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Key Takeaways

  1. The radiation produced by microwaves isn’t dangerous, it doesn’t make your food “radioactive,” and it doesn’t destroy the nutrients in your food.
  2. Repeatedly microwaving plastic containers can cause some chemicals to leak into your food, but not in large enough amounts to affect your health.
  3. There’s no evidence that microwaving food is dangerous, but if you want to play it safe, only microwave food in glass or ceramic containers.

Since the first affordable microwave ovens arrived in 1967, they’ve become an indispensable tool in most people’s kitchens.

They’re one of the quickest, easiest, and (supposedly) safest ways to cook food.

Or maybe not.

Some say that microwaves make your food “radioactive” and release toxic radiation, which raises your risk of cancer.

Others say that microwaves destroy the nutrients in food, which could increase your risk of nutrient deficiencies.

And still others say there isn’t enough research on microwaves, so we should all play it safe and avoid them.

On the other hand, people say that the claims against microwaves are unfounded. They’re just one more example of better living through science that people need to stop fretting over.

So, who’s right?

Well, despite the constant Internet fearmongering, there’s no evidence that microwaves are dangerous. They’ve been studied repeatedly, and not only are they safe, they may actually be a healthier way to cook some foods than other methods.

There are some legitimate concerns about microwaving plastic containers, but it’s still debatable how dangerous that is, too.

By the end of this article, you’re going to get answers to all of your most pressing questions about microwaving food and your health, including . . .

  • Why do people think microwaving food is dangerous?
  • How do microwaves work?
  • Is it dangerous to microwave plastic?
  • Does microwaving remove nutrients from food?
  • And more.

Let’s get started.

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Why Do People Think Microwaving Food Is Dangerous?

There are four reasons people say that microwaving food is dangerous:

  1. Microwaves make your food radioactive and release harmful radiation, which raises your risk of cancer.
  2. Microwaves destroy the nutrients in your food, increasing your risk of nutrient deficiencies.
  3. Microwaves cause plastic containers to release harmful chemicals into your food.
  4. Microwaves “kill” the beneficial properties of “live” food.

Let’s unpack each of these ideas.

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Microwave Myth #1

Microwaves Release Harmful Radiation and Make Your Food Radioactive

When you think of the word “radiation,” you probably think of the effects of a nuclear bomb or a power plant disaster like Chernobyl: awful burns, cancer, and a slow, painful death.

It makes sense you’d be worried about using the same technology to warm your food.

Therein lies the first problem in the anti-microwave argument, though—it’s not the same technology.

To understand why the radiation from microwaves isn’t dangerous, you first have to understand how radiation and microwaves work.

“Radiation” is a broad term that includes any kind of energy that falls on the electromagnetic spectrum.

Just about everything around you emits some level of radiation, including the lights above your head, the ground underneath your feet, and, of course, the screen you’re staring at right now.

Some types of radiation are healthy (you need sunlight to produce vitamin D), some kinds are benign (cell phones), and some kinds are dangerous (nuclear bombs).

The different types of radiation are categorized based on the size and frequency of their wavelengths.

Large, low-frequency wavelengths tend to be the safest, like the kind emitted from radios (radio waves). On the other end of the spectrum, you have small, high-frequency wavelengths, which are dangerous.

As you can see in this chart, some wavelengths are bigger than buildings, and others are the size of atoms.

dangers of microwave cooking

 

You can further divide these different types of wavelengths into two categories: non-ionizing radiation and ionizing radiation.

Here’s where most kinds of radiation fall on that spectrum:

effects of microwave radiation

Ionizing radiation is strong enough that it can destroy atoms, including the ones that make up your body.

Non-ionizing radiation is only strong enough to “excite” atoms—making them wiggle at a higher frequency.

Microwave ovens use, obviously, a kind of radiation called “microwaves,” which are also emitted from cellphone towers and T.V. satellites.

So, why don’t cell towers and satellites warm things like an oven?

Well, there are two other variables that control the intensity and effects of radiation:

  1. Proximity
  2. Power

The farther you are from a source of radiation, the less reaches your body. Likewise, the weaker the source of radiation, the less reaches your body.

Radiation of every type becomes weaker the farther it travels (due to the inverse-square law).

For example, although you’d have an elevated risk of cancer for the rest of your life, you could be several miles away from a nuclear blast and remain unscathed, depending on the size of the bomb.

Similarly, if the source of radiation is weak—as it is with a microwave—you can be standing right next to the machine without suffering any negative effects. This is also due to the protective radiation shield built into all microwaves, which you’ll learn about in a moment.   

In fact, this safety barrier is also essential to the proper functioning of a microwave oven.

If the radiation waves inside a microwave oven are allowed to travel at random, they fizzle out too quickly to heat anything.

Microwave ovens work by trapping the microwaves inside a smaller area, so your food absorbs them before they can dissipate.

Microwaves have another property that makes them perfectly suited for heating food—they only heat certain kinds of molecules, water being the main one in food. This is why certain kinds of glass don’t warm up in the microwave—most of the molecules aren’t affected by microwaves.

When you microwave food, the radiation is quickly absorbed by the water molecules in food, which begin to vibrate and rub against one another. The friction between the molecules generates heat, which is what warms your food.

Now, for something to be “radioactive” it needs to emit ionizing radiation, which microwaves don’t. Microwaving food also doesn’t impart any radiation into food, so it’s impossible for a microwave to make your food “radioactive.”

The wavelengths emitted from a microwave are powerful enough to boil water, but not enough to irradiate your food or damage DNA.

Now, what if some of that radiation were to leak out? Couldn’t that still hurt you?

No, not if the microwave is functioning properly.

This has to do with the size of the wavelengths created by microwave ovens. The wavelengths generated by microwave ovens are about 5 inches wide, which is far too big to pass through the metal safety shield that’s built into all microwaves.

Even if you were able to run your microwave with the door open, the wavelengths would be too dispersed to cause any real damage. A good example of this is the man who invented the microwave oven, Percy Spencer, who first thought of the idea when a radar device he was working on melted the candy bar in his pocket without hurting him.

That’s all well and good, but what does the research show?

Well, there aren’t any controlled studies on this for two reasons:

  1. You’d have to expose people to large amounts of microwaves for years, in a controlled setting, which would be extremely hard to do.
  2. There’s little reason to believe microwaves are harmful based on what we know about physics.

Several observational studies have tried to measure the relationship between microwaves and breast cancer, and the results have been all over the place. Some studies show a very small correlation between breast cancer and microwave exposure and others don’t.

In any case, none of these studies can show that microwaves caused an increase in cancer rates, since observational studies can’t prove causation.

Long story short, microwaves are about as “dangerous” as listening to the radio.

Summary: The kind of radiation microwave ovens use to heat your food isn’t dangerous, and it’s impossible to make your food “radioactive” by microwaving it.

Microwave Myth #2

“Microwaving Lowers the Nutrient Content of Your Food”

do microwaves destroy nutrients in food

You may have heard that microwaves destroy many of the vitamins and minerals in food, making them less nutritious.

Typically, you’re told that the radiation from microwaves is uniquely destructive, and that it removes far more nutrients than other kinds of cooking.

Well, here’s the truth:

Microwaves can slightly reduce the nutrient content of some foods, but not enough to make a significant difference in your health, vitality, or longevity.

As far as cooking methods go, microwaving is actually one of the best methods for preserving the nutrients in food.

All forms of cooking reduce the nutrient content of food. When you heat food, some of the water evaporates, taking a portion of the nutrients with it.

If you want to retain the nutrients in your food, then you want to cook them quickly and with as little water as needed, which is exactly what microwaving does.

In some cases, microwaving actually makes foods more nutritious because they’re easier to digest and absorb.

Summary: Microwaving food doesn’t destroy more nutrients than other common cooking methods. In some cases, it makes the nutrients in food more easily digested.

Microwave Myth #3

“Microwaving Plastic Containers Releases Toxic Chemicals”

the hidden dangers of microwave cooking

According to many, plastic containers of all kinds are toxic. They release harmful chemicals into your food that cause all manner of health problems.

There’s a kernel of truth here, but most of the fear is unfounded.

All plastic containers are made from a smorgasbord of chemicals, and some of these chemicals can transfer into your food.

The question is whether or not these chemicals are released in large enough amounts to harm your body.

The two main chemicals we’re talking about are:

  • Bisphenol A (BPA)
  • Phthalates

At high doses, it’s possible that both of these compounds can mimic the effects of estrogen in the body, which is why they’ve been blamed for weight gain, infertility, cancer, and other problems.

