Microwave use is the first truly controversial subject we tackled here at Kitchen Stewardship. I told you in this post that I’m starting with the foods that have only positive research going on around them. Eating more beans, yogurt, and chicken broth, getting vegetables into your diet more regularly…these are things that are no-brainers. Every nutritionist, scientist, doctor, ETC. out there agrees on their goodness. I can get behind them. Eggs are just slightly controversial, but I firmly believe that whole eggs are good for you. I think eggs just had some bad research and/or bad press a decade or two ago, and they’re still trying to recover. There’s not actually that much controversy out there anymore.
Do Microwave Ovens Do Harm?
Microwaves are another subject entirely! You can find sources saying that microwaves zap the nutrients out of our food, people who strongly (strongly!) believe microwaves are giving us all cancer and other nasty diseases, and those who will tell you to make your microwave a plant stand. You can also find numerous articles and bits of research that say microwaves are not harmful, leak such a slight amount of radiation that they can’t possibly hurt humans, and actually preserve more nutrients in vegetables than stovetop cooking. Who are we to believe?
What Should We Believe About Microwaves?
Who would have ever guessed you needed to have faith in scientific evidence? That you would need to be a believer or not a believer about issues of nutrition? I thought my belief muscles would only get exercise in my faith life, when deciding whether or not to believe in a God I cannot see. I guess I can’t see nutrients, either, so until there’s a perfect scientist or researcher, we’re just going to have to keep praying.
There are two reasons often cited for avoiding the microwave: loss of nutrients in food and radiation emitted from the appliance. Both are incredibly up for debate. In fact, after Google searching for information on the former, the vast majority of the articles found claim that the microwave does NOT in fact destroy nutrients, but is a healthy way to cook vegetables. (Sources: 1 2 3 4 5 6)
In spite of all that information, there are still a number of sources out there (1 2 3 4 5 and Nourishing Traditions) that claim that the microwave causes changes in the makeup of food so severe that we ought not be messing with them.
The research on nutrient destruction.
The bottom line in all of this is that you must cook your veggies with as little water as possible, at the lowest heat possible, and for the shortest time possible. Almost everyone agrees that this is the way to retain the most nutrients, as heat and water are generally the destructive factors. More heat for longer periods of time kill more nutrients. Microwaving sounds like the way to go here. On the other hand, if the structure of your food is unrecognizable to your body, all that doesn’t matter.
Reason Number One to Avoid the Microwave: Research on Breastmilk
I remember being pregnant with my first, teaching school, and bending down to peek at my lunch in the staff lounge microwave. My principal, the most conscientious male I’ve ever met, walked in and ‘tsk tsked’ me seriously. He gestured that my belly with baby should not be hanging out in front of a microwave.
After having that baby (who is healthy with no extra extremities or digits!), I learned how to reheat breastmilk safely. The research is pretty widely accepted that one should NEVER heat breastmilk in a microwave, not just because of the tendency to get “hot spots” in the bottle, which affects formula users too, but also because the microwave denatures the breastmilk. “Denatures” is a great word that means “kills nutrients” or “makes less healthy”. In breastmilk, the microwave causes a loss of antibodies and possibly vitamins.
Let us turn on our cognitive powers for a moment – you know, the mind? The thing you used to exercise all the time before you had kids? If the microwave denatures breastmilk and you’re willing to spend all that (annoying) time twirling a bottle in a bowl of hot water to heat the milk, what about other foods heated in the microwave? For the sake of comparison, let’s just stick to liquids, since I don’t know that I can extrapolate the research credibly onto solid foods as well. It would make sense to me that the microwave would also potentially denature healthy stocks and broths, milk, or sauces that I’m reheating, especially those with active enzymes or antibiotic powers (stocks, garlic, yogurt).
I have a bunch of pots that work great on my stove. It doesn’t take the attention to reheat a bowl of soup or a pot of spaghetti sauce that a bottle of breastmilk takes, and I usually don’t have a screaming baby to feed who has to wait. Maybe heating soups and sauces on the stovetop isn’t as big of a hassle as it seems like in my head…
If you can handle washing an extra pot, give it a try this week when it’s time to reheat liquids.
Reason Number Two to Avoid the Microwave Oven: Radiation Leakage Danger
Now let’s examine the possibility of dangerous microwave energy (i.e. radiation) emitting from the microwave and harming your body. You know, the reason people tell you to stand back from the microwave instead of leaning close to gaze at the food turning on the pedestal while it cooks or reheats?
No Nukes in Microwaves
First, let’s get one thing straight: microwave radiation has little to nothing in common with hydrogen bomb radiation, Chernobyl or Three Mile Island. It is even entirely different from X-ray radiation. Be sure to separate microwaves from nuclear and X-ray energy in your mind.
There are two effects of microwave energy in a microwave oven: heat-related (thermal) and non-thermal. If you are exposed to the heating effects of the microwave, your systems would cook just like the food rotating on the microwave plate. Luckily, it’s pretty hard for the heat to escape the microwave if all its parts are working properly. The non-thermal energy is another issue.
Russian Policy on Microwaves: No Way
Some microwave energy is allowed to escape microwaves under FDA regulations, actually 5 times that which is allowed in Russia. Russians have to wear special goggles if they are exposed to just a smidgen of the radiation that escapes from most American microwaves. Microwave ovens are banned in Russia, which doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re inherently evil or will kill you…but it’s a fact that gives me pause. If something is banned in an entire country, you would think there would be a good reason for it.
