When you sprinkle cinnamon over your lovingly homemade organic applesauce, are you also adding a tiny dose of radiation? If not, are you adding deadly bacteria?
More than 60 countries allow irradiation of food, including the United States and Canada. What is irradiation, and does it make food safer or more dangerous? How can we tell if a particular food is irradiated? Why the heck would anybody zap our cinnamon with gamma rays?
Dried spices and herbs are the foods most likely to be irradiated worldwide–175 million pounds in the United States in 2011. Many countries, especially in the European Union, allow irradiation of herbs and spices only–not any other food. That’s why I’m focusing on spices and herbs in this article.
I’ve learned that although irradiation is allowed in the United States for many categories of food, the technology isn’t being used very widely for any category other than herbs and spices. That seems to be partly because the stricter labeling standards for and greater media attention to irradiated meat and poultry, compared to other foods, caused consumers to be suspicious and avoid those products. Should we be avoiding irradiated herbs and spices and demanding better labeling?
I’ve also learned that in 2019, hardly any irradiated spices are on grocery store shelves, but industrial food producers may be using irradiated spices as ingredients. Because irradiated spice ingredients don’t have to be identified on labels, consumers can’t identify which processed foods or restaurant meals contain them. That bugs me! I always want to have all the data to make an informed choice!
But if I knew, would I choose to feed my family irradiated spices? Let’s think this through!
What Is Food Irradiation?
- Killing pathogens that can cause food poisoning;
- Killing mold spores and bacteria that make food spoil faster;
- Killing insects that would damage the food, without chemical pesticides that would remain on the food;
- Delaying ripening and sprouting so that fruits, salad greens, and root vegetables stay fresh longer. (This isn’t a concern for dried spices and herbs.)
Although bacteria are killed by proper cooking, it’s safer not to have pathogens like E. coli, campylobacter, listeria, toxoplasma, and salmonella come into your kitchen in the first place, because they can transfer from the raw food to your hands, counters, or other surfaces and get into your body from there. These pathogens are a serious problem, killing more than 1,300 Americans per year and sickening more than 9 million. And do you use spices and herbs only in your thoroughly cooked foods?
Because irradiation penetrates food, it can kill bacteria inside a plant or seed that got there through the plant’s water intake, not just bacteria on the surface that can be removed by simply washing the plant material.
Three sources of radiation are approved for irradiating food in the United States:
- Gamma rays from Cobalt 60 or Cesium 137. The radioactive element is heavily shielded and never touches the food; only the rays are used. Gamma rays also are used in sterilizers for medical and dental equipment.
- High-energy X-rays produced by firing electrons at metal foil.
- A stream of high-energy electrons from an electron accelerator, which is a larger version of the electron gun used in old-style televisions and computer monitors.
Only the gamma-ray method involves a radioactive element at all. A detailed explanation of these processes is on pages 517-518 of this paper from the Centers for Disease Control.
Is Irradiated Food Radioactive?
No. The radiant energy passes through the food. Food becomes irradiated by exposure to radiant energy much the way food becomes cooked by exposure to heat. Cooking causes chemical and structural changes in food, but that’s not automatically a bad thing!
Irradiated food never touches a radioactive element. Ionizing radiation is applied to the food under carefully controlled conditions and is no longer lingering in the food by the time it’s available for purchase. Ionizing radiation’s effects–killing bacteria and insects; and any side effects such as chemical changes–happen during treatment, not by the food becoming and staying radioactive. It’s like when you get a sunburn: Your exposure to sunlight damaged your skin, but your skin isn’t filled with sunbeams bouncing around forevermore.
Studies have found that “radiation-induced radicals” can be detected in some spices irradiated with gamma rays, several years after irradiation. These are not radioactive particles; they are the result of chemical changes caused by irradiation. Detection techniques like this are used for monitoring the food supply to make sure nobody is irradiating food in an unauthorized facility or selling irradiated food without proper labeling.
Is Irradiated Food Less Nutritious?
A little bit. Radiation’s effect on food is similar to the effect of temperature change–pasteurization, cooking, or freezing. Each of these processes causes some chemical and structural changes, which vary depending upon the process and the type of food. There is some evidence that irradiation reduces some nutrients, but these are small changes similar to those caused by other methods of sterilization and preservation.
The one well-documented nutritional change caused by food irradiation, that is a bigger change than you’d get from cooking or freezing, is reduction in thiamine (Vitamin B-1). The only food approved for irradiation in the US that contains significant thiamine is meat, so this isn’t an issue for irradiated herbs and spices.
