Food irradiation is the application of ionizing radiation to edible products. This technology improves the safety of the items we eat while extending the shelf life of numerous articles. It can reduce or eliminate insects or microorganisms that can impact the quality of items.
Irradiation isn’t going to make food items radioactive. It won’t compromise the nutritional quality of what you choose to eat. This process doesn’t noticeably change the texture, taste, or appearance of a treated item. The changes that get made with this technology are so minimal that most people don’t even know that their food has been treated in this manner.
Unless there are exceptional circumstances to an outcome from food irradiation, it would be appropriate to compare this process to pasteurization or the canning of fruits and vegetables to preserve them.
Several food irradiation advantages and disadvantages are worth reviewing when looking add this technology.
List of the Advantages of Food Irradiation
1. Food irradiation prevents foodborne illnesses.
We use food irradiation to make the items we eat safer. This technology effectively eliminates organisms that commonly cause foodborne illness. It is most effective against salmonella and E-coli. This benefit also gives us a way to inactivate or destroy organisms that cause spoilage or decomposition. It is the reason why are food products last as long as they do while the incidents of food-related sickness continue to decline.
2. It controls the number of insect exposures to food products.
Food irradiation can destroy insects that are in or on top of tropical fruits that enter the import and export markets. This process also decreases the need to use pesticides and other chemical control practices that could harm the produce or create toxicity issues in humans. Because bugs and parasites can also adversely impact human health, we have more confidence in the safety of fresh foods today because of the ways that ionizing radiation can protect us.
This advantage is so robust that astronauts at NASA eat meat that’s been sterilized by food irradiation processes so that there is no chance of obtaining a foodborne illness when they are in space.
3. This process can control ripening and sprouting times.
Food irradiation can delay the ripening of fruits and vegetables so that the longevity of each product can maximize its potential for use. This advantage can also inhibit sprouting behaviors that occur with onions and potatoes. It is a benefit that helps families extend the value of their food purchases without making several grocery store runs each month. With correct storage techniques, most items can last for at least a week – and sometimes, significantly longer.
4. Food irradiation gives us the option to sterilize foods.
We can use food irradiation to give us the benefit of sterilization. Sterilized foods can be stored for several years without the need for refrigeration. This product is useful in hospitals for patients who have severely impaired immune systems, including individuals who are undergoing chemotherapy or dealing with HIV or AIDS. We can also use this process to create emergency nutritional items when households are communities get cut off from modern resources.
The foods that receive sterilization by irradiation get exposed to a substantially higher level of ionizing radiation then what gets approved for regular use.
5. Higher levels of food irradiation can kill all contaminants.
When processors use high levels of food irradiation to preserve the items we eat, then this process can kill mold and other potentially harmful microorganisms. Although different countries set domestic standards for what is permissible with this technology, over 40 nations now have regulations in place that permit its use.
The United States has a considerable number of foods that are approved for irradiation. Australia is on the other end of that spectrum, with only herbs, spices, herbal infusions, and some tropical fruits recommended for this process.
6. Food irradiation doesn’t leave traces of radioactive material.
You don’t need to worry about traces of radioactive materials in your foods with this technology. Although it might be fun to glow in the dark, that outcome won’t happen when you eat irradiated items. That means we can use this technology to reduce or eliminate the need for chemicals to control the pests that bother certain crops. Just as an airport scanner won’t make your belongings radioactive, you don’t need to worry about what you ingest because of this food preservation process.
7. This technology works on fresh and frozen foods.
Food irradiation is useful for fresh or frozen foods. When this preservation method gets applied to poultry or red meat, then doses of 3 to 4.5 kGy for fresh items and up to 7 kGy for frozen products Have been recommended in the past. The FDA extended the approval for the irradiation of meat in 2012 to cover unrefrigerated products.
The shelf life benefits for animal proteins are tremendous when following these dosage practices. Shrimp packed in ice have a standard shelf life of 7 days. When they get treatef\d with a 1.5 kGy Dose of ionizing radiation, then another 10 days get at it. Oysters go from 15 days under refrigeration to up to 28 days.
List of the Disadvantages of Food Irradiation
1. We cannot irradiate some food products.
Some food products are unable to go through the food irradiation process. The reason for this disadvantage is because the ionizing radiation creates significant changes in the flavor or texture of the item. Eggs and dairy foods are the most common exceptions to the benefits of this technology. If you want to promote high levels of food safety, then look for dairy items that went through pasteurization processes to ensure lower levels of exposure risk.
2. It can change the nutritional profile of some foods.
Food irradiation causes minimal changes to the chemical composition of the foods that we eat. Although it doesn’t change the nutritional profile of most items, we do know that this process can reduce the levels of some of the B vitamins that some things contain. This loss is often compared to what happens when foods go through a cooking or preservation process in more traditional ways, such as blanching or canning.
Thiamine is the one vitamin that reacts adversely when exposed to food irradiation. You can find it in meat, beans, and whole grains. Proponents of this technology say that vitamin reductions are not enough to create a deficiency, but this disadvantage must still come under consideration.
3. Minimal labeling requirements exist for food irradiation.
Most people do not know whether or not the foods they are eating have received a dose of ionizing radiation. That’s because most countries do not have labeling requirements that dictate to producers that this information gets shared with consumers. Some nations are working to change this disadvantage by requiring a label with a statement that the food, ingredients, or components were treated in this manner.
In Australia, if a food product does not have a label, then a statement regarding the use of ionizing radiation must be displayed in close proximity to the item.
4. There can be resistant strains of bacteria to the irradiation process.
Food irradiation is a processing technology that exposes microorganisms to ionizing radiation. If an inadequate dose gets received, then it increases the risk of resistance developing within the evolutionary path of the bacteria in question. It is a process that follows a similar journey that doctors are concerned about with antibiotics. If mutations occur among microbial strains, then we could end up creating even more dangerous bacteria. It may also create more issues with adaptability.
No food preservation method is good enough for anyone to take an utterly risk-free bite. If you serve undercooked meat or eggs, then there will still be a risk of bacteria exposure. Irradiation might vastly reduce the number of pathogens that are in individual products, but we still need to follow safe handling and cooking rules.
5. The cost of food irradiation is an issue to consider.
The price of irradiated food items is typically higher than it is for the things we eat that don’t go through this process. This disadvantage exists because of the upfront costs that are necessary to build a facility that uses this technology. The typical commercial processing plant can cost up to $5,000,000 to build. When stores began to offer irradiated beef in the early 2000s, the price to consumers almost doubled.
6. Food irradiation isn’t a substitute for healthy growing and processing practices.
There is a significant concern among food safety agencies that consumers will consider irradiated items as being automatically safe to eat. The problem with this stance is that irradiation technologies are not a substitute for healthy growing and processing practices. Irradiation cannot eliminate the pesticides or other chemicals that might be in the food. It won’t stop safety issues that can happen with packing and handling in unsanitary conditions.
Food irradiation is a single treatment option that provides benefits only when the rest of the distribution chain also includes safety precautions.
7. Food irradiation is not effective against viruses.
Irradiation processes are not going to keep food perfectly safe. It does not guarantee the complete elimination of microorganisms. And although it reduces bacteria levels effectively, this technology is not useful when it comes to prions or viruses. That means you could still end up dealing with an issue like Mad Cow Disease even though the beef went through a complete irradiation process.
8. It can eliminate spoilage warning signals from our foods.
Critics of food irradiation suggest that this technology could make it more challenging to determine if the foods we eat have spoiled. This potential disadvantage occurs because the elements that dictate oxidization and other indicators of rod get destroyed. Nothing will cause food to remain safe indefinitely, even when ionizing radiation is presented in a high enough dose to offer sterilization. That means we must still recognize the signs and symptoms of spoilage even when there may not be any visual indicators.
9. Inconsistent global standards are currently in place for our foods.
Different countries and regions have set unique standards for food irradiation that others do not follow. The United States has regulations in place for the use of ionizing radiation on numerous nutritional categories. Countries like New Zealand and Australia have strict standards that apply to only a few food groups. Labeling requirements are different all over the world, which also creates confusion about what is safe to eat and what is not.
10. Food irradiation breaks chemical bonds, and new molecules can form.
The goal of food irradiation is to remove toxic and dangerous components from our food items. When we apply this technology to certain foods, then hazardous outcomes can result because exposure to ionizing radiation breaks chemical bonds, allowing new molecules to form. Although most foods have not been identified or tested for this disadvantage, we know that irradiated starch does form formaldehyde as a result. Irradiated meat can form benzene, while peroxides in plant tissues can rise. Even sucrose develops formic acid.
Although there is more benzene in dairy products that don’t receive ionizing radiation than the items that do, people still deserve to have all of the information available to them so that they can make a decision that works best for themselves and their families.
We currently have 3 sources of radiation approved for use on food products. Gamma rays get emitted from radioactive forms of cobalt or cesium. It is routinely used to sterilize dental and medical products. It is also the primary option used for the radiation treatment of cancer. X-rays and electron beams are the other two methods currently used by the food industry.
The FDA has spent over 30 years evaluating the safety of irradiated food in the United States. They have yet to find a process within this technology that creates the potential for harm. The World Health Organization also supports this finding. It is currently approved for use on beef, pork, produce, poultry, and some mollusks and shellfish.
The advantages and disadvantages of food irradiation are essential to consider because it is important to know what you are putting into your body. The FDA does not require individual ingredients to be labeled as irradiated, so it is imperative that you store, handle, and cook foods under the assumption that this process was not used.
Brandon Miller has a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. He is a seasoned writer who has written over one hundred articles, which have been read by over 500,000 people. If you have any comments or concerns about this blog post, then please contact the Green Garage team here.