What is Irradiated Food and Why Should I Avoid It?

If you’re a Whole Foods shopper who occasionally peruses the market’s free pamphlets and brochures, you might know a thing or two about the dangers of irradiated food–at least, that’s where I learned about it. We hear a lot of talk about harmful ingredients: dyes, preservatives, trans fats, and HFCS, for instance, but little is mentioned about this equally harmful process that can alter the molecular composition of the food you eat, damaging valuable vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, all in the name of making said food safer.

During irradiation, food is exposed to ionizing radiation in an effort to destroy microorganisms, viruses, bacteria, or insects that could be dangerous if consumed by people. In addition to sanitizing our food, irradiation can also be used to prevent sprouting, delay ripening, or increase juice yield–in other words, messing with a fruit or vegetable’s natural life process or progression. How exactly does irradiation achieve all these things? By damaging the DNA of the food in question, basically stunting any growth.

Considering how much time and effort is spent attempting to halt or reverse DNA damage to our own cells, it’s ironic that more attention isn’t paid to the process of food irradiation. We’re constantly told to eat more fruits and vegetables because they contain antioxidants, the things that fight free radicals (which are responsible for oxidation and thus, cell damage!) However, the vast majority of produce in this country is irradiated, therefore containing the very stuff we try so desperately to avoid!

Behind the jump, there’s a bunch more reasons why you should avoid irradiated food.

  1. In their natural state, raw fruits and vegetables contain valuable enzymes that aid digestion. Once these foods are irradiated, the enzymes are destroyed. Basically, its like cooking the food–though by looking at it you’d never know this, because it still looks like a raw piece of produce.
  2. Irradiating a food can cause it to lose a large percentage of its vitamin content.
  3. The long-term effects of irradiation are unknown, because the longest study on human consumption of irradiated food lasted only 15 weeks.
  4. Irradiation puts a band-aid on contamination issues in large-scale food production. For instance, conventional farmers and meat producers don’t need to worry about fecal matter getting on their food, because it will just be irradiated anyway.
  5. Irradiation creates super bacteria. Just like antibacterial soaps, the irradiation process can never kill 100% of the microorganisms living on our food. The ones that do survive will become resistant to irradiation, and therefore, of greater potential danger to us.

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By Marygrace Stergakos, Green Options

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Azel Beckner
Azle B.4 years ago

Irradiation has one characteristic that makes it dangerous more than others. It alters the genetic structure of the micro-organisms that are present in all of the world and on the food. This is an unpredictable factor and very dangerous to the health of the people who consume the food.

Eliza D.
Past Member 5 years ago

Beyond irradiation, I might also take a look at how far your food has traveled when shopping at Whole Foods. On a recent trip, I could barely find anything grown within 2 or 300 miles of Chicago. Most of it is flown in from Argentina, Mexico, Chile, or other far flung territories.

The distance and irradiated food problem are somewhat related, as many food organisms, if moved from farm to table quickly are not an issue. However, when you have to ship grapes from Mexico to Chicago, you have to take many more precautions, thus irradiation is employed.

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Nburr Furlong
Nburr Furlong5 years ago

Thanks Tom -- I hadn't checked back on comments after I posted mine until now. Why do you suppose there is such a fanatic level of antagonism to every thing new? Of course, many new ways are brought forward by those desiring cash return but that doesn't necessarily mean the products are harmful or the purposes malevolent. Sigh -- the main thing we need to fear is fear itself, eh?

Tom G.
Tom G.6 years ago

Hi Darlene, Sorry to hear about your husband, that sucks. I know it is different to some degree in the US, especially where healthcare is concerned. I used to live there and my wife is American. I also don't get all my info from Government agencies, but they are useful to check for the facts on the official rules and regulations that supermarkets and food processors have to adhere to. I also check what quality of public information they offer and may write to them if I think it is inadequate or misleading.

I am a professional molecular biologist and immunologist (BSc 1st class hons and PhD) by training and I always try to get the most authoritative and unbiased evidence I can i.e. from real scientists and research, and not at face value from journalists or lobbyists (on either side). It is a learning process and I am happy that I have learned more on this subject thanks to this article and discussion. That is why I get so frustrated when some people trot out unsubstantiated or downright wrong claims as if they were facts. I will look up what Dr. Ted Broer has to say, thanks for the suggestion.

Darlene Delco
Darlene Delco6 years ago

Hey Tom G....I really hope you take my suggestion about contacting Dr. Ted Broer. I believe he holds 2-3 degrees. He has dedicated his life to find out how the body reacts to different substances. I think things are a lot different in the US than the UK. There is a lot more money in sick people. My husband has brain cancer and he doesn't believe in healthy solutions and never has thought it a big deal to worry about. He has almost topped the million dollar mark in medical bills. If you were over here and did the research of what they put in our food and do to it you would have a different view point. Here it is all about the money....big money. Not just supermarkets. Please get information from other sources as well not just government agencies. Get the whole picture because your life depends on it.

