I’ve gotten several emails lately asking about microwave safety and if we use a microwave at our house. Even with the natural birthing, dirt eating, barefoot playing, cloth-diapering and mud shampooing that goes on at our house, not using a microwave seems to be one of those things that is inexcusably crunchy.
Since I’ve pretty well established myself in the crunchy camp, I thought I’d finally share why we don’t use a microwave at our house.
The Main Reason:
Half of the reason we converted to real food is the taste, and this is also half the reason that we stopped using a microwave. In my opinion, food cooked or reheated in the microwave does not taste as good! I had plenty of microwaved ramen noodle eating experiences (cringe) in college to form this opinion.
According to this post, microwaves work by:
“Microwave radiation is a form of non-ionizing radiation (meaning it can’t directly break up atoms or molecules) that lies between common radio and infrared frequencies. So it is not thought to damage DNA of living things, the way X and gamma rays do. Still, microwaves can obviously cause heating effects, and can harm or kill at high energies. That’s why microwave ovens on the market must operate at or below strict limits set by the federal government.
Most microwave ovens hit food with microwaves at a frequency of 2.45 gigahertz (GHz) (a wavelength of 12.24 centimetres (4.82 in)). The prevailing belief is that molecules in the food, particularly water, absorb energy from the waves through dielectric heating. That is, since water molecules are polar, having a positive end and negative end, they begin to rotate rapidly as the alternating electric field passes through. That rotation is thought to add heat to the food.”
This fast method of cooking doesn’t allow time for flavors to develop and meld like other cooking methods do. As I’ve found a lot of quick meal recipes that are much healthier than microwaved meals anyway, we just don’t use a microwave.
The Health Factors:
There is a lot of disagreement about if microwaves release radiation or can cause harm this way. By their nature, they do release radiation in to food, but the disagreement regards whether the radiation is released outside of the microwave itself. Mark Sisson covered this here:
“Here’s what we found. First, to the question of transforming your home into a radiation zone… There is, not surprisingly, disagreement about this point. However, occasional home use of a fully functional microwave appliance is generally considered safe. Microwaves do, make no mistake, emit radiation, and the FDA has established what it considers “safe” levels for microwaves: over the machine’s “lifetime” the allowable level is “5 milliwatts of microwave radiation per square centimeter…approximately 2 inches from the oven surface.” Guidelines from the International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA) suggest overall radiation limits of 1 milliwatt per square centimeter “averaged over 6 minutes (0.1 h) period.” Unless you’re using your microwave on a perpetual basis, there’s little reason to worry.) Because the radiation diminishes quickly over distance, standing further away from the microwave during operation cuts your exposure even more significantly. (That instinct to not press your face against the glass door while your lunch was cooking turns out to be right after all…) Additionally, the FDA requires two interlock systems that effectively offer backup security as well as a monitoring system that shuts the microwave down if one of the systems isn’t working or if the door is opened during operation. Common sense adds that you might want to make sure the microwave seal isn’t compromised by built up tomato sauce or other grime. (Hmmm…anyone?) And, of course, it’s a good idea to replace an old, dilapidated microwave even if it’s a great conversation piece. Safety versus vintage flare…”
There are stories of patients dying after being given microwaved blood transfusions and babies being injured by microwaved breast milk, indicating that those substances should definitely not be microwaved. I’ve also seen caution against microwaving oil or water, though we don’t have a microwave so I can’t claim personal experience with either of those.
From a radiation perspective, the general consensus seems to be that microwaves could transmit radiation, though it is unlikely. Dr. Mercola gives some compelling evidence of this possibility though.
There is evidence that heating certain materials (like plastic) in the microwave can cause harm. As this article elaborates:
“The safest course of action is to avoid putting any plastics in the microwave. When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tested plastics labeled microwave-safe and advertised for infants, even those were found to release “toxic doses” of Bisphenol A when heated in a microwave. “The amounts detected were at levels that scientists have found cause neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals,” the paper reports.
In fact, the term “microwave safe” is not regulated by the government, so it has no verifiable meaning. According to the Journal Sentinel‘s testing, BPA “is present in frozen food trays, microwaveable soup containers and plastic baby food packaging.” It is often found in plastics marked No. 7, but may also be present in some plastics labeled with Nos. 1, 2 and 5 as well, according to the report. Better to stick to glass or ceramics.”