One of the good reasons to eat spices such as garlic, ginger, and turmeric is that they contain antioxidants that may help keep you healthy and prevent premature aging. This study found that irradiation actually improved the antioxidant profile of ginger but damaged garlic and turmeric. The damage was less with lower levels of gamma rays.
But Does Anyone Get Sick from Dried Herbs and Spices?
It’s easy to imagine a thriving colony of microbes on raw meat, a nice juicy peach, or potatoes still caked with dirt from the field. But dried oregano, ground black pepper, cinnamon–what could live on those?
Salmonella! The bacteria can remain dormant for years in a dry, room-temperature environment. Then when they get into a warm, damp body, they start multiplying rapidly. If you’re lucky, you’ll just get a little diarrhea–but salmonella can cause serious illness or even death. Other bacteria also can survive on dried herbs; salmonella is just the most common dangerous variety.
Most herbs and spices are spread out on the ground after harvest, to dry in the sun. Bacteria may come from birds flying over, from traces of animal feces in dust blowing by, or from traces of human feces on workers’ hands that weren’t well washed after using the bathroom.
A study a decade ago found that 7% of spices were contaminated with salmonella. In 2009, 272 cases of salmonella poisoning were traced to peppercorns used in salami.
Irradiation isn’t the only way to kill bacteria on spices and herbs. Heat pasteurization and ethylene oxide fumigation are other options. (But ethylene oxide is a carcinogen and mutagen known to harm people who work with it, and it destroys some of the volatile compounds in spices that make them good for you! It is banned in the EU and not allowed on ground spices in the US.)
You can kill bacteria when you’re cooking with spices by heating the food to at least 160F. But when you’re using spices in food you’ll eat raw, or in cooked food that you season just before serving, bacterial contamination is a potential risk.
Is Irradiated Food Safe?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has been studying the safety and nutrition of irradiated food since 1961. In the United States, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) approved irradiation of wheat and flour in 1963 and later approved it for other specific categories of food, including herbs and spices in 1986. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) also plays a role in supervising food irradiation. The Centers for Disease Control and American Dietetic Association have endorsed the safety of food irradiated within US standards.
However, groups like Public Citizen raise concerns about WHO’s evaluations of irradiation, saying they have given the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) too much control over research and how it is reported. They suggest that WHO has inadequately explored many of the research questions it initially posed, shifting its focus to encouraging more countries to approve irradiation with the goal of controlling the epidemics of food poisoning and food waste due to spoilage. Is it better to survive into adulthood and eventually get cancer or health effects of mild malnutrition, than to die of starvation or salmonella as a child? Sure, but are those really our only choices?
These are the main issues that WHO and governmental agencies may not have addressed thoroughly enough:
- Bacteria and insects are not the only contaminants that may get into food, and zapping food once does not prevent it from getting re-contaminated by unsanitary storage conditions later. Over-reliance on irradiation may lead to ignoring systemic food-safety problems.
- Some experiments feeding animals large amounts of irradiated food reported health effects, including genetic damage, reproductive problems, weakened immunity, stunted growth, and kidney damage.
- Some food-irradiation processes create chemical byproducts that remain in the food but are assumed to be safe. Considering that some of these chemicals do not occur naturally in any food, careful research on their human health effects is wise.
- WHO expresses no concern over the amount of radiation used. Even if irradiated food is harmless to eat no matter how strongly irradiated it was, it’s irresponsible to shrug off the environmental pollution from nuclear reactions and the risk to workers of using more radiation than necessary.
It’s important to note that those chemical byproducts are created by irradiating fat, so this is not an issue for spices and herbs. Also, those research animals must have been fed irradiated meat or fresh produce, not heaps of dried oregano! Because we eat herbs and spices in smaller quantities than other foods, any effect will be minimal.
Still, I’d rather feel more certain that our international and federal agencies really know and care if food irradiation is truly safe!!
Is irradiation at least safer than other methods of killing pathogens? I guess I’m inclined toward Dr. Weil’s point of view:
If I had a choice between herbs and spices treated with chemical preservatives or fumigants or those that had been irradiated, I wouldn’t hesitate to go for the latter.
