If you want to know whether or not microwaving food is dangerous and unhealthy, then you want to read this article.
- 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.
- Repeatedly microwaving plastic containers can cause some chemicals to leak into your food, but not in large enough amounts to affect your health.
- 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, compared to open flame, 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 handwringing about.
So, who’s right?
Well, despite the constant Internet fearmongering, there’s no evidence that microwaves are dangerous. They have been studied repeatedly, and not only are they safe, they may actually be a healthier way to cook some foods.
There are legitimate concerns about microwaving plastic containers, but it’s still debatable how dangerous that is, too.
In this article, you’re going to learn the top four reasons people say that you shouldn’t microwave food, why they’re wrong, and why microwaving food can actually be a safer, healthier option than other cooking methods.
Let’s get started.
Why Do People Think Microwaving Food Is Dangerous?
There are four reasons people say that microwaving food is dangerous:
- Microwaves make your food radioactive and release harmful radiation, which raises your risk of cancer.
- Microwaves destroy the nutrients in your food, increasing your risk of nutrient deficiencies.
- Microwaves cause plastic containers to release harmful chemicals into your food.
- Microwaves “kill” the beneficial properties of “live” food.
Let’s unpack each of these ideas.
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: burning, 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 problem–it’s not the same technology.
“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.
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.
You can 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:
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?
Radiation of every type becomes weaker the farther it travels (due to the inverse-square law). If the microwaves 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, the main one in food being water. 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, causing the molecules in the water 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 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:
- You’d have to expose people to large amounts of microwaves for years, in a controlled setting, which would be extremely hard to do.
- 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.
The Bottom Line
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”
You may have heard that microwaves destroy many of the vitamins and minerals in food, making them far 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.
Microwaves can slightly reduce the nutrient content of some foods, but not enough to make a significant difference in your health, vitality, or longevity.
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.
The Bottom Line
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”
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.
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)
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?
A 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.
To consume enough of these chemicals to put yourself at risk, you’d have to eat 100-1000 times more than the maximum amounts that are found in food, and microwaving your food in plastic containers won’t get you anywhere near that amount.
Plastic containers might release slightly more chemicals if you microwave them over and over, 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.
The Bottom Line
Microwaving plastic containers increases the amount of chemicals that are released, but the amounts are too small to have any impact on your health.
Microwave Myth #4
Microwaving “Kills” Food
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 dead on arrival (har har).
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.
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
Everything you eat is already dead regardless of how you cook it, and that’s true of microwaving food, too.
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 at bottom, microwaves tend to be one of the safer kinds.
That doesn’t stop people from making 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.