Do microwave ovens actually affect our health and our food?

Today, nearly every household and office in the US has a microwave oven because of the convenience and the safety records of these devices.

Whilst some consider the microwave oven one of the top technical advances of the past century, others are feeling quite doubtful about the possible health hazards and side effects the microwave technology may have on the people.

Even though cooking in a microwave oven is easy, fast and simple, there have been some persistent rumors and theories which claim that the radiation from these ovens actually take away the healthy nutrients from the foods and turn them into harmful ones.

First of all, in order to carefully consider both sides of this argument about microwave ovens, one must understand what the microwave technology is and how it actually works.

The microwave ovens convert electricity into electromagnetic waves which are called microwaves. These electromagnetic waves cause vibrations of the food molecules, which leads to them spinning and bumping into one another, all of which leads to the food heating up and actually cooking. The electromagnetic waves produced by the microwave are similar to the radio waves but shorter, and are very selective. Because they are both positively and negatively charged, these microwaves affect mainly the water molecules and other asymmetrical molecules.

So while this process works mainly with the water molecules, it also causes the heating up of oils, fats and sugars as well. The heating process spreads more evenly throughout the food in the microwave and thus allows for more even cooking than the traditional cooking methods, such as frying or baking.

It is important to note that while microwave ovens do produce electromagnetic radiation, this is definitely not that type of radiation which we commonly associate with nuclear disasters and atomic bombing.

The radiation produced by the microwave ovens is a type of non-ionizing radiation, similar to that produced from cell phones but stronger. The microwave ovens are made with protective metal shields in order to keep this radiation in the oven itself. Also, if your microwave is working properly and if you don’t press yourself to the microwave oven window and stay at least one foot away from it when it is working, then there is no risk of getting any negative effects from the electromagnetic radiation.

According to the FDA, microwave ovens do not pose a danger of excessive or harmful levels of radiation, if the door closes properly and there is no other functional defect on the appliance itself, and of course if it is used in accordance to the safety instructions by the manufacturer.

Overexposure to high levels of microwaves can cause painful and serious burns and are especially dangerous for the eye lenses as well as for the sterility in men if the testes are affected by the high temperatures which can cause the sperm to die.

So, now that we have overruled the risk of hazardous effects from radiation produced by functioning and microwave ovens, we will look at the theory about this radiation having a bad effect on the food itself.

First of all, it is common knowledge that any type of cooking has an effect on the nutrient value of the food, and the nutrient reduction increases as the cooking temperature and time increases, plus when more water is added to the food.

It has been found that microwave ovens are actually better at retaining the nutritional values of the food being cooked rather than the other standard forms of cooking such as frying, boiling and pressure cooking.

In fact, one study found that cooking with a microwave and baking in general are better cooking processes for nutritional preservation of the meal as compared to boiling and cooking in a pressure cooker for example.

On the contrary, another study found that food preparation in the microwave oven actually destroyed the healthy compounds in garlic which have been found to fight cancer, and these were destroyed after only 60 seconds of microwaving, while it took a whole 45 minutes to destroy them with conventional cooking. Plus, another separate study found that cooking broccoli in a microwave destroys about 97% of all the healthy flavonoid antioxidants, as compared to 66% destroyed by boiling. One important detail though could have been the factor which caused this loss of antioxidant characteristics and it is that extra water was added to the broccoli during the microwave cooking.

For mothers who are not sure if it is OK to use the microwave to prepare the baby formula – they can rest assure – it is alright. Though microwaving human milk can destroy some of the bacteria necessary to neutralize the harmful agents in the milk.

It is a good idea to use the microwave to cook healthy vegetables with very little water, so the veggies become steamed from the inside out, and thus retain most of their healthy nutrients.

So, in conclusion it could be said that the nutrients which break down when heated will break down no matter whether a conventional or a microwave oven is used. But for nutrients like Vitamin C for example, the shorter time the heat is applied, the lesser the breakdown is, so the microwave will actually cause lesser loss of the Vitamin because the microwave heating process is faster and the cooking is quicker.

In fact, when cooking in a microwave oven, the temperature rises to as much as boiling water temperature (212°F / 100°C), whilst the temperature rises to a much higher level when frying food for example. This means that microwaving food which tends to form harmful compounds when heated up is better than conventional frying. For example, when bacon is microwaved, the nitrosamines which are formed from the heated nitrates in the food are fewer than when bacon is fried. The same goes for microwaving chicken too.

So, it turns out that microwaving not only reduces the loss of healthy nutrients while cooking, in fact it reduces the formation of unhealthy ones usually formed as a result of heating the food.

Of course, in order to minimize the risk of harmful compounds being produced as a result of cooking food in a microwave oven, one should avoid placing plastic containers in the microwave. The reason is, that there have been studies which have found that plastic contains some hormone-disrupting compounds, including the industrial chemical Bisphenol-A, which has been found to cause some forms of cancer, to thyroid diseases and obesity. So, better make sure that you use only “microwave safe” plastic containers when microwaving food.

Though the fact that the heat generated when food is being prepared in a microwave isn’t as high as compared to the heat from frying or cooking in a conventional oven has been seen as a positive side of using microwaves to reduce the loss of healthy nutrients and the development of harmful ones while cooking certain foods, the lower cooking temperatures could present a risk too. When cooked at lower temperatures and for a shorter period of time, there is a risk that certain bacteria or other pathogens contained in the raw food may not be killed and can cause illness.

Also, with microwaves, foods may be cooked in an uneven manner, which though can be resolved by purchasing a microwave oven with a rotating turntable to enable the food to be cooked more evenly.

So, we can conclude that having a microwave oven is a convenient and easy way to prepare different types of foods, to heat up leftovers and other quick cooking. In fact by using the microwave oven you may be reducing the production of harmful components, and the loss of good nutrients, as compared to using a conventional oven.

Just make sure your microwave is functioning well, the door closes well and that you don’t stay in too close proximity to it while the cooking is going on.

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