More than 90% of American households have a microwave, and we’re guessing these microwaves are being put to good use during the COVID19 pandemic. Some days, you just want to keep it easy and not make a show out of your meals. We get it. But, is microwaving food safe? Or does it, as rumor has it, increase your risk of cancer and leach nutrients from your food. Let’s discuss.
Microwaves get their name from the high-frequency radio waves that make molecules in your food pulsate rapidly, creating the heat that cooks your meals. They’re powerful enough to pass through glass, plastic, and paper. But of course, as with any radio wave, they emit radiation. And we’ve all been warned about the dangers of radiation.
Microwave radiation, however, doesn’t quite deserve the bad reputation it’s been given.
There are two types of radiation, you see. Ionizing radiation, which is the type of radiation emitted from X-rays and in nuclear power plants….the kind that damages DNA and contributes to cancer and birth defects…and non-ionizing radiation, which doesn’t have the power to change DNA.
Microwaves give off non-ionizing radiation, which, while not as dangerous, still warrants caution, as microwave energy can be absorbed not only by your food but also by your body, and can damage exposed tissues, particularly your vulnerable eyes, and cause burns.
But what about the research that has shown microwave radiation damages the central nervous system and brain function? This can indeed occur, but at much higher frequencies than the at-home microwave emits and over a much longer period of time.
The FDA closely monitors microwave manufacturers to make sure they aren’t producing faulty microwaves that leak out more than a minute amount of radiation. But if your microwave is defective, dirty, or old, then you might be exposed to far more radiation than is considered safe.
For this reason, it’s important to practice microwave safety. Never lean against a microwave in use, and stand at least a foot away, as radiation decreases with distance. These safety guidelines are especially important for children to follow, as they absorb far more radiation than adults do.
Now that we’ve answered the question “is microwaving food safe?” let’s tackle the other question on most people’s minds: “does microwaving food reduce nutrients?”
In theory, microwaves are built to retain nutrients. Nutrients are zapped when food is overcooked. Microwaves solve this problem by cooking food fast and at lower temperatures than boiling, frying, or baking. By cooking food quickly, more nutrients can be preserved.
Some fancy newer models even have thermostats that monitor the temperature of food to prevent overcooking.
Still, it’s a mixed bag of evidence.
In 2003, researchers showed that microwaving decreased the flavonoid content of broccoli by 97% compared to steaming (1).
Filet of herring fared better in a 2002 study, which showed that omega-3s remained intact with both conventional and microwave cooking (2). Milk and orange juice also showed similar results when heated conventionally and microwaved.
We’ll leave it up to you whether you want to microwave, steam, or bake, but if you’re short on time, microwaving a sweet potato or a special bag of steam veggies shouldn’t cost you any worry over lost nutrients.
But here’s a word of caution we would like you to follow regarding microwave safety: don’t microwave your food in plastic containers, which can leak out harmful chemicals. Use microwave-safe glass or ceramic dishware instead. If you are using plastic, make sure it is free of phthalates and bisphenol A (BPA), which act as endocrine disruptors.
It’s not so much the microwave that’s the villain as it is the types of food commonly heated in the microwave—packaged, processed fare that is high in calories and sodium and low in nutritional value.
You’ve heard us say it again and again: real, whole food is the way to go, whether it’s cooked in the microwave or cooked in the stove.
So…what’s cooking for tonight?
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