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Which food is the most radioactive?

Radioactivity is present in small amounts in many foods we eat every day. Radioactive elements like potassium-40, carbon-14, and others occur naturally, and trace amounts are incorporated into plants through soil and water. Additional radiation can also be picked up during processing and handling. While elevated levels of radiation in food can be dangerous, the amounts found in most common foods are well below levels considered harmful. So which foods contain the highest levels of natural and added radioactivity? Let’s take a look at some of the most radioactive menu items.

What Makes Food Radioactive?

There are a few different ways that radioactivity can get into our foods:

Naturally Occurring Radioactive Elements

Some atomic elements with unstable nuclei naturally undergo radioactive decay. Trace amounts of these elements are found throughout nature, so we ingest small quantities of them in the food we eat and the water we drink. Some examples:

– Potassium-40 – This radioactive isotope of potassium is found in many fruits, vegetables, meats, and grains. Potassium is an essential mineral, so our bodies regulate and maintain potassium levels.

– Carbon-14 – This radionuclide is created when cosmic rays interact with atoms in the upper atmosphere. Plants absorb carbon-14 as they photosynthesize, so it makes its way into our foods.

– Rubidium-87 – Various produce, including grapes and potatoes, contains this radioactive rubidium isotope.

– Tritium – As hydrogen atoms in water molecules decay into tritium, this isotope can be consumed in drinking water and beverages.

Absorbed Radiation

Plants can absorb small amounts of radiation from the environment as they grow. If the soil and water contain radioactive isotopes, these will be taken up into fruits, vegetables, and grains.

Added Radionuclides

Some radiation makes its way into our foods through processing and handling. Examples include:

– Phosphate fertilizers – These can be contaminated with uranium, radium, and other radioactive elements. Plants absorb these along with the helpful phosphorus.

– Water sources – Groundwater that picks up radioactive elements from rock and soil can end up in irrigation and food processing.

– Food processing equipment – Handling machinery and surfaces can add trace radioactivity if they are contaminated.

– Packaging – Radioisotopes can leach from certain plastics, glazes, colorings, and other materials.

Measuring Food Radiation Levels

Food radiation is quantified using units of radioactivity called becquerels (Bq). This measures the rate of radioactive decay. Higher becquerel values mean more radiation is being emitted from the food substance.

Some key benchmarks:

– 1 Bq means 1 radioactive decay per second

– Foods with less than 1000 Bq/kg are considered low risk

– Consumption limits start at 10,000 Bq/kg

– Very contaminated foods exceed 100,000 Bq/kg

Levels can vary widely even within the same food category. Radioactivity depends on factors like soil composition, fertilizers used, manufacturing processes, and storage conditions. Testing provides the most accurate values.

Top 10 Most Radioactive Foods

Based on available data, here are 10 foods that tend to contain higher levels of natural and added radioactivity:

1. Brazil Nuts

These large tree nuts can concentrate radioactive radium found naturally in soil. Levels up to 444 Bq/kg have been measured. Still quite low, but Brazil nuts rank at the top of common foods.

2. Potatoes

Potatoes can uptake radioactive phosphorus, radium, and tritium from fertilizers and groundwater. Potato chip seasoning can also add radiation. Some samples exceed 100 Bq/kg.

3. Dried Fruit

Dried fruits like apricots, prunes, raisins, and dates can contain higher radioactive potassium-40 and carbon-14 levels. About 50 Bq/kg is typical. Drying concentrates radiation levels.

4. Red Meat

Beef, lamb, and other red meats contain small amounts of radioactive carbon-14 and potassium-40 from the plants animals eat. Levels up to about 50 Bq/kg are common.

5. Bananas

Bananas contain radioactive potassium-40, averaging about 35 Bq/kg. The fruit’s high potassium content means more radioisotopes.

6. Beer & Wine

Grain and fruit used in alcohol production contribute to low levels of carbon-14 and potassium-40. About 30 Bq/kg is typical for beers and wines.

7. Fish

Trace radiation can accumulate in seafood from water sources. Large fish like tuna can exceed 30 Bq/kg. Shellfish may contain the most.

8. Salt

Iodized table salt often has elevated levels of radioactive potassium-40 and rubidium-87. Levels around 30 Bq/kg are common.

9. Coffee & Tea

Coffee and tea get some carbon-14 and potassium-40 from the plants they come from. About 20 Bq/kg is average.

10. Chocolate

Cocoa powder and cacao plants provide carbon-14 and potassium-40 to chocolate. Milk chocolate may contain a bit more than dark. Around 15-20 Bq/kg is typical.

Not So Radioactive Foods

For contrast, here are some foods with very low radioactivity:

– Water: 1-2 Bq/kg
– Honey: 2-3 Bq/kg
– Eggs: 1-5 Bq/kg
– most fruits/veggies: less than 10 Bq/kg
– Milk: 10-20 Bq/kg
– Grains: 10-40 Bq/kg
– most meats: 10-50 Bq/kg

Again, even the “high” numbers listed above are well within safe ranges. Our bodies are built to handle such trace amounts of radiation with no issues.

Should You Be Concerned About Radioactive Foods?

The radioactivity data presented shows that some foods contain higher levels than others. However, these amounts are minuscule compared to natural radiation we’re exposed to daily from outer space, the air, soil, our own bodies, etc.

Consumption of radioactive substances only becomes a health concern at much higher doses. Most food monitoring programs set safety limits thousands of times higher than typical values.

For example, Brazil nuts may contain 444 Bq/kg. But the safety limit is set at 1,000,000 Bq/kg by most world health agencies. Potatoes with 100 Bq/kg are 10,000 times lower than the danger level.

So while radioactive isotopes are present in the foods we eat, the amounts are far too low to cause issues. Our bodies are well adapted to deal with these tiny exposures.

The radioactivity we ingest from a varied diet poses no significant risk and is perfectly safe for all ages. Only extreme contamination events would make food radioactivity a true health concern.

Minimizing Your Dietary Radiation Intake

If you still wish to reduce any unnecessary radiation in your diet, there are some simple steps you can take:

– Vary your diet and don’t overeat any one food, especially those higher in radioactivity like Brazil nuts.

– Avoid extremely high consumption of dried fruits, salt, chocolate, fish, and red meat. Stick to moderate amounts.

– Wash all fresh produce thoroughly to remove surface contamination.

– Choose rainwater or filtered water over groundwater sources.

– Don’t source foods from areas of known contamination.

– Contact your local farm/producer to inquire about testing of meat, crops, water, packaging, etc.

– Grow your own fruits and vegetables or buy from trusted organic suppliers.

Again, such precautions are not at all necessary from a health standpoint. But if you wish to err on the side of caution, they may provide slight reductions in ingesting radioactive substances.


While all foods contain tiny amounts of radioactive elements, some have higher natural levels than others. Topping the list are Brazil nuts, potatoes, dried fruit, red meat, and bananas. However, the radioactivity in even these foods is minuscule compared to hazardous levels and is safe for human consumption. Variety and moderation are your best options if you wish to minimize ingesting radioactive substances from your diet. But overall, the small doses pose little to no threat and are nothing to worry about.