What is Food Irradiation, Its Benefits And Safety Concerns

food irradiation

What is Food Irradiation?

Food irradiation is a process that uses ionizing radiation to eliminate or to reduce harmful bacteria, parasites, and insects from food products. It involves exposing food to high-energy radiation, such as gamma rays, X-rays, or electron beams. This treatment helps to extend the shelf life of food and improve its safety by reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses. Food irradiation has been approved for use in many countries around the world and is recognized as a safe and effective method of food preservation.

food irradiation

How does Food Irradiation work?

The process of food irradiation involves exposing food items to ionizing radiation. This radiation interacts with the atoms and molecules in the food, causing various changes at the cellular level.

One of the primary effects of irradiation is the destruction of microorganisms, including bacteria, viruses, and parasites, that may be present in the food. The radiation damages their DNA, rendering them unable to multiply and cause foodborne illnesses.

Food irradiation does not make the food radioactive. The radiation used in the process is closely monitored to guarantee that the food stays safe to eat. It doesn’t really change the taste, feel, or nutrients in the food by much. However, it’s worth mentioning that some vitamins like vitamin C and thiamin may decrease a bit in certain irradiated foods. Nonetheless, the overall impact on nutrition is minimal.

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What is Radiation Processing of Food? 

Radiation processing of food means using special energy like gamma rays, electrons, and X-rays to keep food fresh. Gamma rays and X-rays are types of energy with short wavelengths, like microwaves and visible light. We use gamma rays from things like cobalt-60 and caesium-137, and machines make electrons and X-rays with electricity. Gamma rays, a part of the electromagnetic spectrum, can go deep into food and make it last longer.

Benefits of Food Irradiation 

Food irradiation makes several significant benefits that contribute to food safety and quality. One of the primary advantages is the elimination of harmful microorganisms, including bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli, which are major causes of foodborne illnesses. By reducing the risk of contamination, irradiation helps to protect consumers from potential health hazards.

Another benefit of Food Irradiation is the extension of shelf life. By eliminating or reducing spoilage-causing organisms, irradiation helps to slow down the natural aging and decay process of food. This allows for longer storage and transportation times, reducing food waste and providing consumers with access to a wider variety of fresh and safe food options.

Food irradiation is also effective in controlling pests and insects. It can be used to treat grains, fruits, and vegetables to eliminate insects or their eggs, preventing infestations and ensuring the quality of the produce. This reduces the need for chemical pesticides and fumigants, making food irradiation a more sustainable and environmentally friendly method of pest control.

Safety Concerns and misconceptions about Food Irradiation

Despite its proven safety and numerous benefits, Food Irradiation has faced misconceptions and concerns from some consumers. One common misconception is that irradiated food becomes radioactive, which is not true. The radiation used in food irradiation is carefully controlled and does not make the food radioactive.

Another concern is the belief that irradiation may reduce the nutritional value of food. It’s true that a few vitamins can be a little lower in some irradiated foods, but in the bigger picture, it doesn’t really affect the overall nutrition by much. The advantages of making food safer and longer-lasting outweigh the small loss of nutrients, especially when you think about all the different food choices you have.

There are also people who are concerned that harmful substances might be created when food is irradiated. But research has proven that the amounts of any potential harmful substances are much lower than what safety guidelines allow. Food irradiation is carefully watched and controlled to make sure it follows strict safety rules.

Food Irradiation Regulations and Standards

The process of food irradiation is carefully controlled to make sure it’s safe and works well. Many countries have established regulatory frameworks that dictate the use of irradiation on various food products. These regulations outline the permitted radiation doses, labeling requirements, and specific foods that can be irradiated.

In the United States, for example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) jointly regulate food irradiation. They have approved the use of irradiation on a wide range of foods, including fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, and spices. The FDA requires that irradiated foods are properly labeled to inform consumers about the treatment.

Internationally, the Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint body of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO), sets international food standards and guidelines. The Codex has established standards for food irradiation, including maximum permitted doses and labeling requirements. These standards help to ensure consistency and safety in the global food trade. 

