Radiating Food

Joab Camarena
March 11, 2016

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2016


Fig. 1: Irradiation of apples in a cobalt-60 irradiation facility. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The positive effects of food irradiation are vast, yet consumer backlash has kept companies from fully exploiting its potential advantages. Food irradiation utilizes ionizing radiation to treat food to make it more preservable, to reduce its risk of food borne illness, and to eliminate pests. This process has the ability to clean raw food of pathogenic organisms, and those nonpathogenic organisms that do survive act as no threat to human health. Even with such great potential benefits, technological advancements have been severely limited in this area as consumer fear surrounding a misbelief that irradiated food is actually radioactive. There are presently ample amounts of data on the safety of irradiated foods, yet only 60 countries have chosen to permit sales of such food. If the potential of irradiated foods were fully realized, millions of lives lost to food-borne illnesses could be saved and as well as a rise to a multi-billion dollar industry. [1,2]

Why Do We Radiate Food?

The use of irradiation creates a list of benefits for the both the producer and consumer. In such a process, radiating food eliminates any health hazards involving bacteria or viruses, which today is a big problem and can be quelled through irradiated foods. On the producer side, it delays food ripening as the radiation process damages the food's DNA, preventing cellular division impacting actual growth and production of functional enzymes that cause ripening. It is here where producers can see capital gain, yet the disdain from consumers, mores so in countries that have yet to permit sale of irradiated foods, comes from the scare of experiencing radiation and assuming that food content will be changed. Studies performed by the Environmental Protection Agency have stated that food does not become radioactive nor does the nutritional value of the food change. The cons that are presented with food irradiation are that through damaging DNA of the food, the permanently fresh look can make old fruit look healthy. Additionally, the elimination of live bacteria inhibits the release of odors that allow consumers to know produce is going "bad." [2-4]

How Do We Radiate Food?

Three processes exist for food irradiation: gamma rays, electron beams, and x-rays. The first process, which involves gamma irradiation, uses radioactive cobalt-60 or cesium-137 to emit radioactive waves. These waves pass through the food destroying any sort of growth hormone within the food, extend its shell life, and kill off any potential pest. As gamma rays can pass through very thick walls of concrete, the process can be performed on bulk amounts of foods (Fig 1.). The use of electron beams uses beta rays, which is emitted from an electron gun. Because beta rays are weaker than gamma rays, this process can allow superficially irradiate foods or get through thin layers. The last process has recently become popular, which utilizes high-energy x-rays that can easily be commanded and do not use any radioactive material as a source of energy to radiate food. Overall, these methods essentially allow the breaking of high energy chemical bonds in these foods that directly impact cell growth and overall maturation of the produce. [1,4]

Final Thoughts

The benefits of such a process outweighs the potential cons and fears associated with irradiated foods. With the ability to quell food-borne illnesses, destroy dangerous pathogens, and to aid the food scarcity problem in the world today, it is quite silly to hold on to these misconceptions when the research has negated the validity of these misconceived notions. If we pasteurize milk, a process fairly similar to irradiating foods, why is there hesitation to move forward with this?

© Joab Camarena. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] A. Ladd, "Food Irradiation," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2011.

[2] C. Kao, "Nuclear Technology for Food: Food Irradiation," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2012.

[2] A. Eller, "The Validity of Certain Myths About Food Irradiation ," Physics 241, Stanford University, Winter 2014.

[4] "Food Irradiation," U.S. Environmental Agency, EPA 402-F-14-016, August 2014.