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What is Irradiated Food and Why Should I Avoid It?

Image via Flickr user Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com under a Creative Commons licenseIf you’re a Whole Foods shopper who occasionally peruses the market’s free pamphlets and brochures, you might know a thing or two about the dangers of irradiated food–at least, that’s where I learned about it. We hear a lot of talk about harmful ingredients: dyes, preservatives, trans fats, and HFCS, for instance, but little is mentioned about this equally harmful process that can alter the molecular composition of the food you eat, damaging valuable vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, all in the name of making said food safer.

During irradiation, food is exposed to ionizing radiation in an effort to destroy microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, or insects that could be dangerous if consumed by people. In addition to sanitizing our food, irradiation can also be used to prevent sprouting, delay ripening, or increase juice yield–in other words, messing with a fruit or vegetable’s natural life process or progression. How exactly does irradiation achieve all these things? By damaging the DNA of the food in question, basically stunting any growth.

Considering how much time and effort is spent attempting to halt or reverse DNA damage to our own cells, then, it’s ironic that more attention isn’t paid to the process of food irradiation. We’re constantly told to eat more fruits and vegetables because they contain antioxidants, the things that fight free radicals (which are responsible for oxidation and thus, cell damage!) However, the vast majority of produce in this country is irradiated, therefore containing the very stuff we try so desperately to avoid!

Pretty strange, huh? Behind the jump, there’s a bunch more reasons why you should avoid irradiated food.

  1. In their natural state, raw fruits and vegetables contain valuable enzymes that aid digestion. Once these foods are irradiated, the enzymes are destroyed. Basically, its like cooking the food–though by looking at it you’d never know this, because it still looks like a raw piece of produce.
  2. Irradiating a food can cause it to lose a large percentage of its vitamin content.
  3. The long-term effects of irradiation are unknown, because the longest study on human consumption of irradiated food lasted only 15 weeks.
  4. Irradiation puts a band-aid on contamination issues in large-scale food production. For instance, conventional farmers and meat producers don’t need to worry about fecal matter getting on their food, because it will just be irradiated anyway.
  5. Irradiation creates super bacteria. Just like antibacterial soaps, the irradiation process can never kill 100% of the microorganisms living on our food. The ones that do survive will become resistant to irradiation, and therefore, of greater potential danger to us.
13 comments
  1. Zec

    What’s with the paranoia about food that actually IS safer?

    “Irradiating a food can cause it to lose a large percentage of its vitamin content.” Prove it. Where did the vitamins go?

    “The long-term effects of irradiation are unknown…” Wrong. Nobody has ever been made ill by irradiated food, but plenty have been sick with Salmonella, E. coli, and others. There is nothing present in irradiated food that isn’t present in lightly cooked food.

    “Irradiation puts a band-aid on contamination issues…” Well, I don’t see anyone doing anything else about it. Why do you think you’re supposed to cook meat thoroughly? I’d rather eat an irradiated poo-filled food than a non-irradiated one. That’s the silliest argument I’ve ever heard someone make.

    “Irradiation creates super bacteria.” No, it doesn’t. Irradiation kills ALL bacteria, and even if there is anything left it’s been rendered sterile and cannot reproduce in any way, shape, or form.

    And again, if you make wild claims, have some wild evidence to back it up. “We don’t know…” is called appealing to ignorance and is a logical fallacy. It is not evidence. “It’s messing with stuff” is also not a valid argument.

  2. Nate

    Just a note, for those not aware – irradiating food does not then make that food radioactive. That only happens in the movies. In real life, radioactivity works just like radio waves – while the tower is outputting radio waves, you get music. Once it stops, you don’t, and your radio doesn’t give off its own radio waves. Radiation is the same way. Once the food has left the radiation, that’s it, it doesn’t emit its own radiation.

    However, I totally agree that this is a practice that is a bad idea, for all of your reasons 1-5 there.

  3. Adam

    How do we know if a food has been irradiated? Is it always labeled as such? What foods are more typically put through this process?

  4. Susanna

    wait, so are you saying that they can irradiate food that’s certified organic? eeeew.

    And does Whole Foods sell NO irradiated foods? (I’ll try to remember to look for the flyer next time I’m there) Do they track that through the supply chain of their prepared/canned food vendors?

