Submit a link Features Reviews Podcasts Video Forums More ▾

The pros and cons of irradiated food

Irradiating food doesn't make it radioactive, and it does kill dangerous bacteria, like the E.coli that killed many Europeans this summer. But it's also not a panacea against food poisoning and it's definitely not the most popular idea ever thought up. In a column in the New York Times, Mark Bittman examines the evidence behind irradiation, and how that evidence does and doesn't get considered in the choices we make about food.

When it comes to irradiation, you might need a primer. (I did.) Simply put, irradiation — first approved by the FDA in 1963 to control insects in wheat and flour — kills pathogens in food by passing radiation through it. It doesn’t make the food radioactive any more than passing X-rays through your body makes you radioactive; it just causes changes in the food. Proponents say those changes are beneficial: like killing E. coli or salmonella bacteria. Opponents say they’re harmful: like destroying nutrients or creating damaging free radicals.

Many people are virulently for or against. Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, says that irradiation “could do for food what pasteurization has done for milk.” (The main difference between irradiation and pasteurization is the source of the energy used to kill microbes.) Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch — which calls irradiation “a gross failure” — told me it was “expensive and impractical, a band-aid on the real problems with our food system.”

There are a few people in the middle. Former assistant secretary of the Department of Agriculture (USDA) Carol Tucker-Foreman is mostly anti-, but said that if she ran a nursing home or a children’s hospital — a place where people with weaker-than-average immune systems were cared for — it “might be something I wanted to do.” Marion Nestle, a New York University nutrition professor and the author of “Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety” (and a food-movement icon), allows that “the bottom line is that it works pretty well if done right, and I’m not aware of any credible evidence that it does any worse harm to foods than cooking. But it isn’t always done right, and foods can become re-contaminated after irradiation.”

Via Andy Revkin

Image: NAM - Nabob Irradiated Coffee, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from lifeontheedge's photostream

Regulating science the way we regulate restaurant kitchens

Peer-review does many things, but it isn't built to weed out fraud. In the wake of large scandals like the expose of Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent autism study, the British government is starting to consider regulating science for fraud the same way it regulates restaurants for public health. Brian Deer, the journalist who helped expose Wakefield, supports the idea. What do you think? (Via Ivan Oransky)

Heat waves and stimulant use

A word of caution to people who consume illegal stimulants and those who regularly take legal ones to treat the symptoms mental health issues, like ADHD or depression. Research is showing that, during heat waves, there is an increased risk of death among stimulant users. It's a small increase—Time magazine reported that "for every week that the temperature exceeds 75 degrees Fahrenheit, New York City will experience two extra cocaine-related deaths." And it seems to affect people taking particularly high doses. But, depending on the dosages you normally take, it could be a risk worth taking into account.

Heat and high doses combine in dangerous ways for a couple of reasons:

First, stimulants themselves raise body temperature, which is not what you want during a heat wave. They also interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature to cool itself down. The high body temperatures that result are one way that stimulant overdose kills—so extra heat makes matters worse.

Secondly, chemical reactions that injure or kill brain cells can occur when high doses of these drugs are taken. These may be more toxic when the temperature is higher. High doses of stimulants cause excess release of dopamine and glutamate— if these levels get high enough, the resulting chemical reactions can be deadly to cells. That process may increase overdose risk as well as contributing to long-term harm in those who survive.

Via All Things Human