Did you know that nearly every home in America contains a microwave? In fact, data from the 2011 U.S. Census Bureau reports that an astonishing 97 percent of households have this device. While microwaves make meals for time-strapped people in mere seconds, is microwaving food bad for you?
Over the years, this standard household appliance has sparked much debate. Some argue microwaves kill nutrients in your food—or worse—they emit radiation in your environment. But others say microwaving your food shouldn’t pose any serious health risks to you or your meal.
How Microwaves Work
According to an updated article by Harvard Health Publishing, “Microwave ovens cook food using waves of energy that are similar to radio waves but shorter. These waves are remarkably selective, primarily affecting water and other molecules that are electrically asymmetrical—one end positively charged and the other negatively charged. Microwaves cause these molecules to vibrate and quickly build up thermal (heat) energy.”
Furthermore, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes that microwave technology is used in many other industries, including television broadcasting, air and sea navigation, and cell phones.
Despite the prevalence of home microwaves and the associated technology, there’s still a heap of conflicting viewpoints on this subject. So, who’s right? Or, is it possible that people on both sides of the issue have some valuable insights?
Here, we’ll examine some common myths to find out if the eats you’re “nuking” maintain their nutritional value, if microwaves kill nutrients, or if they leak dangerous radiation into the air.
Myth 1: Microwaving Kills Nutrients
In reality, anytime food is exposed to heat, nutrients like vitamin C, omega fatty acids, and some antioxidants can be lost. But this applies to cooking in general, not just when you’re using a microwave.
As reported by WHO, microwaving your food is a safe way to prepare it and it retains about the same level of nutrients as when you cook on a stovetop or in the oven.
When microwaving thicker foods like meat products, WHO provides the following recommendations to ensure safe cooking methods:
Cooking times will vary depending on the size and power of the microwave, and will also be affected by the density of the item you’re heating.
Since microwave heating doesn’t evenly permeate through thick food items, meat that’s not thoroughly cooked may contain harmful microorganisms that make you sick.
To combat harmful bacteria when cooking in the microwave, WHO suggests letting your food “rest” for several minutes after you finish warming it to allow the heat to disperse throughout the item.
If you’re thinking about microwaving your vegetables, Harvard Health Publishing advises heating your food rapidly, in the shortest amount of time, and with the least amount of water as possible. “As far as vegetables go, cooking them in water robs them of some of their nutritional value because the nutrients leach out into the cooking water,” states the report.
Myth 2: Microwaving Increases Cancer Risk
The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains that radiation exposure exists on a spectrum; microwaves are on the low end, and things like x-rays, gamma rays, and UV radiation are on the high end of the scale.
“Microwaves do not use x-rays or gamma rays, and they do not make food radioactive,” says the organization. Moreover, “When microwave ovens are used according to instructions, there is no evidence that they pose a health risk to people. In the United States, federal standards limit the amount of radiation that can leak from a microwave oven to a level far below what would harm people.”
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t give a second thought to microwaving your food. But the truth is that broken microwaves can leak a higher amount of radiation. So what are the appropriate instructions you should abide by if you want to use your microwave safely? WHO has some suggestions:
You can reduce your exposure to microwaves by ensuring your machine works properly.
Neither the door nor the sealants should show signs of damage, and the sealants should be kept free of dirt and grime.
The door should open and close correctly and fit securely.
If your microwave or any of its parts are on the fritz, you should refrain from using it until the parts are fixed, or purchase a new one.
Myth 3: Any Non-Metal Dish Is Safe for the Microwave
Unfortunately, this is not the case. A 2011 study in Environmental Health Perspectives analyzed the chemical makeup of commercially-available, plastic products—from baby bottles to food packaging. Although many plastic containers are now labeled “microwave safe,” or “BPA free,” researchers discovered most of these plastic products leach chemicals with estrogenic activity (EA). The study reports that increased EA may contribute to health issues and be particularly problematic for fetal and juvenile mammals.
When you microwave plastic, it may hasten the breakdown of the container and allow the harmful chemicals to be released into your food at a faster rate. Thankfully, there’s a solution to this issue—take the food out of the plastic container and use glass or ceramic dishes when microwaving instead.
A Word From Verywell
To summarize, if you heat your food for the shortest amount of time required to cook it thoroughly, check your microwave for wear and tear and service it accordingly, and use glass or ceramic dishes, the overall consensus among health organizations is that microwave usage is safe. In the end, the convenience of eating vegetables or other healthy food options that you’ve microwaved outweighs the risks of not eating them at all.