In 1986 the FDA gave us food producers a nearly blank slate when it came to exposing food to ionizing radiation. This process is known as irradiation and has been used to kill insects, microorganisms, bacteria and viruses as well as to slow ripening, suspend sprouting and increase the juice yield of certain fruits.
Irradiation works by damaging tissue at the cellular level. This means bugs are either killed or rendered unable to reproduce, bacteria and microorganisms die and fruits and seeds get stuck in a state of suspended animation, their ability to mature normally critically impaired by the radiation.
While obviously eliminating food-born pathogens that make us sick is a good thing, the negative effects of radiation are still being evaluated. While it’s widely accepted that radiation can change the taste and nutrition of the food (some food losing between 20 and 80 per cent of its nutritional value) some of the other health effects are currently just speculation.
The EPA has deemed irradiation safe after years of feeding irradiated food to rats. They have also stated that typically irradiation does not make food radioactive. Trace elements can, however, remain in the food after irradiation and bombarding food with isotopes can create ionized particles or “free-radicals”. Ionization also creates additional particles not present normally in food called radiolytic particles. Some of these particles (benzene for example) are known to cause cancer while others are unique to the process and their effects are unknown.
It should be mentioned that pasturizing, cooking and preserving foods decrease their nutrients and that there are numerous ways to be exposed to radiation nowadays. In addition, free radicals come from a number of sources both internal and external and it is unknown which radiolytic particle, if any, are actually harmful…well, except for the benzene, I guess.
And that’s just it. The very nature of the debate over irradiation is clouded by competing information. It seems almost counter-intuitive that bombarding food with the equivalent, some say, of 30 million chest x-rays is good for us even though eliminating harmful bacteria is appealing and the FDA says nuke away. This is a hot topic of interest, look forward to a number of articles and updates.