I’m not writing this article to scare you into throwing away your microwave. I’m not writing it to sell you any sort of theory or to influence you in this ongoing microwave debate, one way or another. I want to shed a little light on what’s really going on when you microwave your food and whether it poses any real danger to you or your baby.
Below, we’ll answer some of your radiating questions, such as:
So you’re in a rush (you always are), you’re doing your weekly shopping and you throw in a few freezer meals, some frozen vegetables and some pizza rolls, for good measure. Frozen food makes everything easier--you just pop it in the microwave and you’re done, right?
What happens to your food--and your body--as you’re throwing that Lean Cuisine into the microwave?
What is probably the most dangerous part of the entire microwaving process is the container that your meal is packaged in. It’s a source of bisphenol A, also known as BPA, which is the base material for polycarbonate plastics. They’re used in a lot of commercially produced plastics because of their flexibility and versatility--however, a number of studies have shown that BPA is directly linked to infertility in men and women.
And as the container is heated, the chemicals are transferred directly into your food, ready to be consumed in just five short minutes.
For more on how BPA and other polycarbonate plastics affects fertility, check out BPA-Free: Not Free of Fertility Struggles. (note: this is only a link to the Google doc b/c the actual blog post isn’t up; when it is, that link will have to be subbed in)
I’m just going to start by saying that the biggest effect of microwave radiation on food, liquid, flesh, you name it--is heating--exactly what this form of radiation was intended for.
This is the pinnacle of the microwave debate--that microwaves emit radiation and cause cancer (the same argument goes for cell phones), so I think it’s worth breaking down what exactly is going on as you microwave your food.
There are two types of radiation: ionizing radiation and nonionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation, such a x-rays and gamma rays have enough energy to remove an electron (ionize) from an atom or molecule. This can damage the DNA in cells, which can actually result in cancer. That’s why you have to wear that heavy lead padding whenever you get an x-ray.
Microwave radiation is at the low end of the electromagnetic (energy) spectrum, so they’re nonionizing. Nonionizing radiation has enough energy to move atoms in a molecule around, but not enough to ionize (remove charged particles such as electrons).
“Okay great, molecules vibrate, what on earth does this have to do with my microwave?” you’re probably thinking.
It actually has everything to do with your microwave. While conventional ovens move heat through electric heating elements (or gas burners),and cooks from the outside in (which is why your cake can be burned on the outside and not cooked at all on the inside), microwave ovens simultaneously excite all the water molecules in your food. The faster the water molecules vibrate, the hotter the food becomes.
As you can imagine, the greatest threat from microwaves is the heat this vibration produces. The most common injury related to microwave radiation is, essentially, burns. Your food is (kind of unevenly, at least in my microwave) superheated and can easily burn you. In rare instances, high, high levels of microwave radiation, usually caused by a microwave with a busted door, can cause radiation injuries.
So unless you’ve somehow managed to wrench off half your door and it stills microwaves, you are not going to get cancer by standing near the microwave as it does it’s thing.
So you’re at the grocery store again, and you’re debating fresh vegetables over frozen ones for Tuesday night’s stir fry. You think about the whole lengthy process that comes with fresh vegetables--the washing, the cutting, the cleanup--and you (inevitably) go for the frozen bag.
Are you losing anything by choosing frozen over fresh?
Health gurus are going to tell you to steam everything. Martha Stewart is going to tell you to bake it for an hour at four hundred fifty degrees. Does it really make a difference, and is microwaving really the worst thing you can do, nutrient wise?
Let’s look at what matters in the cooking process: time, temperature and moisture levels.
Because of the method’s short cooking time and reduced levels of heat, microwaved food is actually believed to preserve nutrients more adequately than other methods of cooking. However, studies show that when it comes to carbohydrates, lipids, proteins and vitamins, there is no significant difference between conventional oven and microwave oven cooking.
So how did we get around to thinking that microwaving food zaps away all the nutrients in it? One of the culprits is a Spanish study which resulted in broccoli losing the most nutrients through the microwaving method. But what they didn’t take into account was the water added to the broccoli before microwaving.
Moisture matters--especially when it comes to water-soluble vitamins like vitamin-C. They boil right off, whether you put your vegetables on the stove or in the microwave with some added water.
To reduce the loss of water-soluble vitamins, just don’t add water.
If we’re all being honest here, we do not hand toss a salad at the end of a long work week. We don’t make a risotto from scratch. We don’t make Grandma’s famous lasagna and set it steaming hot on the table.
We microwave some pizza rolls.
But we can’t always choose these kinds of foods. A lot of easy microwave foods, like pizza rolls or szechuan chicken, don’t contain the necessary nutrition packed in a home cooked meal, and some microwave food has (like most ready-made foods) added sodium, fats and preservatives to improve taste and lengthen shelf life.
The answer is simple (and is the answer to most things): moderation. Be mindful of what exactly you’re putting in the microwave, and work to strike a balance between nutrient rich and convenient.
The only other thing you could be missing out on is the family time. Like, remember that scene in Matilda where her whole family is sitting down in front of the T.V. with their microwave dinners and no one is paying attention to each other?
Microwave meals can kind of invite that to happen.
Studies show that when meal times are shared with family three or more times a week, children are more likely to be in a healthy weight range, and less likely to engage in disordered eating.
There’s also a whole slew of reasons on why family cooking matters--all the good stuff like fraction conversions and bonding. You just don’t get the same effect when you throw a ready-made lasagna in the microwave.
So there’s the container thing. You should probably just microwave leftovers in a glass container, because there’s no BPA in it.
And then there’s the radiation fears. While it takes a lot of radiation to cause any harm to you or your baby, you don’t want to be subject to repeated exposure. Check to be sure your microwave isn’t leaking from any broken doors or hidden crevices by feeling around for air blowing while the microwave is being used. If there are any leaks, go ahead and get them repaired or just replace the whole thing--newer models are typically more up-to-code anyway.
Nutrient-wise, don’t add water to your veggies when reheating them. All those water-soluble vitamins will go right on down the drain. Also consider food choice when going to cook something--a vegetable filled stir-fry far surpasses pizza rolls in nutritional value.
And as for family time, aim to eat together at least three times a week. I know that sitting at the table with my brother and sister over tacos made some of the best memories I have.
All in all, your microwave probably isn’t going to kill you. But you should also be aware of some of the nutritional concerns surrounding the process of microwaving--taking these steps when microwaving your food should keep you and your family healthy and safe.