Spices can, without a doubt, add flavor to your cooking, and can even have a wide range of health benefits, from anti-inflammatory effects to disease prevention. It may be hard to imagine life without them, but have you considered that what you are sprinkling on your food may have undergone half a billion x-rays worth of gamma-radiation?
Now, to be fair, the process of irradiation does not make the spices, or any of the many other foods approved for such processing, radioactive. This much has been established, and is repeated incessantly by organizations like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to suggest that the process of irradiation is safe in general. But things are not that simple; simply not being radioactive does not make it good.
The topic of food irradiation is still the source of fierce debate, with regulators and other bodies like the World Health Organization continuing to defend the safety of the practice despite growing evidence from independent researchers, which traces as far back as 1969, that seems to suggest the opposite.
The irradiation process does have benefits: it kills all kinds of bacteria and parasites that may be on the food. According to the FDA, “Irradiation is an important food safety tool in fighting foodborne illness.” Yet, at the same time, the radiation, which starts at 1 KiloGray (around the same as 16,700,000 x-rays) and goes up to 30 KiloGray (almost half a billion!), damages the vitamin and nutrient content of the food, and has been shown to create toxic and radiolytic by-products in it.
Does that mean the food isn’t safe? The short answer is: it’s hard to be sure. Of course, toxic and carcinogenic by-products are never good. Without definitive, long-term studies of the health effects of irradiation, it may be hard to know to what extent, if at all, the process is harmful to the human body. But is it worth testing on yourself? Most likely not.
What’s more, for those who are nature-minded, as you most definitely are, the knowledge that your food has been processed using the by-product of a nuclear reactor cannot be particularly satisfying. What can be less natural? Fortunately, there are alternatives!
But first, what are the health implications of irradiation, and what foods are processed using this technique?
The Health Risks Of Consuming Irradiated Foods
We have established that eating irradiated spices will not turn you into a spice-based superhero (or villain), but that does not mean the food is completely unaffected. For one, the food’s vitamin content and nutritional benefits are reduced, leaving your body with less of what you need. Worse yet, the chemical composition of the food may be negatively affected.
Studies have shown that the process of irradiation is responsible for the creation of toxic by-products including benzene, formaldehyde, and formic acid. Other harmful substances can be found which occur only in irradiated foods. One of these is the radiolytic 2-ACB (2-alklycyclobutanoes), which has been demonstrated to damage cells and DNA, cause cancer in animal and test-tube studies, and cause severe, but temporary, neurological dysfunction, like vision loss and paralysis, in cats for as long as it is consumed.
Why Is Irradiation Considered Safe
According to the FDA, the primary benefit of food irradiation is “controlling spoilage and eliminating foodborne pathogens.” The process kills bacteria and parasites on food, making it safer. Not much is said beyond this, except that the process is safe, and adds safety, a point that is commonly repeated despite its vagueness. Perhaps this is fair, modern food does pass through many hands on its journey from farm to stomach, and each stop is a possible source for contamination.
But critics point out that the need to kill bacteria in the first place would not exist if the food was produced in more sanitary conditions. Buying food first-hand from local producers would also limit the travel-time of food and the need for any parasite-killing.
Though it really is too early to know for sure how unsafe the process is, it is hard not to be suspicious of a treatment that the FDA states is endorsed, side-by-side, by the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Association.
Top Irradiated Foods To Avoid
The list of radiated foods differs by country, as each state has its own policies and processes. In the U.S.A., the list of affected foods includes the following, which are most likely to be irradiated:
Many spices and vegetable seasonings
Wheat, flour, wheat powder
Fresh meat and poultry of all kinds
Foods treated with gamma-radiation are marked with the international symbol for irradiation:
And should, in the United States, contain the words “Treated with Radiation,” or “Treated by Irradiation,” on the package.
Be careful of these exceptions:
1) Irradiated meat used in other products, such as sausages, does not need to be marked with the Irradiation symbol, though irradiated meat should appear in the ingredients.
2) Restaurants are not legally required to disclose the use of irradiated food.
What Are Alternatives To Irradiated Food?
With all this in mind, you may be looking for a way to get irradiated foods out of your diet. What are your options?
The simplest choice, one that requires the least work, is to look for the markings indicating irradiation and avoid them. Cook at home instead of eating out, so that you know your food is clean.
Opting to eat only organic foods, which should not undergo any irradiation, is possible without even switching grocery stores. Better yet, transitioning to a diet catered by small, local farms is a great way to keep your food close to nature while supporting your regional small-farming community.
Now you’re ready to spice your meals the way nature intended!