Used to defrost, reheat, or even cook food, microwaves are in just about every kitchen and lunchroom. They offer unparalleled convenience by reducing heating times for food, which is sometimes essential in our busy schedules. Since the invention of the microwave over 40 years ago, the appliance appears to have an excellent safety record; however, there are several less observable concerns that requires our attention.
How Do Microwaves Work?
Microwaves produce radiation that reacts to different materials in different ways. Radiation causes water molecules to rotate and cause friction, which produces steam and the desired effect of heating food. However, metallic objects reflect the radiation in microwaves and plastics can release chemicals when microwaved.
Health Canada states that some microwave radiation leaks from your oven, but the amount is lower than the limit that is associated with any known health effects. According to Powerwatch, an independent researcher of the links between electromagnetic fields and health risks, even when a microwave oven is working correctly, microwave levels within the kitchen are likely to be significantly higher than those from any nearby cellular phone base-stations.
Common Concerns with Microwaves
Due to the sheer number of microwaves in our eating areas, we assume that microwaves are a safe and ideal way to heat up food. There are several topics to keep in mind.
Depleting the Nutritional Value of Food
You spend the effort to prepare a healthy lunch of chicken breast and vegetables, popping it in the microwave for a minute to warm it up. The use of pesticides and other farming practices have already lowered the nutritional value of your food – some vegetables lose essential nutrients. For example, broccoli has lost 75% of its calcium content, which causes a need to replace calcium in your diet . When the water molecules in your food heat up, it moves rapidly and further destroys the molecular structure in your food, again diminishing the nutritional content of your healthy lunch. It has become habitual for people to rely on microwaves, but it is also important to try to get as much nutrition from your food as possible.
Your body feeds off of nutrients as much as the actual consumption of food. You may feel full from eating food with low nutritional content, but your body still needs its fill of nutrients. It is important to consider the different functions of nutrients, as deficiencies can cause health issues. Using microwaves may be the most convenient option, and those pressed for time will find it hard to find the time to prepare and cook food, as it is a much longer process. Make sure that you get enough potent multivitamins.
Handling Microwaved Food Safely
Have you microwaved a bowl of food only to find that pockets are steaming hot and others are still cold? Other than being an inconvenience, you may encounter a pocket of steam that is hot enough to cause burns. Foods that include materials that heat at different rates or does not allow steam to escape (like an egg or hot dog) can heat unevenly and explode. Be careful about what foods you place in the microwave.
While there have not been many cases of explicit health effects as a result of microwaves, there is a concern for the radiation emanating from microwave ovens. The radiation emitted from the outside of a microwave is not strong enough do damage to tissue, so if you put your hand on the outside of an active microwave, you are likely only to feel a mild irritation. However, certain areas of your body, like the eyes, which are higher in water content, are more susceptible to radiation. Regardless, it’s a good practice to stay a few feet away from an active microwave to limit your exposure to radiation.
Acceptable limits of radiation only apply to microwaves that are properly maintained. When any part of the microwave’s seal or door is damaged or compromised, the amount of radiation leakage will increase. This can occur from improper cleaning, external damage, or improper maintenance.
Avoiding Chemicals from Plastic
Often containers sport the familiar “microwave-safe” label, but the term isn’t regulated, meaning that companies can attach the label to any container that doesn’t disintegrate in the microwave. When you microwave plastic, the chemical bond weakens and harmful chemicals can leak into your food. One chemical that has been in the public eye is bisphenol-A (BPA), which has possible links to reproductive disorders, asthma, breast cancer, and lung problems. While the FDA deems exposures of under 5 micrograms of BPA is safe, the easiest way to avoid these risks is to use glass or ceramic storage containers.
While we treasure convenience, it is important to be aware that there are lesser-known health risks associated with using microwaves. How can we cut down on using microwaves? We can plan ahead by preparing meals that do not need to be microwaved, or leave enough time to properly cook food. This isn’t always possible and it doesn’t mean you should never use a microwave, but it is prudent to learn how to use a microwave the right way.
 Microwave Oven and Microwave Cooking Overview. Powerwatch. 2016. Retrieved from http://www.powerwatch.org.uk/rf/microwaves.asp