If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ve hopefully long since ditched the microwave and started using the extra counter space for a health-promoting juicer, blender, dehydrator or dance party speaker system. But even if you’ve stopped making microwave dinners, you may still be eating foods blasted with radiation without even knowing it — and I’m not talking about Asian-sourced foods that have been contaminated by Fukushima, or European-sourced foods that still carry the stamp of Chernobyl.
The radiation I am referring is the burst of rays, estimated to be the equivalent of 30 million chest x-rays, that the government subjects our food to for “safety” reasons.
What Is Food Irradiation?
According to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, irradiation is “the process of exposing food to a controlled amount of energy called ‘ionizing radiation.'” This is done using one of three different types of radiation: Gamma rays, X-rays or electron beam radiation. Also known as “cold pasteurizing,” the goal of irradiating food is to kill harmful bacteria like salmonella and e. coli, prevent spoilage and increase shelf life. Makes sense, in theory. Making our food ‘safe’ by subjecting it to further harm isn’t the most effective solution — not to mention the fact that irradiating foods may actually be spawning radiation-resistant forms of bacteria along with loads of other potential risks.
5 Things You Should Know About Food Irradiation
1. Food irradiation kills bacteria — including the friendly kind.
Irradiation kills off 95% of bacteria in our food, but not all bacteria are bad for us. Some of those bacteria are the useful kind that start to smell funny when a food goes bad, warning us not to eat it. Irradiation can make old, rotten food look and smell fresh. Great for the food industry, not so great for health-conscious consumers.
2. Food irradiation damages the nutrients in our food.
Along with killing bacteria, irradiation kills nutrition, too. Vitamins A, B1, C, and E are highly sensitive to irradiation. Food irradiation may also affect the other B vitamins, as well as vitamin K. According to the Center for Food Safety in the United States, irradiated foods can lose from two to 95% of their vitamin content. Irradiation can destroy up to 80% of the vitamin A in eggs, up to 95% of the vitamin A and lutein in green beans, up to 50% of the vitamin A and lutein in broccoli and 40% of the beta-carotene in orange juice. Irradiation also doubles the amount of trans fats in beef.
3. Several foods are already approved for irradiation.
Currently in Canada, the following foods are approved for irradiation and sale:
- Whole wheat flour
- Spices (both whole and ground)
- Dehydrated seasonings
Mangoes, poultry, shrimp, prawns and ground beef are currently undergoing the approval process in Canada, despite the fact that 54% of surveyed consumers stated that they would not purchase irradiated food due to safety concerns. The government approved ground beef irradiation in 2017; mangoes, poultry, shrimp and prawns have not been approved as of yet.
In the United States, many more foods have been approved for irradiation including:
- Beef and pork
- Molluscan shellfish (e.g., oysters, clams, mussels, and scallops)
- Shell eggs
- Fresh fruits and vegetables
- Lettuce and spinach
- Spices and seasonings
- Seeds for sprouting (e.g., for alfalfa sprouts)
4. Food irradiation may be covering up larger issues.
There’s no doubt that food-borne illness is a big concern. But we have to ask ourselves: What’s the underlying issue that’s causing so much food poisoning in the first place? According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, it’s filthy conditions in the food industry:
“Irradiation is being embraced by the food industry as a way to mask filthy conditions in factory-style slaughterhouses and processing plants. Because it greatly extends the shelf life of food, irradiation is also being embraced by multinational corporations as a way to move food production operations to developing nations, a trend that has already financially imperiled multitudes of American farmers and ranchers.”
It might also be suggested that a huge problem leading to widespread contamination and recalls is the structure of our food supply, where three or four massive companies are responsible for 80% of what we find in the supermarket. The centralization of our food system is a big part of the problem, leading to yet another reason to know your farmer and shop as locally as you can.
5. Food irradiation has not been proven safe for human consumption.
Food irradiation produces free radicals, highly reactive chemicals with the potential to harm other cells. They bounce around in irradiated foods, combining with existing chemicals to create a mix of known toxins (benzene, formaldehyde and lipid peroxides) and unique radiolytic products that only exist in irradiated foods – meaning those bad boys just aren’t naturally occurring in nature.
