Microwave Ovens and Health: To Nuke, or Not to Nuke?
Posted by LiLeah on
Cooking with a microwave oven is highly convenient, as it’s simple and incredibly fast.
However, many people believe that microwaves produce harmful radiation and damage healthy nutrients.
Therefore, you may wonder whether it’s safe to use these appliances.
This article explains whether microwave ovens affect your food quality and health.
What are microwave ovens?
Microwave ovens are kitchen appliances that turn electricity into electromagnetic waves called microwaves.
These waves can stimulate molecules in food, making them vibrate, spin around, and clash with each other — which turns the energy into heat.
This is like how your hands heat up when you rub them together.
Microwaves primarily affect water molecules but can also heat up fats and sugars — just to a lesser extent than water.
Microwave ovens turn electric energy into electromagnetic waves. These waves stimulate molecules in your food to heat it up.
Microwave ovens produce electromagnetic radiation.
You may find this concerning due to radiation’s negative connotations. However, this is not the type of radiation associated with atomic bombs and nuclear disasters.
Microwave ovens produce non-ionizing radiation, which is like the radiation from your cell phone — though much stronger.
Keep in mind that light is also electromagnetic radiation, so clearly not all radiation is bad.
Microwave ovens have metal shields and metal screens over the window that prevent the radiation from leaving the oven, so there shouldn’t be any risk of harm.
Just to be on the safe side, don’t press your face against the window and keep your head at least 1 foot (30 cm) away from the oven. Radiation decreases rapidly with distance.
Also, make sure that your microwave oven is in good condition. If it’s old or broken — or if the door doesn’t close properly — consider getting a new one.
Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation, like the radiation from cell phones. However, microwave ovens are designed to prevent radiation from escaping.
Effects on nutrient content
Every form of cooking reduces the nutrient value of food.
The main contributing factors are temperature, cooking time, and method. During boiling, water-soluble nutrients may leak out of the food.
As far as microwaves go, cooking times are generally short, and the temperature is low. Plus, the food is usually not boiled.
For this reason, you would expect microwave ovens to retain more nutrients than methods like frying and boiling.
According to two reviews, microwaving does not reduce nutrient value more than other cooking methods (
An older study on 20 different vegetables noted that microwaving and baking preserved antioxidants the best, while pressure cooking and boiling did the worst (
However, one older study found that just 1 minute of microwaving destroyed some of the cancer-fighting compounds in garlic, while this took 45 minutes in a conventional oven (
However, a recent study showed that mild microwaving actually increased the levels of the anticarcinogenic compound sulforaphane in broccoli (
Keep in mind that the type of food or nutrient sometimes matters.
Microwaving breast milk has been found to be effective in preventing cytomegalovirus infections (
With a few exceptions, microwaves tend to preserve nutrients very well.
All cooking methods reduce nutrient value, but microwaving generally preserves nutrients better than other methods.
Reduces formation of harmful compounds
Microwaving may reduce the formation of harmful compounds in certain foods.
One advantage of microwaving is that the food doesn’t heat up nearly as much as it does with other cooking methods, such as frying.
Usually, the temperature doesn’t surpass 212°F (100°C) — the boiling point of water.
However, fatty foods like bacon can become hotter.
Bacon is one food believed to form harmful compounds called nitrosamines when cooked. These compounds are created when nitrites in foods are heated excessively.
According to one 1989 study, heating bacon in the microwave caused the least nitrosamine formation of all cooking methods tested (
Microwaving may minimize the formation of harmful compounds that can form when cooking at high heat.
Avoid plastic containers
Many plastics contain hormone-disrupting compounds that can cause harm.
A notable example is bisphenol-A (BPA), which has been linked to conditions like cancer, thyroid disorders, and obesity (
When heated, these containers may leach compounds into your food.
For this reason, do not microwave your food in a plastic container unless it is labeled microwave safe.
This precaution is not specific to microwaves. Heating your food inside a plastic container is a bad idea — no matter which cooking method you use.
Many plastics contain hormone-disrupting compounds like BPA, which can contaminate your food when heated. Never microwave a plastic container unless it’s specifically labeled safe to use.
Heat your food properly
Microwaves do have some downsides.
For example, they may not be as effective as other cooking methods at killing bacteria and other pathogens that may lead to food poisoning.
That’s because the heat tends to be lower and the cooking time much shorter. Sometimes, food heats unevenly.
Using a microwave with a rotating turntable can spread the heat more evenly, and making sure that your food is heated sufficiently can help ensure that you kill all microorganisms.
It’s also important to be careful when heating liquids. There’s a slight possibility that overheated liquids may explode out of their container and burn you.
Never heat baby formula or any food or beverage intended for small children in a microwave due to the risk of scald burns. To reduce the risk of burns in general, mix what you microwaved or let it cool for a while (
If you microwave your food, make sure it’s evenly heated to reduce your risk of food poisoning. Also, be careful when heating water above boiling point as it can erupt out of the container and burn you.
The bottom line
Microwaves are a safe, effective, and highly convenient cooking method.
There is no evidence that they cause harm — and some evidence that they are even better than other cooking methods at preserving nutrients and preventing the formation of harmful compounds.
Still, you should not:
- overheat or underheat your food
- stand too close to the microwave
- heat anything in a plastic container unless it’s labeled safe for use
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