Many of us associate the microwave with hot food in a hurry… and radiation. We often refer to the act of microwaving our food as “nuking” it, which, if you were alive during any part of the last century, is likely a phrase that brings to mind images of mushroom clouds and obliterating human combustion. If this sounds like what you associate with radiation, then you’ve likely wondered if microwaving your food could be harmful to the food… or you.
Microwaves don’t destroy the nutrients in food any more than other methods of cooking do. Many nutrients, such as Vitamin C, will always break down when exposed to heat, regardless of the heat source. Microwaves heat food by exciting the water molecules contained within and, with the right technique, microwaving can actually help retain some of the moisture and thus the nutrients in the food.
To understand why microwaving your meals is safe (and in some cases more beneficial than other cooking methods), it helps to understand how the microwave works, as well as some of the rumors and controversy surrounding this appliance since its invention. Read on for a little history and debunking of some common microwave myths.
Brief History of the Microwave
Given their strong correlation with radiation, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that we owe the creation of microwaves to World War II! Well, mostly to American engineer Percy Spencer, who thought he was just developing a more effective and faster way to produce magnetrons so that his company, Paytheon, could win a government contract to manufacture combat radar equipment. That is, until the time his candy bar melted.
One day in the laboratory, Percy Spencer was standing in front of a working radar, when he suddenly noticed that the candy bar in his pocket melted. The scientist investigated the phenomenon, finally designing the first home applicable microwave after a series of successes and failures. The patent was filed on October 8, 1945, and since that day the world has been blessed with the convenience of hot food in a fraction of the time.
Fact or Fiction: Microwaves & Our Health
Radiation is a broad term. What we imagine as a destroying power is, in fact, one end of the electromagnetic spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is ionizing radiation, including X-rays and Y-rays, which is what we typically imagine when thinking of dangerous forms of radiation.
Every natural material exudes radiation, yet most of it is non-ionizing or, simply put, safe radiation. There are safe, low-frequency wavelengths that we live among every single day. They include radio waves and microwaves, both of which are present in our computers, in the ground we walk, and the sunlight above us.
However, the word “radiation” still doesn’t sit quite right with most of us. Ever since the microwave oven entered our routine in 1967 as an affordable kitchen appliance, the debate on its safety has been ongoing. Numerous studies have addressed the topic of microwaves and our health over the years, researching the most persistent and pressing questions, including
- Is microwave radiation dangerous for human health?
- Do microwave make food “radioactive”?
- Do microwaves take nutrients out of food
- “Is microwaving food in plastic containers dangerous?
Some people, who are not only worried about potential cancer risk, but also care about the nutritional value of their meals, argue that microwave ovens remove all vitamins, fibers, and minerals out of food. However, rumors and doubts aside – all of the “conspiracy theories” are nothing but scary stories.
No, food does not become radioactive. No, nutrients do not disappear from food completely. Plastic containers…well, that depends...
Does Microwave Radiation Cause Cancer?
It’s no wonder that people are worried about their health. Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and since factors in our environments can contribute to the growth of certain cancers, the microwave is often a rumored culprit.
In 2018, 18.1 million people were diagnosed with different types of cancer, while 9.5 million people died. By 2040, the statistics on new cases are expected to rise to 29.5 million, and the number of cancer-related deaths – to 16.4 million. So people’s worries about the safety of their environment are not completely groundless, after all.
But no, microwaves do not cause cancer. In fact, the results of almost all studies on the topic of the safety of microwave ovens showed no evidence of their potential danger to human health. The radioactive technology we usually associate with Chornobyl and its horrifying outcomes is different from the technology used in microwaves.
Do Microwaves Destroy Nutrients in Food?
A worrying myth that confuses many consumers is the the nutritional value of food is somehow lessened during the microwaving process. Now that we know that microwaved meals are not radioactive and carcinogenic, it is time to reveal another truth – microwaves do not remove all nutrients from food. Not more than other cooking techniques, at least. Some nutrients – Vitamin C, for example – always breaks down when exposed to heat, regardless of whether it’s cooked in a microwave or a regular oven.
In short, a microwave is an electric oven that heats food (or whatever else you put inside) by using electromagnetic radiation in the microwave frequency range, hence the name. Electromagnetic waves of radiation induce polar molecules in the food to rotate, thus generating so-called thermal energy or heat. Because the excitation process in food products is quite similar due to high water content, microwaves heat a variety of foods quickly and effectively.
Normally, some nutritional value disappears once a food product is under thermal processing. To avoid losing a great number of vitamins and minerals, some dieticians and physicians advise cooking food for short periods to preserve maximum nutrients. And what tool can cook food faster than the microwave oven?
Microwaves are indeed one of the best kitchen appliances that can help preserve maximum nutrition in your food. As microwaves affect water and electrically asymmetrical molecules – ones with one end being positively charged and the other being charged negatively – they begin to vibrate and produce heat energy really fast. That means less cooking time and preserving most nutrients.
This is particularly important for vegetables as they contain lots of water that transforms into heat energy while losing nutritional value. However, if you know how to cook them right, microwaves are, in fact, one of the best ways to prepare healthy and delicious food.
Is Microwaving Food in Plastic Containers Dangerous?
The danger of plastic toxins is yet one more thing that worries consumers. The truth is, all plastic containers are toxic to some degree due to their chemical makeup. Containers usually include an army of chemicals – Phthalates and Bisphenol A (BPA) are two of the most common – and some of them can indeed transfer into your meals. At high doses (50-100 mg/kg body weight) – chemicals can contribute to infertility, weight gain, cancer, and other health-related problems.
At this time it is largely believed that the amounts of chemicals released when microwaving food in plastic containers are extremely low and can’t cause much harm. Still, some studies confirm the negative impact of microwave-induced chemicals in the long run after continuous exposure at low levels.
So, at the very least it’s a good idea to use plastic containers that are specifically labeled as “microwave safe.” Switching to glass or ceramic containers is another option that may give you greater peace of mind.
What Is the Best Method for Preparing Food in the Microwave?
Some people prefer not even using a microwave, opting instead to steam food over a stovetop. In some cases, this technique helps to retain more vitamins and minerals than microwaves.
But microwaved food also has its advantages – cooking in a tight-covered container can even enhance the nutritional value, especially in vegetables. For example, carotenoids in carrots and tomatoes, or biotin in eggs are more digestible when cooked in a microwave.
The magic technique of a nutritious and quick meal is to cover the food tightly in the container before microwaving. This will create a steam effect and won’t release natural nutrients outside the container, preserving them inside.
Before you rush to your kitchen on a wave of inspiration, we leave you with this: it’s cool to study about what you eat, it’s cool to take care of your health, and it’s cool to learn new stuff every day. Don’t be embarrassed to check information before falling into the rabbit hole of rumors and myths. Well, now you’re free to go and create tasty and healthy masterpieces with your microwave!