The list of foods/ products that can be irradiated  given by Government of India, Department of Atomic Energy (Notification, June 2012), Classes of Food Products and Dose Limits for Radiation Processing are given below with the respective dose limits (kilo Gray*).

Class 1Bulbs, stem and root tubers, and rhizomesInhibiting sprouting0.020.2
Class 2Fresh fruits and vegetables (other than class 1)Delay ripening0.21
Insect disinfestation0.21
Self life extension12.5
Quarantine application0.11
Class 3Cereals and their milled products, pulses and their milled products, nuts, oil seeds, dried fruits and their productsInsect disinfestation0.251
Reduction of microbial load1.55
Class 4Fish, aquaculture, sea food and their products (fresh or frozen), and crustaceansElimination of pathogenic microorganisms17
Self-life extension13
Control of human parasites0.32
Class 5Meat and meat products including poultry (fresh and frozen) and eggsElimination of pathogenic microorganisms17
Self-life extension13
Control of human parasites0.32
Class 6Dry vegetables, seasonings, spices, condiments, dry herbs and their products, tea. Coffee, cocoa and plant productsMicrobial decontamination614
Insect disinfestation0.31
Class 7Dry foods of animal origin and their productsInsect disinfestation0.31
Control of moulds13
Elimination of pathogenic microorganisms27
Class 8Ethnic foods, military rations, space foods, ready-to eat, ready-to cook/ minimally processed foodsQuarantine application0.251
Reduction of microorganisms210

Table courtesy: https://www.barc.gov.in/pubaware/food.html

Commonly Irradiated Foods

Food irradiation is used on a variety of foods to enhance their safety and quality. Some of the most commonly irradiated foods include spices, herbs, and seasonings. Irradiation helps to eliminate microbial contamination in these products, ensuring that they are safe for consumption.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are also frequently irradiated. This helps to control pests, eliminate insects or their eggs, and extend the shelf life of the produce. Irradiation is particularly beneficial for tropical fruits like mangoes and papayas, which are often infested with fruit flies.

Additionally, meat and poultry products can be irradiated to eliminate harmful bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli. This reduces the risk of foodborne illnesses associated with these products, providing consumers with safer options.

The Impact of Food Irradiation on Nutrition and Quality

One concern often raised about food irradiation is its potential impact on the nutritional value and quality of food. While it is true that some vitamins may be slightly reduced in certain irradiated foods, the overall impact on nutrition is minimal. The benefits of reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses and extending shelf life outweigh the slight nutrient loss.

In fact, food irradiation can have positive effects on food quality. By eliminating spoilage-causing microorganisms, irradiation helps to prolong the freshness of food and maintain its nutritional content. This can be particularly beneficial for consumers in remote areas or during times of food scarcity, as irradiated food can be safely stored and transported for longer periods.

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Furthermore, food irradiation can help reduce the need for chemical preservatives, additives, and pesticides. This contributes to cleaner and safer food options, as well as a more sustainable and environmentally friendly approach to food preservation.

food preservation methods

Food Irradiation vs. Other Food Preservation Methods

Food irradiation is just one of the techniques used for preserving and enhancing the safety of food. There are other commonly employed methods like heat treatment, cold storage, and chemical preservation. These preservation methods each have their own set of advantages and limitations. The choice of which method to use depends on several factors, including the type of food being preserved, the desired shelf life, and specific safety concerns.

Now, let’s compare food irradiation to these other methods:

Preservation MethodAdvantages of Food Irradiation
Heat TreatmentFood irradiation preserves food at lower temperatures, helping to maintain natural flavors, textures, and nutritional content. Heat treatment can alter the taste and texture of the food.
Cold StorageFood irradiation can be more effective in eliminating certain pests and pathogens that can survive in cold temperatures. Cold storage alone may not be sufficient to ensure food safety against these pests.
Chemical PreservationFood irradiation offers a safer alternative by reducing the need for potentially harmful chemicals like pesticides and fumigants. It provides a more sustainable approach to food preservation.

