Today’s society places so much emphasis on convenience. We want our food to be available as soon as possible. Even heating and reheating foods is included in this ethos. The majority of people in west have microwaves. They are an appliance most people use daily and seldom think about.
Microwaves use record time to reheat our food, using what seems like a magical light that does all the work. But this is no Easy Bake Oven…so how does a microwave heat our food?
How Does a Microwave Work?
Microwave technology was discovered by the Germans. A microwave oven uses microwaves, a form of electromagnetic radiation, to reheat whatever is placed inside of it. These microwaves are a type of non-ionizing radiation, which does not break down atoms as ionizing radiation does, but it can still change the atoms’ placement. These waves can pass through paper, plastic, and glass and are absorbed by the food.
These microwaves heat the food by exciting the molecules of the fat and water, this creates molecular friction and then heat. The heating excites the atoms which causes water to move at high frequencies. For this reason, microwaves do not “crisp” food well.
Microwave Oven Safety Guidelines
The Food and Drug Administration has safety guidelines in place for the manufacturing of microwaves. Standard safety protocol for microwaves are that 5 milliwatts of microwave radiation per square centimeter around 2 inches from the oven’s surface are allowed to leak from a microwave oven device over the course of it’s lifetime. The FDA assures us that this is a safe level far below anything that can cause damage…but it makes me wonder…
The ovens are also required to have two special and independent locking mechanisms. This supposedly stops the microwaves from being created after the door of the microwave oven is opened. The FDA even admits that they are not sure of the health ramifications of humans exposed to low levels of microwaves:
“Less is known about what happens to people exposed to low levels of microwaves. Controlled, long-term studies involving large numbers of people have not been conducted to assess the impact of low level microwave energy on humans. Much research has been done with experimental animals, but it is difficult to translate the effects of microwaves on animals to possible effects on humans. For one thing, there are differences in the way animals and humans absorb microwaves. For another, experimental conditions can’t exactly simulate the conditions under which people use microwave ovens. However, these studies do help us better understand the possible effects of radiation.
The fact that many scientific questions about exposure to low-levels of microwaves are not yet answered require FDA to continue to enforcement of radiation protection requirements. Consumers should take certain common sense precautions.” (source)
The FDA even says that users should stand away from the microwave oven while it is in use as a precaution. Hmmm…a precaution to stand away from a device used in millions of homes everyday that the FDA says is safe? The Environmental Protection Agency even advises us to watch for doors that are damaged, have a build up of grime, or that are affected by normal wear and tear, as this can lead to microwaves leaking out.
I have seen a lot of beat-up looking microwave ovens in my time, and those are the ones that are more at risk of leaking microwaves when they are in use. This means that if there is leakage, microwaves will heat the human tissue the same as it would the food!
Microwaving Food & Our Health
The microwave oven is one of the least ideal ways to reheat our food, for a multitude of reasons. By microwaving the food, studies have shown that the food can be nutrient-less and even carcinogenic. By heating the food with microwaves it also can change the chemical structure of the food. A price to pay for the sake of convenience?
In an interesting article in “Nourishing Traditions“, a group of athletes were fed burgers prepared either in a microwave or on the stove. Later when muscle strength was measured, those who ate the microwaved burgers had much weaker muscles than those who ate regularly prepared burgers. (pg. 356) Let’s dig a little deeper.
Microwaves Deplete Nutrient Value
Microwave your food, and kiss those nutrients goodbye some studies say. By the time most American’s get our food nowadays, the nutrient level is already very low since the food is being shipped across the states before getting to your supermarket and then sitting on the supermarket shelves for a week before getting to your home. By heating food up in the microwave, essentially you are destroying any nutrients that remain, creating “dead” food. The nutrient content, minerals, and vitamins are severely altered after microwaving.
Studies have shown the following alterations to the food’s nutrient content:
- Broccoli significantly loses its antioxidant content (when steamed, it only loses around 10% of its antioxidant content).
- The book “Nourishing Traditions” also informs us that food prepared in the microwave makes it more difficult for the body to assimilate proteins and fats.
- The book “Nourishing Traditions” also warns us on the dangers of microwaving milk as it alters the amino acids, which can be poisonous to the liver and nervous system.
To be fair, of course, there are some studies that suggest microwave cooking does not deplete the nutritional value of the food. Some say since the food is left in the microwave for shorter amounts of time, with a little water it is almost the same as blanching vegetables on the stove. A lot of people are on the fence about this topic, but I tend to lean towards the idea that if my food is exposed to microwaves, its chemical breakdown has been altered in some way.
Microwaves and Cancer
Heating food in the appropriate containers in the microwave is sometimes hard to do in the era of plastic we live in. When plastic (and certain paper products) are heated, carcinogenic toxins can seep out into the food we consume.
“It’s true that microwaves cause chemicals to leach out of plastic containers and into your food. There are scientists who say some of these chemicals may be harmful — even at low levels. The Food and Drug Administration says plastic with a “microwave safe” label is thoroughly tested for food safety and that the amount of chemicals that might leach into your food from these approved containers isn’t dangerous.
One of the most controversial plastic chemicals is bisphenol A, or BPA, found in hard clear plastics like baby bottles. Last week, a federal panel recommended more research to address some concern about infants and children being exposed to this chemical.
Despite the FDA’s reassurances, some people choose to avoid microwaving plastics altogether.” (source)
Microwaves, even with their strict regulations, can leak out of the microwave oven; plus the strength of the emissions of the microwaves change as the device ages. Meaning, that a microwave oven used frequently over a year might start emitting more microwaves outside of the oven that when first purchased.
To quote from “Nourishing Traditions“, “Eating microwaved foods results in abnormal blood profiles, similar to those that occur in the early stages of cancer.” (pg. 68)
Alternative Ways to Heat Food
1. On the Stove
Reheating your food on the stove the old-fashioned way such as in a stainless steel pan or cast iron skillet. It can be as simple as that, and it actually doesn’t take much more time; this is how my hubby and I heat and reheat all of our food.
2. In the Oven
Reheat your food in the oven is great for reheating casseroles, mashed potatoes, pies, etc. Getting yourself a set of good glass bakeware to use for storing your food and then reheating it in a snap.
3. With a Toaster Oven
Toaster ovens are wonderful, they are like mini-ovens on your counter! I remember my granny heating all sorts of goodies up in hers. They work great for heating up lunches or small meals without heating up a big oven. It’s especially great in the summer.
Microwave Parting Thoughts
For me, it’s not worth the risk. More and more these days we are exposed to different types of radiation so why would I knowingly expose myself to more? And plus heating food up the old-fashioned way tastes better, has better texture, and comes out the way I want! We never use the microwave for heating or cooking food in our home anymore; while it is less convenient, we opt for cooking food on the stove or in the oven. To me, that’s a small price to pay for a little piece of mind.