Here’s more about irradiation vs. fumigation. The Center for Consumer Research also says irradiation is safer than fumigation. The Centers for Disease Control lay out the risks of working with ethylene oxide (the most common fumigant used on spices), but here’s what they say about exposure to treated food:
It is not known if food crops are a source of exposure to ethylene oxide for the general public. Ethylene oxide has been found at levels up to 3.5 parts of ethylene oxide per one million parts of food (3.5 ppm) in some foods shortly after being sprayed with pesticide that contains it. These levels decrease with time as ethylene oxide evaporates or breaks down into other substances, and thus little or none may remain when the food is eaten….
Ethylene oxide can enter your body when air containing this substance is breathed into your lungs. Because ethylene oxide evaporates very easily, it is unlikely that it remains in or on food or remains dissolved in water long enough to be eaten or swallowed, although this is not known for certain. It is not known if ethylene oxide can enter the body through the skin.
After a person has been exposed to ethylene oxide, it leaves the body through the urine or feces or by breathing it out through the lungs. This probably occurs very rapidly, perhaps within 2 or 3 days.
Gosh, that’s a lot of “not known” for something that’s been widely used! When you add to that uncertainty the fact that ethylene oxide causes brain and nerve damage, miscarriages, and cancer for people who work with it–and that those workers are much less diligently protected than those who work with nuclear energy–irradiation looks like the safer option of the two.
But there aren’t just two options.
What about heat pasteurization?
It’s a very effective method for controlling microbes and delaying spoilage of some foods, like milk. Some people say that the problem with using this method on spices is that most spices’ flavor and color are damaged by heat, whereas irradiation keeps spices tasting and looking about the same as untreated ones. Here’s a study directly comparing steam sterilized to irradiated spices and finding that the steamed ones seemed weaker.
But ultimately I learned that many of the spice brands I’ve tried are steam sterilized, and they taste fine to me!
Using heat and water sounds like the safest method of killing germs and the method with the lowest environmental impact–it doesn’t produce toxic waste, although I hope the water used for steaming is condensed and cleaned, rather than released from a smokestack, because if the herbs or spices weren’t grown organically the steam probably contains some pesticide and herbicide residues.
Are Organic Foods Irradiated?
No, at least not in the United States. USDA organic standards prohibit the use of irradiation on any food labeled as organic. So if you want to avoid irradiation, buying organic is an easy way to do it! I also found some sources saying that ethylene oxide fumigation is not allowed on organic food, but I don’t see it mentioned in the official standards.
The question is, then: Are organic spices and herbs treated in any way to reduce microbial contamination? Heat pasteurization is allowed under organic standards, but that doesn’t mean it’s used on every product. Bird poop, insects, and human fecal bacteria may be organic, but that doesn’t make them safe to eat!
Looking at individual brands is the best way to find out which processes they do or don’t use. You’d think this information would be in the fine print on the label….
Are MY Spices Irradiated?
This question is much harder to answer than I thought! USDA makes it sound simple:
Irradiated foods can be recognized by the presence of the international symbol for irradiation on the packaging along with the words “Treated with Radiation,” or “Treated by Irradiation.”
That international symbol is called a Radura and is easy to recognize. But USDA is responsible for enforcing this rule only on irradiated meat and poultry. FDA got me a little confused about whether or not to expect to find this labeling on spices:
Look for the Radura symbol along with the statement “Treated with radiation” or “Treated by irradiation” on the food label. Bulk foods, such as fruits and vegetables, are required to be individually labeled or to have a label next to the sale container. The FDA does not require that individual ingredients in multi-ingredient foods (e.g., spices) be labeled.
I mean, some spices are blends of multiple ingredients, like curry powder or garlic salt–but nutmeg, cumin, parsley, onion flakes, etc., are just single ingredients, not “multi-ingredient foods,” so wouldn’t they have to be labeled? This 2010 report from the Government Accountability Office suggests that FDA was not being at all vigilant about enforcing labeling at that time, for the foods it supervises. (USDA is in charge of meat and poultry.) The report also says this:
According to an industry source, the quantity of irradiated spices has increased recently because many spice processors have transitioned from ethylene oxide—a gas identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen—to irradiation as an alternative treatment. However, according to a spice industry representative, the spice industry does not track information on the exact quantity of spices being irradiated. According to two companies that irradiate spices, however, they irradiated almost 88 million pounds of spices in 2008.
Well, I’m glad to hear about the transition from cancer-causing chemical fumigation to irradiation…but that still doesn’t tell us whether to expect irradiated spice labeling or not. It indicates that FDA was considering eliminating the labeling requirement…but since FDA’s own website currently indicates that labeling is required (except, maybe not for spices??) and the page’s date is 1/4/2018, I guess they didn’t do that.
