Sunday, November 2, 2014

Are Microwave Ovens Safe? Facts and Myths

No, they won’t give you cancer, and they don't rob food of nutrition!

I've read so much recently regarding microwave ovens leaking radiation, destroying the nutrients in food and making foods carcinogenic, but is it TRUE?

A quick scan of Google will turn up numerous and frightening claims that the microwave oven is harmful to food or human health, but those claims are unfounded. A common appliance in home kitchens, office pantries, hotel rooms, airplanes, convenience stores and restaurants for decades, the microwave is still distrusted by many. Perhaps that’s because of the use of words like nuke and zap, or because radio waves, unlike a gas flame or the glowing coils of an electric stove, are invisible when they heat up food. You might think it sounds like magic, but actually it’s physics.

The Health Physics Society promotes radiation safety in scientific, medical, research, industrial, and technical areas  that microwaves are a form of electromagnetic radiation; that is, they are waves of electrical and magnetic energy moving together through space, like radio waves, which are less powerful. Microwaves have two characteristics that allow them to be used in cooking: they are absorbed by foods and they pass through glass, paper, plastic, and similar materials. Microwaves are produced inside a microwave oven by an electron tube called a magnetron. The microwaves bounce back and forth within the interior until they are absorbed by food. Microwaves cause the water molecules in food to vibrate.

And the more those water molecules vibrate, the more heat (a.k.a. thermal energy) they create. That heat is what cooks the food, which is why foods high in water content, like fresh vegetables, can be cooked more QUICKLY than other foods.

As far as NUTRITION goes, because microwave ovens cook food faster and with little added fat or water, the food retains more NUTRIENTS than other forms of cooking. Eat a mixture of cooked and uncooked vegetables and the vitamins will take care of themselves. If you do cook, steaming is great and microwaving is better for preserving vitamin ACTIVITY. Most vitamins are heat stable, but if you are particularly interested in vitamin C, raw wins every time.

NUTRITION aside, do microwaves, in fact, leak radiation? Technically, yes, but don’t worry because microwaves are a non-ionizing form of radiation. Their frequency is so low they don’t have enough energy to damage the DNA in our cells. Other sources of non-ionizing radiation include the infrared lamps that keep food warm in restaurants, radios, televisions, and the computer screen you are staring at right now.

And the level of microwaves (which lose intensity very quickly) that might be released from microwave ovens is extremely minute. According to the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, which regulates microwave-oven safety, the amount of radiation any unit made after 1971 can possibly leak throughout its lifetime is five Milliwatts per square centimeter at roughly two inches away from the oven, therefore the metal mesh-lined door stops microwaves from leaking any radiation.

Microwave Myth: Unsubstantiated research by Swiss food chemist Hans Hertel, who with seven other vegetarians, spent two months in a hotel consuming milk and vegetables cooked in a microwave in the late 1980s, and U.S. researcher William Kopp, who wrote a 1996 piece about the fact that Cold War research in the Soviet Union had proven the dangers of microwave ovens. Although the Soviet Union may have banned the ovens for a short period, no countries ban them today.

If you are even more curious about actual microwave cooking (as opposed to popping popcorn or melting chocolate), CHECK OUT Modernist Cuisine at Home by Nathan Myhrvold, physicist and authority on the science of contemporary cooking.

Do you use microwave ovens?  Please share your comments!

Laurel ♥

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