While irradiated food is not widely sold in the United States, the process of food irradiation is used throughout the world to reduce the risk of illnesses and food poisoning. In addition to some safety concerns, irradiated food has other disadvantages, including poorer taste and nutrient content.
Food irradiation is a process in which certain foods are exposed to radiation to reduce possible bacteria content, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, USDA. This process does not cause the food itself to become radioactive. The FDA and other health organizations throughout the world have studied the effects of irradiated food and declared it safe for consumption. However, there are certain disadvantages to purchasing irradiated food.
One common concern about irradiated food is that insufficient amounts of radiation could lead to mutations among microbial strains, creating more dangerous bacteria. In addition, some scientists are concerned that long-term use of irradiation will cause bacteria and microbes to adapt, becoming resistant to the radiation and harder to kill.
Irradiated food can be more expensive, due to the upfront costs of a food irradiation facility. A typical commercial facility can cost between $3 million and $5 million to build. The New York Times cites the example of a brief period in the early 2000s in which grocery stores offered irradiated beef — at a significantly higher cost.
Many health agencies like the International Institute of Concern for Public Health are concerned that consumers will see irradiated food and automatically assume it is safe to eat. However, irradiation cannot be a substitute for healthy growing and processing practices. For example, irradiation cannot eliminate pesticides and other chemicals in food, nor can irradiated food be handled and packed in unsanitary conditions without contamination recurring.
The irradiation process leaves macronutrients unaffected like protein, fats and carbohydrates as well as minerals; yet, the same is not true for vitamin content. For example, vitamins like thiamin, vitamin E and C are reduced or even eliminated through irradiation. To compensate for the loss of these vitamins, you would need to supplement your diet with a multivitamin or non-irradiated foods.
- MedlinePlus: Irradiated Foods
- Harvard Law School: Food Irradiation: Why Aren't We Using It?
- International Institute of Concern for Public Health: Food Irradiation
- University of Wisconsin-Madison: The Food Irradiation Process
- "The New York Times"; Spinach and Peanuts, With a Dash of Radiation; Andrew Martin; February 2009