Once upon a time I was a hard core non-microwaver. I ditched my microwave in 2004 after deciding to make my indoor living space as natural as possible. Why did I need another appliance to spew radiation all over me and destroy the nutritive value of my food? I lived without one for 10 years, happily ditching my radiation-distributing convenience cooker and instead using my cast iron skillet or oven to rewarm food. I was convinced that microwaves scramble the molecules in food to heat/cook it, thereby damaging the proteins and destroying any nutritive value and delicate vitamins (like B and C vitamins, for example, which are very heat sensitive).
I once thought microwaves were a form of electromagnetic energy, like light waves or radio waves. They work by creating agitation, causing molecular friction, which heats up the food from the inside. This unusual type of heating causes substantial damage to the surrounding molecules, often tearing them apart or forcefully deforming them. This radiation results in the destruction and deformation of food molecules. Eating microwaved foods with denatured proteins can cause oxidative damage. But is that true?
Are Microwaves Safe?
Start researching the topic and you’ll be presented with strong opinions and “science” from both sides: One camp saying microwaves are perfectly safe, emit little radiation, and are energy-savers; the other camp saying microwaves damage food, contribute to cancer by making food carcinogenic, and lower your lymphocyte levels, therefore compromising your immune health. Who’s right?
For starters, microwaves are a very low frequency wave on the electromagnetic spectrum. They have slightly more energy than radio waves, and significantly less energy than visible light. Microwaves are a non-ionizing form of radiation, meaning they are not powerful enough to impart radioactivity to other substances. When applied in intense doses, however, it can cause polarized molecules to rotate, creating friction and heating the substance. This is how a microwave oven warms your food. (source: www.zocdoc.com).
The FDA says “Much research is under way on microwaves and how they might affect the human body. It is known that microwave radiation can heat body tissue the same way it heats food.” Gross. I doubt you’d be microwaving your hand or other body parts though?
And also, “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.”
What this tells me is the jury is still out (and really, do you trust the FDA to have your best interests at heart?); however, exposure to the low levels of radiation emitted by microwaves apparently isn’t a problem. I tend to believe we function on a total load threshold, wherein constant and repeated exposure to all our devices, from computers to cell phones to ipads to wifi, all adds up and may cause health problems in sensitive individuals. Again, no conclusive data on that, but I tend to err on the side of caution and try not to hold my iphone next to my brain for extended periods (hands free device for talking on the phone), and I don’t have any electronic devices at all in my bedroom. As for the microwave, when using it, don’t stand in front of it.
Do Microwaves Destroy The Nutrients in Food?
In terms of nutritive value, heating/cooking food destroys nutrients, no matter if it’s done on a stovetop or in a microwave. Long, slow cooking at low temperatures (as in a crock pot) preserves the nutrients best. And cooking some foods, such as cruciferous veggies (broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc), enhances the nutritive value because it deactivates certain compounds like anti-nutrients that makes the food hard to digest and absorb, or goitrogens that suppress thyroid function. I was worried about a microwave “scrambling” or denaturing the protein or molecules in my food, somehow rendering it carcinogenic or prone to causing oxidative damage to cells. The FDS says, “Microwaves cause water molecules in food to vibrate, producing heat that cooks the food. That’s why foods high in water content, like fresh vegetables, can be cooked more quickly than other foods. The microwave energy is changed to heat as it is absorbed by food, and does not make food ‘radioactive’ or ‘contaminated.’ Although heat is produced directly in the food, microwave ovens do not cook food from the “inside out.” There is also some evidence that using the lower power settings on the microwave can retain more nutrients than stovetop cooking/frying/sauteeing. Chris Kresser does an excellent job discussing denatured proteins.
I’m beginning to change my tune about microwaving food. I purchased a simple microwave just to reheat food or melt coconut oil or butter (which is a pain on the stovetop). I wouldn’t use it or recommend it to cook food, like meat for example, because it tends to make food rubbery, and I’m still a bit creeped out by the thought of cooking something in a microwave vs just reheating it. And frankly I don’t prefer the taste of microwaved food.
I think today’s microwave models don’t emit as much radiation as their early model counterparts, and they can be quite energy efficient. But I still wouldn’t stand directly in front of it while it cooks, and I’m likely to use the lower power settings so I don’t zap the shit out of my food.
What about you? Are you pro or against microwave cooking?
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. In addition to her coaching practice, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and kick nagging digestive issues for good. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.