Conflicting Research (Again)
Of course, you can find as many sources (1 2 3 4) that will assure you that little to no microwave energy escapes modern microwaves, and that research only shows that very high concentrations of microwave exposure will harm people. There are some middle of the line sources (1 2 3) like me that admit that although the above information is probably true, there simply isn’t enough research on low levels of microwave radiation exposure and its effects on humans. Sounds like something I’d like our government and universities to explore further; in the meantime, I choose to play it safe.
These sources (1 2 3) will tell you how microwaves (and all sorts of other electronic and electric appliances) are going to kill you, and quickly. Some of them are actually very interesting reads (skims) and not all that radical. You just have to read them with a prayer and the firm belief in Soul First, Body Second or you’ll give yourself a heart attack from the stress.
What MIGHT Microwave Radiation Do To Us?
If in fact, harmful energy emits from your microwave, and if in fact, it can enter your body, these are the possible hazards:
- Changes in blood
But I Still Want to Use My Microwave!
Yeah, I know. Me, too. My husband, three! Here are some practical tips for safER use of your microwave:
- Do NOT, absolutely do NOT, use a microwave with a broken door or seal
- Do NOT use a microwave that is acting up in other ways either, but the door is most important
- At the very least, don’t let your kids (or spouse, or self) stand right next to the microwave watching the food turn around. Every little bit farther from the microwave that you stand, the possible microwave energy hitting your body decreases exponentially.
- Consider other options for microwave un-use. See this post for tips on avoiding and this post for time management tips.
If you buy any of this and want to commit to reducing your microwave use, the stress-free baby step way, my challenge for you is this:
Join me in considering microwave use. Each time you plan to open the door and push some buttons, ask yourself if you could use a pan, a pot, a teapot, a toaster oven, your big oven, a George Foreman, or eat raw food. Decide how you might be able to avoid the microwave. Then decide if you want to that time…or not. Don’t stress out about it.
My challenge to you:
When you are about to open the microwave door…
…Can I do this another way?
- Toaster oven
- Pot or pan on stovetop
- George Foreman grill
- What else?
CONSIDER the research:
If you’re going to cook food…some research has shown that cooking food in the microwave oven causes it to lose nutrients. Do you want to do that to your veggies?
If you’re going to reheat leftovers…is it worth the possible nutrient loss?
If you’re just boiling water or coffee…some research suggests that microwaves may emit radiation that could harm our bodies. How about that teapot?
CHOOSE what you’ll do for this microwave opportunity: to use or not to use?
COMMIT to doing your best WITHOUT stressing out over it.
At the end of each day, think about how many microwave minutes you avoided that day. Record it on a piece of paper or in your phone if it would inspire you, and add up the minutes at the end of a week or month!
Rejoice over a challenge accepted and met head on!
My Microwave Story:
I first started becoming skeptical about microwave use during the fall a few years ago. Until then, I steamed all my side vegetables for dinner in the microwave and used it a zillion times a day to reheat leftovers. My friend emailed a link to Dr. Mercola’s site to all her contacts, urging us to reconsider using the microwave. Her mother had survived cancer, and after doing her research, got rid of her microwave and convinced her children to do the same. I was intrigued. (You can view Dr. Mercola’s article here.)
That same month I came across a few other sources citing the microwave as a nutrient-killer. I couldn’t figure out what to do, however, because I was pretty dependent upon the thing. I was overwhelmed. I got nervous just looking at it in my kitchen. I decided to take a Baby Step: each day, each time I wanted to use the microwave, I thought I could at least think it through, consciously, and figure out if there was another way to meet the same end without turning on the microwave. I wouldn’t stress myself out over it, but I would analyze my options.
What really got me jazzed about avoiding the microwave was the veggie thing. I read some research that claimed broccoli (our house’s first place prize for “most appearances as a side vegetable”) lost something like 85% of its nutrients when cooked in the microwave vs. steaming. What?!? You mean I’ve been eating 15% healthy broccoli, boringly cooked and eaten out of nutritive obligation, for years???? No way dude. I was not a happy camper.
Even if the research is flawed or has other sources that totally discredit it…or just disagree with it…I know that steaming broccoli is the healthiest way to eat it. Almost every source I can find agrees on that. So if there’s a chance the microwave oven is destroying even 25% of the healthy vitamins in there, I’m going to go with the stovetop. Why risk it?
Sometime after I started being mindful of my microwave usage, I was lying in bed thinking – because that’s what women do when we’re supposed to be sleeping, right? – and I reflected on the microwave choices I was able to make that day without too much effort.
I used a teapot instead of the microwave to heat water for homemade baby wipes. Four minutes saved.
I used a pot with steamer insert to cook our broccoli for dinner. Four minutes saved. I used the toaster oven to reheat leftovers for lunch. Two minutes saved.
Do the math…TEN MINUTES! This seemed significant to me at 12:30 in the morning. Thus was born Mind the Microwave Challenge – and now you can tally up your minutes and feel that quantifiable sense of accomplishment with me!
Count Your Minutes!
Challenge yourself – tally your minutes each day and see if you can beat the one before. It’s all about the baby steps.
My husband, who is a pretty normal, cultural, skeptical-of-radical-ideas-kind-of-a-guy, puts the question of “to use or not to use” this way: We may not know, now or ever, whether microwaving our food is harmful. But we’re sure that NOT using the microwave isn’t hurting us. Put as only a (male) engineer can: simple, to the point deductive reasoning.
For now, let’s consider the fact that we’ll never prove definitively that microwave use does not harm us or our food. We can be pretty sure…fairly sure…certain?…that not using the microwave won’t harm our bodies. So stick with what you know for sure, and don’t be afraid to be tentative about conflicting research.
Other Mind the Microwave Posts: