The microwave oven is a staple for most homes, but for some it can be a controversial topic due to the radiation used to produce heat.
Microwaves became popular in the ’70s as a fast and easy way to heat or reheat food. A microwave works by emitting electromagnetic waves from a magnetron and allowing them to bounce around the inside of the box and through the food. These waves excite water molecules inside of foods because the water molecule is polar, so it spins, trying to align with the corresponding opposite magnetic pull of the waves. By exciting the water molecules, or making them move and hit against each other, heat is created.
These electromagnetic waves are non-ionizing radiation waves, which means they are not as dangerous as X-rays or ultraviolet rays. A stove or oven uses conduction through heated coils to cook. Microwaves, or short electromagnetic waves, are faster because they are produced immediately, whereas an oven or stove needs to be heated to a high temperature first.
Critics argue that a gentler heat from ovens and stoves is healthier than electromagnetic waves. However, the electromagnetic waves produced from an average microwave oven are too weak to do any damage to your skin or tissues. There is also a metal grid surrounding inside the microwave oven that has holes too small for the waves to pass through. The microwave oven will also shut off immediately if opened before finishing. The power and cook time are not enough to do any more damage than the radiation emitted from your cell phone.
Microwaves can be a good addition to your kitchen appliances because vegetables can be gently steamed for a short period of time, ensuring that most of their nutrients remain intact. Cooking vegetables in a lot of water or fat and for longer periods of time degrades and destroys vitamins. Vitamins that are especially prone to degradation are water-soluble vitamins including vitamin C and B-complex vitamins.
However, microwaves can also be used to your detriment because many pre-made and boxed meals have a lot of fat, sugar and salt.
Another caution about microwaves is to try to only heat or reheat food in microwave-safe glass containers. The American Dietetic Association warns that unless it is microwave safe, people should not microwave food in or on plastic food packaging, styrofoam, paper towels, bags, paper plates and napkins. Chemicals from these items can leach into your food.
The organization also recommends checking that your dishes are truly microwave safe. You can do this by placing your dish in the microwave with a separate cup of tap water and microwaving it on high for one minute. If the empty container stays cool, it is microwave safe. If it is warm, use it for reheating only. If it is hot, it is not microwave safe and should not be used.
It is also important to check that your dishes are not labeled “for decorative use” as this means they could contain lead. Lead is a common ingredient in the glaze coating on ceramic bowls, dishes and pitchers. Check that your dishes are smooth and shiny, not rough or painted on top of the glaze. Check all sides of the dish to see if you can find writing to indicate that it is only for decorative use. If so, do not use for serving food.
Do not store food in ceramic dishes or leaded crystal because lead can leach out when in contact with acidic foods and beverages over time. Beware of older dishes, or dishes from foreign countries or from untrained potters. If they’re made correctly, glazes with lead are safe. However, some may have been made poorly, or copper may have been added and that can make them dangerous, especially to children and pregnant women. The lead can leach into your food, especially when microwaving, and collect in your bones and soft tissues. Lead can cause learning disabilities, organ damage and even death.
Be cautious of the containers you use to microwave your food and be aware of the food you are cooking. Are you using your microwave primarily for quick boxed meals or are you using its quick heating ability to your advantage by retaining vitamin quality? If used correctly, a microwave can be a great tool in your kitchen.
Molly Roemer graduated with a degree in dietetics from BYU and currently resides in Alamo. She enjoys food and family and seeks to enrich the lives of others through both. Follow her on Instagram @mealswithmolly