Environmental toxins are making headlines nationwide these days. More and more reports are surfacing that the safe cocoon of the United States is anything, but flawless. Look what is happening to the high school students in Le Roy, New York or the recent coverage the Today show and Good Housekeeping gave toxins lurking in your home’s tap water or the latest FDA report that disclosed the lead contaminating more than 400 popular brands of lipstick.
Stories like these really make you reconsider modern conveniences and the nuances of daily living. Jumping on this bandwagon of this parade of toxic exposure are those in opposition of a very popular modern convenience: the microwave – an appliance that is a staple in 90 percent of American households.
A circulating email has sounded the alarm, once again, on the potential hazards of microwaving food. Since the introduction of the microwave in 1942, many individuals and advocacy groups have made attempts to discredit its safety and efficacy. But is this 70-year-old machine really worth all the fervor?
The current email making its rounds describes a science experimented conducted by a young girl. She boiled water and microwaved water, allowed each to cool and then watered two plants – one with the microwaved water and the other with the boiled water. The email depicts the life cycle of these plants in a picture format – by day 5, the boiled water plant is still thriving, but the microwaved water plant has died.
The email goes on to describe the dangerous impact microwaving has on food, vitamins, minerals, proteins and even DNA. The claim circulating suggests that microwaving rearranges the molecules making them into “radiolytic compounds.” The email also cites an incident when a patient died during a blood transfusion because the medical personnel heated it in the microwave prior to the transfusion.
Myth or Fact?
Myth. The email is a myth and cites some grossly untrue or exaggerated facts.
Microwaving does not heat food in the same manner as a conventional oven, but that should be obvious since it performs the job in a fraction of the time. All the controversy surrounding microwaves stems from the exaggeration of facts.
- Microwaving rearranges molecules to heat food. Fact, but it does not transform your food into so-called “radiolytic compounds.” Microwaves are absorbed by the food, inside polar molecules and ions rotate and collide to generate heat to raise the temperature and result in cooking. The molecules primarily affected are dipolar water molecules that rotate in response to be subjected to an electromagnetic field. The rotation of water molecules generates the heat for cooking.
- Heat from microwaves destroys valuable vitamins and minerals. It depends. Heat, in general, leaches many vitamins and minerals from foods – this occurs with conventional cooking too. Studies have shown that due the shorter cooking times and lower temperatures vitamin and mineral retention is better in the microwave. One example is vitamin C, which is very heat sensitive. Any food containing vitamin C will be lost in the heating process. On the other hand, foods, such as broccoli or tomatoes, contain antioxidants (sulphurophane and lycopene, respectively) that are cancer-fighting agents. Each of these chemicals become more potent and bioavailable when heated.
- Proteins become denatured during the microwaving process. Fact, however this occurs during any heating/cooking process. While proteins are not rendered useless during the cooking process, certain meats may undergo a molecular restructuring leading to the development of carcinogens, BUT this effect is observed in meats that are grilled, broiled and pan-fried as well as those that are microwaved. When cooked, muscle meats for heterocyclic amines (HCAs), polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and nitrosamines. Each of these compounds have been found to be probable human carcinogens, however studies have shown that cooking these meats at temperatures below 100°C results in negligible production of these compounds. In fact, pre-cooking meat in the microwave reduces HCAs by three to nine times. This can be attributed to the lower temperatures and shorter cooking times of microwaves.
- Fat undergoes decomposition reactions in the microwave. Fact, however, microwaving does not result in any significant modifications that differ from other forms of cooking.
- Reheating in the microwave using plastic dishes causes formation of dangerous chemicals. Fact, but the FDA requires companies to mark containers accordingly. If a plastic container is marked “microwave safe,” the FDA requires testing prior to the approval, however unmarked containers from restaurants should not be microwaved – this is true for glass, ceramic and paper containers (metal is not suitable for microwaving.) Some studies actually suggest that chemical migration from plastics can occur regardless of temperature change or exposure to microwaves.
- Microwaving causes dangerously hot spots in food and risk of microbial infection. Fact, this occurs based upon the moisture content of the food, the container in which it is heated, the length of time heated and the temperature. Rotating plates built into the microwave have minimized this occurrence. Studies have shown allowing the food to stand will promote heat distribution throughout the dish.
- There is a high-risk of radiation exposure through the walls of the microwave. Myth. Farraday’s cage, protects you from external exposure of radiation while the microwave is heating the food. When the door is opened, a mechanism shuts off the radiation – the only risk of excess radiation exposure is if the microwave is not functioning properly.
As for the blood transfusion – many forum-style websites rate this story as an urban legend, suggesting that this is not the recommended use of a microwave, while Snopes.com offers a more scientific explanation: “…conventional microwave ovens can heat the blood too quickly and or too unevenly, resulting in hemolysis…” Snopes.com also suggests that there are standard mandated procedures for warming blood during a procedure, which seems most likely. If this alleged 1991 case in Oklahoma is true, it certainly did not make headlines, medical journals or any other media highlights, with the exception of anti-microwave sites (and no, despite what Dr. Mercola would have you believe, which most of his facts are easily dispelled – microwaves are not illegal in Russia.)