According to the Cancer Prevention Coalition, one third of studies in peer reviewed journals investigating genetic damage caused by irradiated food showed genetic damage in animals, humans or cell cultures. Dr. Samuel Epstein, chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, is quoted as saying, “Every man, woman and child who takes a bite of irradiated food increases their chance of getting cancer. It is no exaggeration to say that our government has turned the American people into guinea pigs.”
As is too commonly becoming the practice with the FDA, they approve food for human consumption without proper testing. As with GMOs, irradiation was approved by U.S. Food and Drug Administration without determining a level of radiation to which food can be exposed and still be safe for human consumption, which federal law requires (U.S. Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, § 170.22). The list of animal studies that show mutations, cell death and cancers in various members of the animal and insect world is staggering and terrifying.
In a 2004 study entitled Health Concerns Regarding Consumption of Irradiated Food, researchers wrote: “As a result of this review, the authors conclude that current evidence does not exist to substantiate the support or unconditional endorsement of irradiation of food for consumption. In addition, consumers are entitled to their right of choice in the consumption of irradiated versus un-irradiated food.”
The problem is that we’re not. Not really.
More and more food is being irradiated, supposedly for our own safety, but radiation is simply not safe. It is a slow killer that plants a seed of damage that grows and proliferates over decades. We have seen the effects in children born near radioactive hot spots, and now in Japan, there are already reports of an increase in infant thyroid cancers, formerly an extremely rare form of cancer to find in children, let alone infants.
Check this clip of the formidable Helen Caldicott, a pediatrician and world renowned expert on the effects of radiation. Around the six-minute mark in this video, Helen discusses the effects of radiation on our food, and subsequently, our health.
How Do We Avoid Irradiated Food?
In Canada, we have mandatory labelling of irradiated food — supposedly.
By regulation, all prepackaged food products that have been irradiated must carry a statement “treated with radiation”, “treated by irradiation” or “irradiated” and display the international symbol identifying irradiated foods, the radura, on the principal display panel of their label. When an irradiated food is not sold in prepackaged form, a sign displaying the radura symbol must be located next to the point of sale of the food.
The ideal would be to shop as much as we can from our local growers, and buy spices from organic brands (I use Frontier). Avoid any products that have these symbols on them (below left).
In Canada, pre-packaged foods which contain more than 10 per cent irradiated ingredients are required to bear this symbol, but those with less than 10 per cent irradiated ingredients don’t need to be labelled – yet another reason to make it from scratch. The problem here is that most spices make up less than 10 per cent of our meals. In good quality meals, they can be incredibly healing, but in most cases, these spices have been irradiated.
In the United States, irradiated foods must be labelled — except for “multi-ingredient” (read: packaged) foods. So if you’re purchasing spice mixes or other packaged foods which contain more than one ingredient, there’s no easy way to tell if it has been irradiated or not. Luckily, in both Canada and the United States, irradiated food does not meet organic standards, so when you eat organic, you know you’re eating non-irradiated.
And Then I Picked Up The Phone And Asked Questions…
I went around the corner to the local supermarket and bought a bag of conventional coriander seeds. There was no irradiation symbol on it, or words that described it as such. I looked up the brand name, Suraj, and found that it was an India-based company. And so I called the 1-888 number that was on the back of the package and went directly to the President’s Choice consumer help centre.
I asked if this product was irradiated, as my assumption, based on the Health Canada website, was that any packaged food where its contents were more than 10% irradiated must be labelled. The woman was unable to help me immediately, but called me back three days later to confirm the spices were not irradiated. This confused me as from what I could gather from the India-based company, they do irradiate their spices prior to export.
In the process of researching all of this, I also learned that irradiated cat food is banned in Australia as they found it was killing cats. So there’s that.
For now, it seems the only way to ensure that our food is not irradiated is to buy organics, and start asking a lot of questions!