Irradiated Food: An Overview

Food irradiation Irradiation is the use of radiation from x-rays or radioactive materials on food. The process sterilizes food. The benefits of irradiating food include the ability to control insects and bacteria. The process can give foods, especially fruits and vegetables, a longer shelf life and cause less food poisoning.However, the topic of irradiation seems to be one surrounded by as much myth as fact. For example, food irradiation does not make the food radioactive.

What Is Food Irradiation?

Food irradiation, like pasteurization or canning, is a food safety technology designed to eliminate the germs, bacteria, and parasites that would otherwise cause foodborne diseases from the foods we eat. It has been approved for use in the US since 1963. It is also used in many other countries, including, China, Russia, and Portugal. The World Health Organization (WHO) and government agencies support the use of irradiation.

What Is it Used for?

There are four main purposes of food irradiation:
  • Preservation—Irradiation extends the shelf life of a food by destroying or inactivating organisms in the food that may cause spoilage and decomposition.
  • Sterilization—Because of the sterilization process, these foods can be given to people with severely-impaired immune systems. In addition, both NASA and the military use irradiated food as a means of preventing foodborne illness.
  • Reduce sprouting, ripening, and damage from bugs—Irradiation is sometimes used in place of chemicals to prevent damage to food. This process is particularly useful for products like potatoes, tropical and citrus fruits, grains, spices, and seasonings.
  • Reduce foodborne illness—Irradiation destroys organisms that may cause illness.

What Does the Process Involve?

The process can involve these technologies:
  • Gamma rays—a radioactive element is used to irradiate the food; it can be used with thick foods
  • Electron beams—a stream of high-energy electrons are shot through an electron gun (it is used to treat foods that are not thick)
  • X-ray irradiation—electrons are sent through a metal plate to create a x-ray on the other side of the plate (it can be used with thick foods)

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