The jury is still out on how harmful these compounds really are, but you generally want to limit your exposure if you can.

So, does microwaving food actually increase your exposure to these chemicals?

Probably not.

A study review from the Institute of Health and Consumer Protection found that the amount of chemicals released from plastic bottles isn’t nearly enough to have any impact on your health. This was true even after the bottles were boiled, brushed, and run through the dishwasher.

If you repeatedly heat plastic containers over and over, they do release more chemicals, but the amounts are still well within the current safety guidelines.

To consume enough of these chemicals to put yourself at risk, you’d have to eat 100 to 1000 times more than the maximum upper limit, and microwaving your food in plastic containers won’t get you anywhere near that amount.

Plastic containers that are repeatedly heated in the microwave can release slightly more chemicals over time, but the amounts aren’t anything to worry about.

Despite the Internet uproar over BPA, for instance, it’s almost impossible to consume enough to cause health problems. For example, you’d have to eat over 500 pounds of canned soup in a day to exceed the tolerable daily limit, and most people consume 10,000 times less than that amount.

That said, there is always a risk that some of these chemicals could be more dangerous than we thought, even at low doses. If you want to play it safe, replace your plasticware every few months or as soon as you see visible signs of wear and tear.

Or, store your food in plastic containers and transfer it to a glass or ceramic container before microwaving it.

Summary: Microwaving plastic containers increases the amount of chemicals released into your food, but the amounts are too small to have any impact on your health.

Microwave Myth #4

Microwaving “Kills” Food

heating food in microwave side effects

Some people say that food is “alive,” that cooking kills its beneficial properties, and so you should eat all of your food raw.

This, of course, means you aren’t allowed to use a microwave.

There are two reasons this idea is a nonstarter.

First of all, more or less everything you eat is dead, regardless of how you store or cook it.

Biologically speaking, plants start dying the second they’re harvested, the cells in meat and animal products die soon after the animal does, and frozen foods are dead long before they reach your dinner table.

What’s more, any hint of life that remains in your food is quickly snuffed out the second it hits your stomach acid. In fact, one of the reasons your body has stomach acid is to kill organisms in your food such as bacteria, protozoa, and other pathogens and parasites.

By the time your food exits the stomach and makes its way to the small intestine, almost all living organisms are destroyed.

Second, whether or not a food is “dead” or “alive” has almost no bearing on its healthfulness. Some nutrients, especially antioxidants, do start to degrade soon after fruits and vegetables are harvested, but that’s true regardless of whether or not the food is cooked later.

The bottom line is that basically all of the food you eat is dead by the time it enters your digestive system, and even if it were still “alive,” it wouldn’t be any healthier.

Microwaving isn’t going to make your food any “deader” than it already is, and it certainly isn’t going to make your food less healthy.

Summary: Microwaving doesn’t “kill” food because almost everything you eat is already dead, and if it isn’t, most of it soon will be when it hits your stomach acid.

The Bottom Line on Whether or Not Microwaving Food Is Bad for You

Microwaves use radiation to cook food, and anything associated with the word “radiation” tends to get a bad rap.

The truth, though, is that we’re exposed to thousands of sources of radiation every day, and microwaves are one of the safer kinds.

People still love to make alarmist claims, though, like . . .

  • “Microwaves make your food radioactive and release toxic radiation.”
  • “Microwaves destroy the nutrients in food.”
  • “Microwaves cause harmful chemicals to leak out of plasticware.”
  • “Microwaves kill food.”

Basic physics and decades of research show otherwise. In reality, microwaving is a safe, fast, and convenient way to heat your food.

The kind of radiation microwave ovens use to heat your food isn’t dangerous, and it’s impossible to make your food “radioactive” by microwaving it.

Microwaving food doesn’t destroy more nutrients than other common cooking methods. In some cases, it makes the nutrients in food more easily digested.

Microwaving plastic containers increases the amount of chemicals released into your food, but the amounts are too small to have any impact on your health.

Microwaving doesn’t “kill” food because almost everything you eat is already dead, and if it isn’t, most of it soon will be when it hits your stomach acid.

So, don’t worry about microwaving food.

It’s not unhealthy, and in some cases it might be healthier than eating your food raw or cooking it another way.

What’s your take on microwaving food? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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