10 Common Naturally Radioactive Foods

Technically, all food is slightly radioactive. This is because all food and other organic molecules contain carbon, which naturally exists as a mixture of isotopes, including radioactive carbon-14. Carbon-14 is used for carbon dating, a method for identifying the age of fossils. However, some foods emit much more radiation than others. Here's a look at 10 naturally radioactive foods and how much radiation you get from them.

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Brazil Nuts

Brazil nuts

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If there were an award for "Most Radioactive Food," it would go to Brazil nuts. Brazil nuts contain high levels of two radioactive elements: radium and potassium. Potassium is good for you, is used in many biochemical reactions, and is one of the reasons why the human body is itself slightly radioactive. Radium occurs in the ground where the trees grow and is absorbed by the plant's root system. Brazil nuts emit over 6,600 pCi/kilogram of radiation. Most of that radiation passes harmlessly through the body. Meanwhile, the high levels of healthful selenium and other minerals make these nuts healthy to eat in moderation.

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Lima Beans

high-angle view of lima beans in a bowl

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Lima beans are high in radioactive potassium-40 and also radon-226. Expect to get 2 to 5 pCi/kilogram from radon-226 and 4,640 pCi/kilogram from potassium-40. You don't get any benefit from the radon, but the potassium is a nutritious mineral. Lima beans are also a good source of (non-radioactive) iron.

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bunches of bananas

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Bananas are sufficiently radioactive that they can set off radiation alarms at ports and airports. They offer 1 pCi/kilogram from radon-226 and 3,520 pCi/kilogram from potassium-40. The high potassium content is part of why bananas are so nutritious. You do absorb the radiation, but it's not harmful.

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Baby carrots on a white background

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Carrots give you a pico-Curie or two of radiation per kilogram from radon-226 and about 3,400 pCi/kilogram from potassium-40. The root vegetables are also high in protective antioxidants.

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sack of potatoes outside

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As with carrots, white potatoes offer between 1 and 2.5 pCi/kilogram of radon-226 and 3,400 pCi/kilogram of potassium-40. Foods made from potatoes, such as chips and french fries, are similarly slightly radioactive.

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Low Sodium Salt

salt shaker open with salt poured out

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Low sodium or lite salt contains potassium chloride, KCl. You'll get around 3,000 pCi/kilogram per serving. No-sodium salt contains more potassium chloride than low-sodium salt and thus is more radioactive.

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Red Meat

raw cuts of steak surrounded by herbs and a knife

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Red meat contains appreciable amounts of potassium, and thus potassium-40. Your steak or burger glows to the tune of about 3,000 pCi/kilogram. Meat is also high in protein and iron. The high amount of saturated fat in red meat presents more of a health risk than the radiation level.

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Beer being poured into a glass

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Beer gets it radioactivity from potassium-40. Expect to get about 390 pCi/kilogram. That's only about a tenth the radiation you'd get from the same amount of carrot juice, so from a radiation standpoint, which would you say is healthier?

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Drinking Water

female runner leaning against wall drinking water

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Drinking water isn't pure H2O. Your radiation dose varies according to the water source, On average, expect to pick up about 0.17 pCi/gram from radium-226.

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Peanut Butter

peanut butter jar in front of whole peanuts

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Peanut butter releases 0.12 pCi/gram of radiation from radioactive potassium-40, radium-226, and radium-228. It's also high in protein and is a good source of healthy monounsaturated fats, so don't let the slight rad count scare you off.

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Your Citation
Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "10 Common Naturally Radioactive Foods." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/common-naturally-radioactive-foods-607456. Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. (2021, February 16). 10 Common Naturally Radioactive Foods. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/common-naturally-radioactive-foods-607456 Helmenstine, Anne Marie, Ph.D. "10 Common Naturally Radioactive Foods." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/common-naturally-radioactive-foods-607456 (accessed March 24, 2023).