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Free Radicals: Irradiation in Food

Have you ever gone to make a sandwich or other meal but realized that one of the integral ingredients had molded or gone “bad”? Meet a more economical and effective form of preserving fruits, vegetables, and other foods-- radiation.

Image from Pexels

Have you ever gone to make a sandwich or other meal but realized that one of the integral ingredients had molded or gone “bad”? This experience was probably disheartening and perhaps you lost your appetite, but it raises a valuable question: Why does some food mold or expire within weeks while some other foods — such as ‘Meal, Ready-to-Eat’ (MREs) or your spices — last half a decade or more? The obvious answer is preservatives, but a more economical and effective form of preserving fruits, vegetables, and other foods has cropped up, radiation.

To retain consistency, companies must make sure that every food item going into supermarkets is of acceptable quality (1). Inconsistent quality can be extremely damaging toward brand reputation, and as such, food companies thoroughly examine their products for excellence, or lack thereof. Therefore, hygienic and safe practices in food processing is of central importance in today’s food-savvy culture (1). The need of the American consumer to feel safe with the things they are eating caused the creation of legislature to prevent dangerous or “unsafe” practices (1). With the ‘Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act of 1908’, it became a crime to add toxic or dangerous ingredients to food. Furthermore, the ‘Food Additive amendment of 1938’ ensured that all additives were proven “safe” to the standards of the USDA and FDA.

With this legislature in place, it may seem blatantly criminal to purposely distribute irradiated food, but despite misconceptions, this irradiated food is completely safe to eat. To understand why this irradiated food is safe to eat, it is important to understand mutations and radiation. By definition, radiation is any wavelength of photon moving through space; this can include colors in the visible spectrum, X-rays, or radio waves. When exposed to high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, such as U-V, X-Ray, and Gamma rays, cells’ DNA can be mutilated. This radiation can cause irreparable damage to a cell’s ability to make the affected gene’s dedicated protein. If this happens to a proto-oncogene (a gene capable of turning into cancer) and your body’s immune system is unable to detect the mutated cell, it can metastasize, resulting in neoplasms, tumors, or cancer.

However, when a piece of organic food is irradiated, an apple, for instance, its ability to grow may be discombobulated or interrupted. However, when that apple is picked, it will stop growing since it is no longer being supported by its tree. If radiation is applied to a picked apple, the DNA in the apple may mutate, but since the apple is not growing nor is it producing protein, the mutations are irrelevant. Because of this, if you eat the apple, you will be fine. The irradiated apple cells would only pose a threat if they were to assimilate with your cells. Thankfully, that is not how digestion works. When you eat an apple, the apple cells are denatured and destroyed by stomach acids and digestion-aiding enzymes in your stomach and alimentary canal. Your body couldn’t care less if the apple’s DNA was solely A’s and T’s, C’s and G’s, or any assortment of pyrimidine and purine combinations; your body will break it down and use those amino acids all the same when it flawlessly makes its own DNA from the raw parts it extracted from the apple.

Image from Pexels

Although the concept of irradiated food may seem strange to some, irradiated food has an estimated public acceptance rate of 75% (1,2). Also, after seminars and video explanations, the acceptance rate is estimated to reach 99% (1,2). The use of pesticides to protect crops and antibiotics to help treat livestock, as well as advancements in post-harvest preservation has made high quality and fresh food unilaterally available (2). Controlled foodstuff irradiation is just another way of making sure food can last as long as possible and is less likely to get wasted.

The most common processes of food irradiation occur with the use of radioactive isotopes (Co60) or ionizing radiation from X-Rays (3). By exposing foods to a certain intensity of radiation, the food can be preserved for varying amounts of time (4). ‘Radurization’ is the process of exposing foods to minimal radiation to prolong shelf-life by days or weeks (4). ‘Radicidation’ is a medium radiation exposure and can prevent the growth of bacteria on the irradiated food (4). Finally, ‘Radappertization’ is when food is exposed to maximal radiation exposure and can prolong the shelf-life of things like meat, poultry, and fishery by days or weeks; this technique can also prolong the shelf-life of fruits and vegetables by months or, in some select instances, years (4).

Radura, the symbol on irradiated food products.

It is difficult to completely preserve food items because of bacteria or fungi. Bacteria and fungal spores are present just about everywhere, and eliminating them is one reason irradiation is so useful (4). Exposing food to irradiation makes the surface inhospitable for microbes and fungal spores and by irradiating the surrounding air, bacteria can be killed and spores can be sterilized (3,4). This is also why irradiated and dehydrated food is common on the ISS and space missions (5). Moreover, while technically a military secret, scientists suspect that MREs are irradiated due to their extremely long shelf-lives.

When people first hear about their food being irradiated, it may seem like a conspiracy, but when considering what radiation really is, it is easy to see how irradiated food is safe to consume. In fact, since it is likely to have fewer contaminants, it may be safer than traditionally preserved foods. Although initially daunting, food irradiation is one of the most important technological advancements in food preservation history and is integral in astronomical, martial, and humanitarian efforts, in both an intra-stellar and inter-stellar sense.

[1] Wilcock, Anne, et al. “Consumer Attitudes, Knowledge and Behaviour: a Review of Food Safety Issues.” Trends in Food Science & Technology, vol. 15, no. 2, 2004, pp. 56–66.

[2] Bruhn, Christine M. “Consumer Acceptance of Irradiated Food: Theory and Reality.” Radiation Physics and Chemistry, vol. 52, no. 1-6, 1998, pp. 129–133.

[3] Nayga, Rodolfo M., et al. “Information Effects on Consumers Willingness to Purchase Irradiated Food Products.” Review of Agricultural Economics, vol. 27, no. 1, 2005, pp. 37–48.

[4] Ito, Hitoshi. “Present Status of Food Irradiation in the World.” Food Irradiation, Japan, vol. 33, no. 1/2, 1998, pp. 47–50.

[5] Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Irradiated Food & Packaging – Food Irradiation: What You Need to Know.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research,

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