Modern conveniences can seem to make life so much easier. We can travel across long distances at great speed, send massive amounts of information all over the world instantly, and cook food in a tenth of the time that would have been required a hundred years ago. In many ways, technology makes our lives more comfortable than anything our ancestors experienced.
But our addiction to speed and convenience often comes at a cost. The fuel used to power most of our machines is unsustainable, and many of those machines emit poisonous waste. And our love of cooking food rapidly may be causing more harm than we realize.
How Does a Microwave Work?
Microwave ovens are named after the type of energy they use to heat food. While scientists are still not entirely sure how microwaves heat food, the prevalent theory is that microwave radiation uses the polarized magnetic nature of water molecules. Basically, they send out a type of radiation that causes the water molecules in the outer layers of food to spin so quickly that they generate heat. It is not the same type of radiation that splits atoms or molecules, but it still affects organisms at a cellular level.
Why This Might Be Good
Nothing can beat a microwave for heating food quickly. This is convenient for anyone in a hurry. Unfortunately, microwaves often heat food unevenly, so part of the dish might me burnt while another part is cold. To benefit from the speed of microwaves, you need to stir your dish a few times as it is heating.
Microwaves seem like a safe way to cook because there is no open flame or ambient heat. This means children can cook food without the fear of burning themselves on a hot stovetop or pan. There is the possibility of being burned by liquids that has been overheated because the interference with their cells can cause the above-boiling water to explode when it is moved. But otherwise using a microwave seems safer than many other ways of cooking.
Why This Might Not Be Good
Flavor is a huge part of enjoying what we eat and really feeling nourished by it. Maintaining the flavor of foods requires delicate handling. Some foods taste best when cooked slowly, while others come out better with a quick blanching or other high-heat application. But nearly every food looses its flavor if it goes over a certain internal temperature. If you ever eaten anything microwaved, you probably noticed how closely it resembled warmed cardboard.
There is some evidence that important nutrients are lost when food is heated in a microwave. Vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients seem to be particularly affected. For example, it was found that garlic lost its cancer-fighting properties after 60 seconds of microwave heating. Another study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that broccoli lost 97 percent of its anti-oxidants.
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics in 1992, microwaving human breast-milk, even at the low temperatures used to make it comfortable for babies, destroys lysozyme, antibodies, and many of the other vital nutrients that make breast milk so healthy for babies.
This is the biggest point of contention about microwaves, the safety of the radiation for our bodies. Microwaves are designed to only emit a small amount of radiation, and strict guidelines cover the manufacture of new ones. A fully functioning, relatively new microwave only emits detectable radiation to about an inch away from the unit. The further away you are from the microwave, the more diluted the radiation becomes.
The real concern is how radiation affects the substances heated, and in turn our bodies. There are certain substances that definitely should not be heated in a microwave. For example, plastic leaches toxic Bisphenol A when heated in a microwave. Microwaving fatty foods in plastic containers causes the release of several dangerous chemicals, including dioxins, benzene, toluene, and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). If you are going to use a microwave, always use a glass or ceramic dish.
Blood and milk should never be heated in a microwave. An Oklahoma woman died in 1990 after receiving a blood transfusion with blood that had been heated in a microwave. The radiation must have altered the blood sufficiently that it acted like poison in the body.
While there is no conclusive link between radiation in consumed (or transfused) substances, this still makes me think that we should wary of substances heated in a microwave becoming toxic to our cells.
It is easy to be lured by the promise of convenience and quickness. But as with many other things in life, the fastest way may not be the best way. Even though it takes more time, when I do eat cooked food I prefer to use hot water or flame to heat it. Since it might actually be harmful and it does nothing to improve the quality or taste of food, I will leave the microwaves to people in a hurry.