I save money and avoid excess packaging by buying most of my spices in bulk at the food co-op, so I wasn’t surprised when I couldn’t find any Radura in my spice cabinet–some bottles still have their original labels, but because the co-op sticker needs to cover the bar code, it’s also covering the part of the label where processing details are most likely to appear.
So I looked around my neighborhood Giant Eagle supermarket. In the spice aisle, I checked the labels of at least 3 varieties of single-ingredient dried herbs and spices from each of the brands they carry–and I didn’t see any that indicated whether they were or were not irradiated! Then I checked all the non-organic fresh produce, meat, poultry, and flour. I could not find a single irradiated food product in that store!
Well, the GAO report says irradiation of ground beef declined from 2000 to 2010 and poultry irradiation stopped in 2000–food companies weren’t doing it, even though they were allowed to, because it’s expensive and there wasn’t enough consumer demand for it–so maybe Giant Eagle doesn’t carry irradiated meat anymore.
But I’d seen so many reports that spice irradiation is becoming more popular, that up to one-third of spices sold in the United States are irradiated–so why wasn’t I seeing those labels?
I decided to investigate the information that individual brands provide online.
Which Brands Sterilize Spices, and How?
Many brands address this question on their “FAQ” or “About Us” page.
Non-Irradiated Spice Choices
- McCormick: “To mitigate harmful microorganisms, McCormick® utilizes steam sterilization on the ingredients.”
- This interview explains that, at least in 2013, some of McCormick’s industrial customers buying large amounts requested irradiation, but McCormick arranged for it to happen when the spices were on the way from their storage to the customer–that means no irradiated spices could accidentally get into products you buy in the store.
- Badia: “All of our products are Non-Irradiated and instead have been processed using steam sterilization.”
- Frontier Co-op (which also makes Simply Organic and Whole Foods 365 spices) does not carry irradiated products of any kind, and their spices are not treated with ethylene oxide. This is one brand whose spice labels clearly specify what hasn’t been done to the product–but it isn’t clear whether they steam sterilize all herbs and spices. The peppercorns recalled in 2014 had been steam sterilized before questionable test results: one positive and one negative for Salmonella.
- Mountain Rose Herbs “is firmly against the use of the treatment methods irradiation, X-Ray, ozone, Ethylene Oxide, and in many cases steam sterilization…. In the rare event that we must treat materials, it is our policy to strictly use a low heat steam method.” Mountain Rose fennel was recalled due to salmonella contamination in June 2019.
- The Spice Hunter doesn’t irradiate but doesn’t address whether or not they use any other sanitation practice.
- Gel Spice Company–which makes many house brands including Fresh Finds, Market Pantry, Spice Supreme, Clear Value, and Spice Select–uses steam sterilization.
No Information Available
I couldn’t find the info online but didn’t take the time to contact any of these companies directly. If you know where to find information on their processes, please share in the comments.
- Starwest Botanicals does microbiology testing for pathogens–but that most likely means testing of random samples, not every bit of the product. At least two organic herbs from Starwest Botanicals have been recalled due to salmonella contamination, cardamom in 2018 and celery seed in 2011.
- Trade East uses cryogenic milling, which may kill microbes due to the very cold temperature–but they don’t mention sanitation as a reason for doing it.
The good news is that I didn’t find any brands that definitely are irradiated or fumigated, and I did find that some of the most widely available brands are steam sterilized! You don’t have to buy pricey brands to get spices and herbs that are free of ethylene oxide and haven’t been irradiated! The question is, do they taste as good as irradiated spices? I kind of wish I could identify a brand that’s definitely irradiated so that I could do a controlled taste test with my kids!
It may be that irradiated spices aren’t being offered to consumers anymore because too few people wanted to buy them. My research turned up a lot of articles reporting consumer opposition to irradiation between 2007 and 2013. Maybe the reason there hasn’t been more on the subject since is that irradiated foods are barely on the market anymore.
But it’s still entirely possible that spices used in processed foods and large restaurants are irradiated. They’re purchased in huge lots or directly from the importer, and FDA doesn’t require any labeling of irradiated ingredients mixed into food products or restaurant meals.
I’m glad to have learned that irradiated spices aren’t very dangerous and my family is being exposed to only very tiny amounts!