Food Irradiation has advantages over heat treatment in terms of preserving food quality, over cold storage for pest and pathogen elimination, and over chemical preservation methods by promoting food safety without the potential health and environmental risks associated with chemical use. The choice of preservation method depends on the specific needs and characteristics of the food product in question.

Consumer Opinions and Acceptance of Irradiated Food

Many geographic and cultural groups have various attitudes about and levels of acceptance for irradiated food. While some people are completely unaware of the process, others may be concerned about the safety and possible negative effects of eating irradiated food.

Education and awareness play a crucial role in shaping consumer opinions. When provided with accurate information about the benefits and safety of food irradiation, many consumers become more accepting of the process. Studies have shown that once consumers understand the science behind food irradiation and its regulatory oversight, they are more likely to consider irradiated food as a safe and viable option.

It’s also important to clarify any misunderstandings and worries customers may have. Building trust and confidence in the use of food irradiation as a method of food preservation can be aided by open communication and openness. Consumers may choose the food they buy and eat with knowledge if labels are clear and information is reliable.

FAQs: Food Irradiation

Q1: What is irradiation, and what are its units?

A: Irradiation is a process that exposes food to ionizing radiation, such as gamma rays, X-rays, or electron beams, for various purposes like extending shelf life and enhancing food safety. The units used to measure food irradiation include Grays (Gy) for absorbed dose and Sieverts (Sv) for biological effects.

Q2: Is food irradiation good or bad?

A: Whether food irradiation is considered good or bad depends on one’s perspective. Proponents argue it improves food safety and reduces foodborne illnesses. Critics may express concerns about potential effects on nutrition and flavor.

Q3: What is not a benefit of food irradiation?

A: Food irradiation does not enhance the taste or flavor of food; in some cases, it may slightly alter the taste, which can be considered a drawback by some consumers.

Q4: What are the methods of irradiation?

A: The methods of irradiation typically involve three main types: gamma irradiation (using gamma rays from a radioactive source), X-ray irradiation (using high-energy X-rays), and electron beam irradiation (using accelerated electrons).

Q5: What are the units of food irradiation?

A: The units used to measure food irradiation can include Grays (Gy) for absorbed dose and Sieverts (Sv) for biological effects.

Q6: What are the three types of food irradiation?

A: The three main types of food irradiation are gamma irradiation, X-ray irradiation, and electron beam irradiation.

Q7: How much radiation is used in food irradiation?

A: The amount of radiation used in food irradiation can vary, but it’s typically measured in Grays (Gy) and depends on the specific food product and desired outcomes.

Q8: What are five commonly irradiated foods?

A: Commonly irradiated foods include spices and herbs, dried fruits, meat and poultry, seafood, and wheat and wheat flour.

Q9: What are three advantages of food irradiation?

A: Three advantages of food irradiation are enhanced food safety (reducing harmful microorganisms), extended shelf life (reducing food waste), and minimized food spoilage (maintaining quality and nutritional content).

Q10: What radiation sources & energies are used for irradiation?

Following sources with their respective energy are used for food irradiation:


Type of rays



Gamma (g) rays

1.17 MeV and 1.33 MeV


Gamma (g) rays

0.66 MeV

Electron beam

Electron beam

Up to 10 MeV



Up to 5 MeV


Food irradiation is a secure and efficient way of preserving food, offering a range of advantages. It helps to eliminate harmful microorganisms, extend shelf life, and enhance food safety. Despite misconceptions and concerns, extensive research and regulatory standards support the use of food irradiation as a valuable tool in ensuring the availability of fresh, safe, and nutritious food.

By understanding how food irradiation works, its impact on nutrition and quality, and the regulations in place, consumers can make informed choices about the food they consume. Education and awareness are vital in dispelling misconceptions and fostering acceptance of irradiated food. Ultimately, food irradiation plays a crucial role in reducing the risk of foodborne illnesses, minimizing food waste, and providing a wider variety of safe food options for consumers.

CTA: Discover the science and benefits of food irradiation for yourself! Join the discussion, learn the facts, and make informed choices about your food. Let’s embrace a safer, healthier future together

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