Microwave cooking has been a way of life for a generation. But some people claim that microwave cooking is unhealthy or even dangerous. While it’s not my preferred method of cooking, there seems to be little substantiated evidence that it’s actually harmful.
The Nuke-lear Family
My mother got her first microwave oven in the late seventies. I still remember the big brown box with push buttons that sat on our countertop. It was large enough to cook a turkey and came with attachments for everything from cooking roasts to making popcorn. I think mom initially resisted getting one, but now, I cannot imagine her kitchen without one.
The introduction of microwaves to the domestic kitchen happened about ten years before we got one. In 1967, Amana introduced the first home microwave oven, the RadaRange. (Commercial microwaves came out in 1954.) My mom wasn’t the only housewife to slowly adapt to the new style of cooking.
It wasn’t until the mid-seventies that popularity began to grow for the RadaRange and handful of other microwaves on the market. But in 1975, the Amana RadaRange outsold gas ranges. I can’t help but consider that this was around the same time that our mothers gave up being stay-at-home moms and began re-entering the workforce. The convenience of the microwave was probably quite appealing!
My mom happens to be a great cook, so despite the advice of Mom’s microwave cookbook, I don’t think she ever actually tried to nuke an entire turkey. She does, however, cook a lot more food in her microwave than I do. It’s not my favorite kitchen appliance, so I pretty much just use it to defrost meat, melt butter, and reheat leftovers.
Safety Concerns & Controversy
Nowadays, public opinion of microwaves seems to be pretty controversial. In the past decade debate over the safety of microwave cooking, has become heated. There seem to be three issues in play: 1) whether microwaves deplete vitamins from food, 2) radiation concerns, and 3) the effects of food storage items like certain plastics and styrofoam when microwaved.
In an article entitled, Microwave Ovens Destroy the Nutritional Value of Your Food, which is published and republished all over alternative health websites, Mike Adams contends that microwave ovens are responsible for all kinds of nutritional deficiencies and health problems. According to Adams, microwaved food is “dead food” and basically nutritionally void. While I got a laugh out of the Night of the Living Dead references he makes, I find it hard to jump on Adams’ bandwagon because his article does not cite a single source or study for this claim.
Food Science, Australia, says that cooking vegetables in your microwave actually causes them to retain more vitamins than if you boil them in water. This would infer that microwaves are a more healthy cooking method than stove-top. (Although, steaming veggies is indisputably better than boiling, as the nutrients are not leached into the water.)
This Japanese study, from 1997, found that microwaves deplete the B vitamins in food by about 30-40%, which is certainly a noticeable amount, yet a far cry from creating zombie broccoli.
Other websites made claims that microwaves change the molecular structure in protein, making it difficult or impossible to digest; that they change the magnetic polarity of the atoms; and that they make food downright radioactive. I could not find any actual studies to corroborate any of this. In fact, the latter is patently false.
I checked the USDA Microwave FAQ. It’s a pretty good read. According to the USDA, microwaves do not make food radioactive. “Microwave energy uses a wave length similar to television, radio waves, electric shavers and radar…. X-rays and nuclear radiation are at the other end of the spectrum and are a million times more powerful.”
There is also the concern that microwaves can leak radiation. Here’s what Consumer Reports has to say: “While the Food and Drug Administration does allow for some leakage (at levels far below any known to cause harm), it also requires that microwaves stop producing radiation once the door is opened. Bottom line: Don’t operate a microwave if the door is broken.There are plenty of websites out there that will tell you otherwise, but again, I could not find any scientific studies backing up these claims.
Wrappers and Containers
There are plenty of wrappers that should not go into your microwave. For instance, styrofoam is a big No-No! It melts and binds with your food. The USDA has a great list of microwave safe materials. I find that covering a dish with another plate is a less-melty alternative to plastic-wrap, and it’s far more environmentally responsible. If you’re not sure if your leftovers came in a microwave-safe package, scoop them onto a plate.
While it’s unlikely that microwaves are the root cause of Western disease, there does seem to be some evidence that it changes the nutrient values in food -depending on how you cook it and what you compare it too. Raw veggies are better for you anyway, but if you must cook them, whatever method you choose, the less you cook them, the healthier they are. If you’re concerned about the radiation, some have recommended standing 5-10 feet away from an microwave in use. Use common sense when choosing a container or wrapper. When in doubt, stick it on a plate.
So I guess, for me, the deciding factor comes down to flavor. While there are some things that the microwave does faster, most dishes just taste better when cooked with a stove, oven or grill.