Tom G.
Tom G.6 years ago

Darlene Delco: Please read what I actually wrote. I never said I was not willing to eat it, and I am certainly not trying to"sell you on it" - I was just taking a rational stance and said I would not choose to eat IR food if given the choice, but I don't think it would harm me. I would have no particular problem with eating IR food every now and then, it's just that it contains less nutrition and supports long-distance food transport chains and dubious cleaning processes etc, as the article points out. I would rather not support that. But buying a 2-week old mango or banana picked green and flown from Thailand then stored in your fridge or fruit-bowl for another week or two will not be very nutritious either, with or without irradiation, but people do just that all the time.

We are on the same side here, in case you hadn't noticed. I even wrote to our Food Standards Agency asking them to make it clearer on their website that there are negative aspects to food irradiation, quoting scientific sources.

And as for follow the money- UK supermarkets have done just that in deciding not to stock irradiated foods- because their customers do not want it. Organic food provision in our supermarkets has been growing and growing, and many do not sell GM either. So yes, there is money in healthy and informed people, and with our taxpayer funded health service there is also a good incentive for the government to support good health, as it is much cheaper to keep people well and healt

Darlene Delco
Darlene Delco6 years ago

Well I have to comment on some of Tom G comments. If you are not willing to eat irradiated food don't try to sell us on it being ok...if you would like to debate it farther contact Dr. Ted Broer (Healthmasters.com) he would be more than happy to enlighten you I am sure. You also need to follow the money! There is no money in healthy people.

Tom G.
Tom G.6 years ago

Kai J: I don't actually believe that irradiation is beneficial for health, quite the opposite- as you point out, it is well documented that vitamins (esp C and Thiamine) are degraded. Reading further into this has strengthened this view.

My main reason for writing here was to counteract the more irrational comments and an attack on healthcare professionals and scientists (the very people who do the proper controlled research that show up the problems we are discussing, as well as the lack of evidence that IR food will kill you). Irradiated food is nutritionally poorer, but is *unlikely* to actually cause you direct harm- but this is a hard thing to prove. I would choose not to buy it myself given the choice.

However, suggesting that food irradiation has any significant causative effect on soaring rates of cancer, heart disease etc since 1940 is disingenuous and totally unscientific. You well know that the main causes of these diseases are smoking, alcohol, massive increases in the amount of sugar, fatty and fast/processed foods in the average American diet, and lack of exercise. Not, I suspect, eating some irradiated food in recent years. It is these sorts of wild and unfounded claims that weaken the whole debate and the reason I responded in the first place.

Fortunately, here in the UK the question has always been pretty academic, as all our major supermarkets have refused to sell irradiated products for years, as consumers do not want them :-)

Kai J.
Kai J.6 years ago

Tom G - There are absolutely NO positive benefits to eating irradiated foods, microwaved anything, or GM crops. 40 years ago the cancer rate in the U.S. stood at 3%. It is now a staggering 33%. In your lifetime you will meet many people who WILL die from cancer, diabetes and heart failure. THIS IS NOT A COINCIDENCE. I LOVE being a conspiracy theorist because I live a happy, healthy life AND am working on the fitness. If you really believe that IRRADIATION is a beneficial process I feel very sorry for you! One cannot correct the system of food distribution coupled with the original sins employed by BIG Agribusiness using chemicals, which are
deemed 'safe' by your criminal FDA. I don't know what your science is but you need to LEARN: "..irradiation damages molecules and digestive enzymes in food and creates free radicals, leading to the destruction of as much as 80% of the vitamins present. The radioactive particles can also combine with existing chemicals in food, including pesticide residue, and create new chemicals
called unique radiolytic products (URPs), which can include toxins such as benzene, formaldehyde, and lipid peroxides."

Tom G.
Tom G.6 years ago

Pam H "The only people who will be opposed to the public being made aware of these dangers are doctors, certain scientists, pharmacologists and others who profit from human illness."

I think this is a disgraceful and irresponsible thing to say. To accuse doctors, pharmacologists and "certain" scientists, who devote their lives to improving human health, of wanting to profit from human illness is totally outrageous and insulting.

The fact is, these people actually understand the science involved here and you do not, and you would rather follow the ignorant conspiracy theorists who believe everyone is out to get you, rather than researching the facts for yourself.

If there was a genuine health risk involved then these people would be the first to raise it. As it is, there is not considered to be such a health risk. The worst is that there may be a slight reduction in certain vitamins, and this is probably offset by reduced degradation in others and reduced waste. There are many FAR more important things to be worrying about, such as farm animal welfare and energy waste.