adhere to the best-by date for your safety.

In addition, studies have found that food irradiation has no meaningful effect on food quality. Any effects observed are in line with the changes that occur when canning or cooking food.

Consumer Perception is really the only downside. Due to the unfortunate conflation of its name with nuclear radiation, food irradiation has an undeserved bad rap in consumer perception. Everything on Earth endures some form of radiation simply from being in the sun. Dangerous radiation has everything to do with the type and degree of radiation and nothing to do with food irradiation.

Commonly Irradiated Foods

Some commonly irradiated foods include:

  • Spices and Herbs: Dried spices and herbs are commonly irradiated to allow them to be stored for long periods of time without going bad.
  • Meat and Poultry: Because meat and poultry are at the highest risk of carrying foodborne pathogens, irradiation is used to mitigate that risk as much as possible by killing harmful bacteria and mold on meat and poultry.
  • Fruits and Vegetables: Fruits and vegetables benefit greatly from irradiation. In addition to the destruction and sterilization of bacteria and mold, irradiation drastically increases the shelf life of fruits and vegetables.

Is Irradiation Regulated by the FDA?

radura symbol green circle with small plant in middle

Yes, food irradiation is regulated by the FDA. The FDA classifies food irradiation as a “food additive.” This means foods cannot be legally irradiated without following FDA-approved guidelines for food irradiation. All irradiated foods in the U.S. must be marked with the “Radura” symbol. This is the international symbol meaning “treated with radiation.” The symbol is a green circle split into five unequal sections with a small, simple plant in the middle.

Are There Any Limitations to the Use of Food Irradiation?

There are limitations to the use of food irradiation in the U.S. This is the current list of foods the FDA has approved for food irradiation:

  • Beef and Pork
  • Crustaceans (e.g., lobster, shrimp, and crab)
  • Fresh Fruits and Vegetables
  • Lettuce and Spinach
  • Poultry
  • Seeds for Sprouting (e.g., for alfalfa sprouts)
  • Shell Eggs
  • Shellfish – Molluscan (e.g., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops)
  • Spices and Seasonings

Get More Information

So which of the following is true about food irradiation?

  1. It extends food’s shelf life.
  2. It lessens the risk of illness.
  3. It’s completely harmless.

If you said all of the above, then you’re correct!

At TDI Packsys, we know how important it is to make sure that food lasts — and that it’s packed safely. We can help professionals with food packaging automation and more. Call 877-834-6750 today to learn more.

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