So, while we’ve opted to avoid microwaves completely, if one is going to use a microwave, it would seem wise not to use plastic.
What About Nutrients?
This is the other half of the reason we avoid microwaves. There is evidence that microwaves reduce nutrients in food. Any cooking will actually change the nutrients in food in some way, though low and slow cooking seems to preserve the most nutrients while faster methods of cooking (microwave being the fastest) destroy more nutrients. This article gives a good summary:
- Three recent studies of historical food composition have shown 5-40% declines in some of the minerals in fresh produce, and another study found a similar decline in our protein sources (1)
- A 1999 Scandinavian study of the cooking of asparagus spears found that microwaving caused a reduction in vitamins (3)
- In a study of garlic, as little as 60 seconds of microwave heating was enough to inactivate its allinase, garlic’s principle active ingredient against cancer (5)
- A study published in the November 2003 issue of The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that broccoli “zapped” in the microwave with a little water lost up to 97%of its beneficial antioxidants. By comparison, steamed broccoli lost 11% or fewer of its antioxidants. There were also reductions in phenolic compounds and glucosinolates, but mineral levels remained intact (6).
- A recent Australian study showed that micro- waves cause a higher degree of “protein unfolding” than conventional heating (2)
- Microwaving can destroy the essential disease-fighting agents in breast milk that offer protection for your baby. In 1992, Quan found that microwaved breast milk lost lysozyme activity, antibodies, and fostered the growth of more potentially pathogenic bacteria (4).”
“Still, we know sufficiently little about nutrition and the cumulative effects of food science that some aren’t so convinced (of course, there is also the threat of any harmful substances present getting released upon cooking, such as the diacetyl blamed for “popcorn lung.”) In a recent article E Magazine pointed out that popular holistic health expert Dr. Andrew Weil has written, “There may be dangers associated with microwaving food… there is a question as to whether microwaving alters protein chemistry in ways that might be harmful.” According to the magazine, Dr. Fumio Watanabe of Japan’s Kochi Women’s University found that heating samples for six minutes degenerated 30 to 40% of the milk’s vitamin B12. This kind of breakdown took about 25 minutes of boiling with conventional heat. In a 1992 Stanford Medical School study often cited by microwave opponents, researchers reported a “marked decrease” in immune-boosting factors in microwaved human breast milk. In the late 1980s Swiss scientists reported decreases in hemoglobin and white blood cells in rats that had eaten microwaved food.”
The Bottom Line:
Microwaves are convenient… So is fast food, so is letting the TV be a babysitter. Convenience doesn’t always make something the best option.
Microwaves don’t product the best tasting food, they might destroy nutrients and there is a possibility that they might releaser harmful radiation. For me, this was an easy choice- if it might be harmful and doesn’t make good tasting food anyway, we avoid it.
Obviously, most people aren’t willing to give up the convenience of a microwave, so at least avoid using plastic in it!
What We Use Instead:
This should be pretty obvious (especially to anyone if our parents’s generation) that there are a lot of alternative cooking methods. In general, we use:
- Conventional Oven: I use my regular oven multiple times per day to cook or reheat food.
- Toaster Oven: For times when I don’t want to use the oven or need to heat up a small amount of food, a toaster oven is easier.
- Pan Heating: I use mans at most meals. Breakfast omelets are cooked on the stove, leftovers heated for lunch and veggies steamed for dinner. I use these pans as they are the most non-toxic and environmentally friendly ones I’ve found.
- Crock Pot: I use the crock pot multiple times a week, and have one constantly going with bone broth. I use this one because the research I found showed that it didn’t have any lead in the crock, though any slow cooker will work.
- Convection Oven: I don’t have one personally (it is on the wish list), but a close friend of mine loves her countertop convection oven and uses it everyday. This supposedly combines the quick cooking of a microwave with the safety and quality of the oven).
Do you use a microwave? Would you consider giving it up? Why or why not? Share below….
Note: After reading similar reports, I also stopped using a microwave oven in early 2010 and rarely missed having one around.