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Welcome to the Greenwood.Net Curiosity Corner

Irradiated Foods

May 16, 2017

Zapped with Gamma Rays: Irradiated Foods May 19, 2017

Curiosity Corner
Dr. Jerry D. Wilson
Emeritus Professor of Physics
Lander University

QUESTION: Why are some foods irradiated? Are they safe? (Asked by a conscientious consumer.)

REPLY: You may have seen foods in the grocery store bearing a label with a circular green symbol. On closer inspection, you might find a statement that the food was treated with radiation. The symbol, known as a “radura,” is the international symbol of irradiation. Food irradiation, the application of radiation, is a technology that improves safety and extends the shelf life of foods by reducing or eliminating microorganisms and insects. The process is analogous to pasteurization use for food safety.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has tested and approved the irradiation of meat and poultry and allows its use for a variety of other foods, including grains, fresh fruits, vegetables and spices. The chief radiation used is gamma rays from the decay of cobalt-60 "(" (_"27 " ^"60 " )"Co" ")" and cesium-137 "(" (_"55 " ^"137 " )"Cs" ")" . X-rays and electron beams are also used in some applications. Food exposed to such radioactivity does not become radioactive itself, and the nutritional value of the irradiated food is essentially unchanged.

How does radiation make food safer? When microbes and insects in the food are irradiated, the gamma rays break the bonds in the DNA molecules, causing genetic defects. The organism then dies or cannot reproduce. Also, the damaging of living cells in food can be used to prolong the shelf life of fruits and vegetables by inhibiting sprouting and ripening decay. Viruses are, in general, resistant to irradiation doses approved for foods.

So yes, irradiated foods are safe, and you won’t light up like a Christmas tree after you eat them.

C.P.S. (Curious Postscript): “Look to the future because that is where you’ll spend the rest of your life.” —George Burns

Curious about something? Send your questions to Dr. Jerry D. Wilson, College of Science and Mathematics, Lander University, Greenwood, SC 29649, or email jerry@curiosity-corner.net. Selected questions will appear in the Curiosity Corner. For Curiosity Corner background, go to www.curiosity-corner.net.

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