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There’s something eerie about strawberries that stay plump, red and picture-perfect after sitting around in the fridge for almost a month. It’s even more eerie when you consider how such everlasting produce happened to exist.

More than likely, these delectable-looking berries were irradiated before they hit the supermarket shelves, a process which gives the fruit weeks of extra life and eliminates a variety of pests and bacteria. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved irradiation in the 1980s for fruits, vegetables, spices and teas, and recently approved the procedure for use on some meats. It requires that irradiated food be marked somewhere with a radura symbol, a broken circle with a flower in the center, but doesn’t specify where or how large the symbol must be.

As a result, most consumers graze on by, unaware that their food may have been exposed to low-level radiation before it went on the market.

Those perfect berries likely underwent a process called gamma irradiation. Like an X-ray, this doesn’t make the food radioactive, but just gives it a short burst of radioactive energy from substances such as cobalt 60 or cesium 137.

This procedure slightly changes the food’s molecular structure, giving it a longer shelf life, and kills some harmful bacteria. Some vitamins are lost in the process (vitamins A, B, C and E are sensitive to irradiation), and the food’s color and taste may change slightly. In addition, some scientists say the process forms free radicals (compounds in food thought to hasten aging).

Irradiated food is considered safe to eat, but some consumers remain skeptical, pointing to a lack of research on irradiation’s possible hazards and long-term effects. Their attitude is, better safe than sorry.

Dr. Zora Djuric, a researcher at Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, feels people are overreacting to food irradiation. "I don’t see how it can hurt anybody," she says, reassuringly.

But if you want to be sure your food hasn’t been irradiated, look closely for the radura symbol, or be sure to buy organic. People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor sells both organic and commercial food, yet they can’t always be sure which commercial brands may have been nuked. General manager Carol Collins says sometimes the labels aren’t readily noticeable. "Here you are in a place that really cares and we can’t be 100 percent sure. We do our best and trust our distributors."

The co-op’s philosophy states, "because our customers’ health is more important than the shelf-life of our food, this store will not knowingly sell radiation-exposed food."

The moral of their story is: If you want to be sure your food is not nuked, then buy organic and avoid foods with the radura symbol. Or avoid those perfect-looking strawberries at the back of your fridge altogether.


As of Feb. 5, it’ll be easier to sort the healthy from the healthier at Whole Foods Market (Coolidge and Maple in Troy, 248-649-9600). Products will be flagged according to the U-M’s M-Fit Shelf Labeling Program, which identifies "Best" and "Acceptable" choices for healthy eating. ... Visit your nearest Panera Bread for a bunch of sourdough bread bowls. They’re perfect for serving winter soups, chilis and chowders, as well as for dips and spreads. And no dishes to wash afterward!

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