By now you know that when you buy a product that's "certified organic", it means it's going to be free of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and dyes, and that it hasn't been genetically modified. What you might not know, is that it also ensures that your food or supplement hasn't been irradiated.
If you’re not familiar with this term, irradiation refers to the treatment of food with “ionizing radiation” that kills and inhibits the growth of bacteria, parasites, mould and insects, which prevents food-born illnesses and lengthens shelf life. This process is now used in over 50 countries worldwide, each with their own set of regulations.
So how do you know if your food or the supplements you’re taking have been irradiated? Food that is not pre-packaged must have a sign with the international radiation symbol, along with a written statement such as "irradiated", "treated with radiation" or "treated by irradiation” displayed next to it, while pre-packaged foods must be labelled with this information. But there’s a catch – in the U.S. if a multi-ingredient product, like supplements for example, contain an ingredient that has been treated with irradiation, this does not need to be identified on the label. Similarly, in Canada, unless the irradiated ingredient makes up more than 10 per cent of the finished product, it is exempt from the labelling requirements. In actuality, what this means is that a very large number of ingredients in supplements are indeed irradiated and not identified as such on the labels.
"A very large number of ingredients in supplements are indeed irradiated and not identified as such on the labels."
So which ingredients can be irradiated? In Canada, irradiation is permitted on spices (which are used in many natural supplements), dehydrated seasoning, wheat, potatoes, onions and most recently to treat fresh and frozen raw ground beef. Whereas in the U.S., beef, pork, poultry, crustaceans, shellfish, fresh fruit and vegetables, seeds for sprouting, shell eggs, spices and seasonings are all permitted. Health Canada and the FDA of course insist that based on the minimal amount of radiation used, these foods are safe to eat and retain their nutritional value. But as you can imagine, views on whether or not this is entirely true are polarizing.
The World Health Organization justifies irradiation as a safe and cost-effective way of controlling harmful organisms like salmonella and e. coli, and extending shelf-life, particularly in tropical countries, where foods can spoil quickly. Yet there are a variety of reasons why groups like The Centre for Food Safety, consumer rights group Food & Water Watch and The Environmental Working Group are opposed to it. The main reason is the risk of hazardous, potentially cancer-causing by-products that may be present in food as a result of irradiation. The Center for Food Safety explains, “Irradiation byproducts include a variety of mutagens – substances that can cause gene mutations, polyploidy (an abnormal condition in which cells contain more than two sets of chromosomes), chromosome aberrations (often associated with cancerous cells) and dominant lethal mutations (a change in a cell that prevents it from reproducing) in human cells. Making matters worse, many mutagens are also carcinogens. Research also shows that irradiation forms volatile toxic chemicals such as benzene and toluene, chemicals known, or suspected, to cause cancer and birth defects.” And according to Dr. Samuel Epstein, MD, Chair of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and professor of Environmental Medicine at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, these findings are not new: “Dozens of experiments dating to the 1950s have revealed a wide range of serious health problems in animals fed irradiated food.” Another important topic of debate is the fact that certain micronutrients – specifically vitamins A, B1, C and E, all of which are highly sensitive to irradiation – may be significantly reduced in our food during the process.
So while irradiation remains a controversial practice, what are the alternatives to controlling food safety? Innovative new companies have begun to emerge, such as Agri-Neo, who use an organic liquid solution derived from plants, which upon contact with pathogens and unwanted microbes, denatures their cell membranes and DNA, while keeping the taste, texture and nutritional profile of food unaltered.
"Testing has only been conducted on animals and human cells, and not on actual people. So until significantly more human trials have been done, we will stick only to ingredients that are organic certified, knowing they have not been irradiated."
At the end of the day, whether or not claims around the potential dangers of irradiation provide enough substantiated evidence to completely distrust it, the fact is, the majority of testing has only been conducted on animals and human cells, and not on actual people. So until significantly more human trials have been done, we will stick only to ingredients that are organic certified, knowing they have not been irradiated. And if that means not using certain ingredients in our products, such as Siberian Ginseng for example, since the only sources we were able to find had either been irradiated or had incredibly high microbial counts, then we simply won’t use them.
By: Kylie McGregor