Most people don’t think twice about using a microwave. Daily, we use them to heat food, defrost meat, or pop popcorn. But what happens when we microwave food? Microwaves are convenient appliances found nearly everywhere. But research suggests that cooking food in them may harm health.
How Does a Microwave Work?
Microwave ovens, originally sold as “Radaranges,” are kitchen appliances used for cooking or reheating food. The way it works is that an electron tube inside the microwave oven (a magnetron) emits microwaves, a form of electromagnetic radiation that falls between radio waves and infrared waves in its wavelength. Microwaves bounce around inside the space and heat by stimulating or “exciting” molecules within food –particularly, water, sugars, and fats.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains that electromagnetic radiation spans a broad spectrum. Microwave oven radiation and radio waves are on the low end of the range. Microwaves, visible light, and radio waves, unlike x-rays, are what are called non-ionizing radiation. They don’t have enough energy to knock electrons out of atoms. (1) Shortwave electromagnetic frequency has, however, been shown to affect the autonomic nervous system (2).
Microwave technology causes electromagnetic waves to pass through food. These waves excite the water molecules and cause them to move and heat up.
As microwave energy excites the water molecules, it tears them apart and vigorously deforms them. This makes microwave cooking very different from other cooking methods. Methods such as oven-baking use heat transferred inward from the outside environment.
Microwaves and Your Health
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 90 percent of American households own a microwave. Cooking with a microwave is as common as using a sink to wash dishes. As microwave technology has evolved, research on possible health impacts has been controversial. Russia allegedly banned microwaves in the mid-1970s, although this is hotly contested. Russian studies done in the meantime would certainly explain banning them, but so far, it hasn’t happened in the U.S. (4)
Microwaved meats cause the formation of d-Nitrosodienthanolamines, a well-known carcinogen. A carcinogen is a substance that causes cancer to start growing in living tissues. Microwaves also turn alkaloids in vegetables into a cancer-promoting compound. (5) Microwaves themselves have also been shown to provoke cancer growth. (6)(7)
Another concern involves the EMF (electromagnetic field) radiation emitted by microwaves. A growing body of research indicates that EMF radiation may cause significant harm to the human body and DNA. Microwaves emit a large amount of EMF radiation. Christian Thomas, researcher and founder of EMF Academy, points out that, when using a microwave, it’s not just the food you’re exposing to radiation. You’re also exposing yourself to EMF radiation. That radiation leakage can be thousands of times more intense than what you get from your cell phone or tablet (8). Read our article here to learn more about EMF radiation and its potential health impacts.
Microwaves Deplete Nutritional Value
Flavonoids are antioxidants that help your body fight inflammation and support normal function. When microwaved, broccoli loses up to 97 percent of these antioxidants. Steamed broccoli, on the other hand, lost only 11 percent. (9)
Another study found that microwaving garlic for a minute depleted allyl sulfur (allicin). Allyl sulfur is garlic’s primary cancer-fighting ingredient. (10)
Microwave heating causes a significantly higher degree of protein unfolding than conventional heating. (13) Essentially, microwaving food changes its natural structure.
A study on the effects of microwaving on breast milk showed that it depleted the milk’s anti-infective factors. That occurred at both high and low temperatures. (14)
Microwaves are a convenient option available in most places throughout the modern world. However, research shows they’re a less-than-ideal choice for human health and nutrient preservation.
We encourage you to think outside the (microwave) box regarding how you heat your food! Healthy alternatives include:
- The stovetop: Anything you reheat in a microwave you can reheat on the stove. Add a splash of water to the pan with the food. Then, cover it with a lid and set it on the stove for a few minutes to warm through. Hot soups, stews, and beverages are easily kept warm for long periods in a thermos or insulated mug.
- Conventional oven: Many people use microwaves for ease and shorter cooking times. You pop the food in, press a few buttons, and your food is done within minutes. An oven may take longer to warm up, but it will more thoroughly cook your food and the food will stay hot longer. And it’s far better for you.
- Toaster ovens: Heat your food using convection with a toaster oven. (Without having to fire up your regular oven!) Toaster ovens can cook, brown, broil, and toast food. They’re multi-purpose appliances that can adapt to various culinary uses.
- Air fryers: Air fryers take longer to cook food than microwaves. However, they offer a unique method of cooking that results in a crispy and flavorful result. Microwaves, while faster, result in lackluster flavor and texture, and lead to a loss of nutrients.
- Slow cookers: Slow cookers (or Crockpots) are a great appliance to reach for when you want to keep food warm for extended periods. They can hold food in the “warm” setting for hours, making them great for entertaining friends or when your oven is at capacity with other dishes.
The Importance of Containers
When most people throw food into the microwave oven, it’s in a plastic container. Plastic alone poses several health risks. When you use a microwave oven, it can contaminants like BPA into the food. Yes, even those labeled “microwave safe.”
While we encourage everyone to avoid microwaves try alternative heating methods, if that’s not possible, start somewhere by getting rid of the plastic. Use glass or ceramic instead. Developing new habits that support your family’s health can be daunting at first, but it doesn’t have to be. Even small positive changes can result in significant health benefits. We’re around multiple kinds of radiation every day. Cut microwaves from that list and take a few extra minutes to heat food or boil water. Your body will thank you for it!
- Microwave Oven Radiation: U.S. Food and Drug Administration
- #018: Effect of Microwaves on the Central Nervous System 1965 – German translation: Dr. Magda Havas, PhD
- Microwave Madness: Omega News
- Confirmation studies of Soviet research on immunological effects of microwaves: Russian immunology results: PubMed
- Microwave Dangers: What You Need to Know: Clinific
- Long-term exposure to microwave radiation provokes cancer growth: evidences from radars and mobile communication systems: PubMed
- A meta-analysis on the relationship between exposure to ELF-EMFs and the risk of female breast cancer: PubMed
- Microwave Oven Dangers: Everything You Need to Know: EMF Academy
- Phenolic compound contents in edible parts of broccoli inflorescences after domestic cooking: Wiley
- The influence of heating on the anticancer properties of garlic: NIH
- Changes in Texture and Nutritional Quality of Green Asparagus Spears (Asparagus officinalis L.) during Microwave Blanching and Cryogenic Freezing: Taylor & Francis Online
- Effects of Microwave Heating on the Loss of Vitamin B12 in Foods: ACS Publications
- Non-thermal effects in the microwave induced unfolding of proteins observed by chaperone binding: NIH
- Effects of microwave radiation on anti-infective factors in human milk: NIH