The other day I was standing in line at Whole Foods Market when I spotted a pamphlet concerning “Irradiation and your Food.” While I usually don’t look to the corporations who are trying to sell me food to offer up accurate information about food nutrition and food safety, this was a rare case where the corporate word was worth reading…and noting (for the record, according to company literature, Whole Foods does not buy or sell irradiated food).
The history of irradiated foods is a long and involved one, and not easily (or accurately) summarized in a few short paragraphs, but let’s just say that a fair amount of controversy surrounds irradiated food. While it has been proven to increase shelf life, and destroy harmful microorganisms, bacteria, and pathogens, it has not been proven to be entirely safe for consumption. Critics claim that exposing food to radiation will devitalize or denature, what would otherwise be, perfectly natural and edible food, and the jury is still out on what the long term effects are on the people who electively (or unknowingly) consume them. Because of this skepticism (and in some cases outcry), irradiated foods have been relatively slow to catch on and gain any widespread acceptance. Still with every e-coli outbreak or food recall, proponents of irradiation are always on topic, singing the praises of zapping food for a bit of peace of mind.
Speaking of zapping food, the other end of the food manipulation spectrum includes this odd bit of news from Japan about exposing potatoes to successive electric shocks in an effort to bolster their nutritional value. Scientists from Obihiro University, in Japan, have found that when potatoes are given either, high frequency ultrasonic exposure or simple electric shocks, the antioxidant level in them increased up to 1.6 times. While this may be a fairly remarkable scientific finding, it hardly constitutes a significant nutritional one. The potato, the world’s most widely consumed plant food, are (without manipulation) a perfectly good, antioxidant and vitamin C rich food. If the scientists decided to electrify a piece of white bread and achieved a significant nutritional boost – well, that would likely be something. But for now, this is more of an accomplishment for science, than a triumph for the poor beleaguered potato.
Granted food irradiation and potato zapping are procedures intended for two very different ends: one is to nullify pathogens in our food supply, and the other is to amplify the nutritional content. But is any of this worth it? Critics of food irradiation contend that the practice is largely in place to mask existing health and safety problems with our industrial food supply, and critics of potato electrocution say, “can’t I just do this myself in the microwave?” Is all of this tinkering a sign of a better safety, nutrition and edible things to come? Or would we all be better off focusing on growing and eating better food?