  5. Marygrace Stergakos

    Adam – Irradiated foods are required to be labeled with “treated with/by irradiation” however, this print can be as small as the font for an ingredient list. Further, if a food is not entirely irradiated (for instance, a packaged item that in itself has not been irradiated but contains an irradiated ingredient) it does not have to be labeled as irradiated at all.

    Susanna – Whole Foods does not support irradiated foods, and irradiation is not in compliance with organic standards. So whether you buy organic at Whole Foods or not, the food you get there won’t be irradiated, and I would imagine this is the case with any other respectable natural food stores, too.

  6. Jeff Woelker

    Hi Marygrace,
    Beyond irradiation, I might also take a look at how far your food has traveled when shopping at Whole Foods. On a recent trip, I could barely find anything grown within 2 or 300 miles of Chicago. Most of it is flown in from Argentina, Mexico, Chile, or other far flung territories.

    The distance and irradiated food problem are somewhat related, as many food organisms, if moved from farm to table quickly are not an issue. However, when you have to ship grapes from Mexico to Chicago, you have to take many more precautions, thus irradiation is employed.

    I might suggest your readers check out Local Harvest to find local food near them as an alternative to large chain grocery stores: http://www.localharvest.org/
    Jeff

  7. Zec

    What’s with the paranoia about food that actually IS safer?

    “Irradiating a food can cause it to lose a large percentage of its vitamin content.” Prove it. Where did the vitamins go?

    “The long-term effects of irradiation are unknown…” Wrong. Nobody has ever been made ill by irradiated food, but plenty have been sick with Salmonella, E. coli, and others. There is nothing present in irradiated food that isn’t present in lightly cooked food.

    “Irradiation puts a band-aid on contamination issues…” Well, I don’t see anyone doing anything else about it. Why do you think you’re supposed to cook meat thoroughly? I’d rather eat an irradiated poo-filled food than a non-irradiated one. That’s the silliest argument I’ve ever heard someone make.

    “Irradiation creates super bacteria.” No, it doesn’t. Irradiation kills ALL bacteria, and even if there is anything left it’s been rendered sterile and cannot reproduce in any way, shape, or form.

    And again, if you make wild claims, have some wild evidence to back it up. “We don’t know…” is called appealing to ignorance and is a logical fallacy. It is not evidence. “It’s messing with stuff” is also not a valid argument.

  8. Anna M

    Good to know that the established natural food stores are still good sources of foods that actually contain the nutrients we’re seeking. We have to be so vigilant these days…it makes you want to move to Oregon and take up farming. Thanks for the info!
    – Anna
    blog.nutri-health.com

  9. NL

    So if irradiated foods are required to be labeled as such, then what does that mean for non-organic unpackaged produce? How can we know if that’s been irradiated or not? Or must we assume it has been if it’s not organic?

  10. Marjorie Mazel Hecht

    This article is full of wildly incorrect statements. You may not want to eat irradiated food, but why lie about the process and scare people? Most produce is NOT irradiated. There are very minute differences between irradiated and non-irradiated produce and other foods–vitamins, antioxidants, etc.

    Irradiated food has been researched for more than 50 years, and the scientific literature is available for the public. Irradiated food has never harmed any human being. It’s what the Apollo astronauts ate in space, where they could not afford to have any food-borne pathogens.

    Marje Hecht
    Managing Editor, 21st Century Science & Technology

  11. Steve Savage

    You make it sound like there really is a lot of irradiated food. There is actually very little and probably should be more. The main thing that is irradiated is dried spices that are used as seasonings in processed and ready to eat foods. If it wasn’t there would be a lot more illness.

  12. auggie

    Look at the worst case scenario – if something has salt added then worst case is too much salt, if fresh fish is soaked in clorine dioxide (farmed salmon is) then it could be soaked too long and would have no odor – just like your laundry – I wouldn’t want to eat it though. With irrridiated food, well the science isn’t in and if it is going on in third world countries then well I don’t want to be a guinea pig…

  13. Gumbo

    This article spouts nothing. Nothing to back up the dangers. We have cosmic rays penetrating us every second of every day. Radiation is all around us.

    The author feeds upon fear.

Comments are closed.