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I’ve gotten several emails lately asking about microwave safety and if we use a microwave at our house. Even with the natural birthing, dirt eating, barefoot playing, cloth-diapering and mud shampooing that goes on at our house, not using a microwave seems to be one of those things that is inexcusably crunchy.
Since I’ve pretty well established myself in the crunchy camp, I thought I’d finally share why we don’t use a microwave at our house.
The Main Reason
Half of the reason we converted to real food is the taste, and this is also half the reason that we stopped using a microwave. In my opinion, food cooked or reheated in the microwave does not taste as good! I had plenty of microwaved ramen noodle eating experiences (cringe) in college to form this opinion.
According to the daily green, microwaves work by:
“Microwave radiation is a form of non-ionizing radiation (meaning it can’t directly break up atoms or molecules) that lies between common radio and infrared frequencies. So it is not thought to damage DNA of living things, the way X and gamma rays do. Still, microwaves can obviously cause heating effects, and can harm or kill at high energies. That’s why microwave ovens on the market must operate at or below strict limits set by the federal government.
Most microwave ovens hit food with microwaves at a frequency of 2.45 gigahertz (GHz) (a wavelength of 12.24 centimeters (4.82 in)). The prevailing belief is that molecules in the food, particularly water, absorb energy from the waves through dielectric heating. That is, since water molecules are polar, having a positive end and negative end, they begin to rotate rapidly as the alternating electric field passes through. That rotation is thought to add heat to the food.”
This fast method of cooking doesn’t allow time for flavors to develop and meld like other cooking methods do. As I’ve found a lot of quick meal recipes that are much healthier than microwaved meals anyway, we just don’t use a microwave.
The Health Factors
There is a lot of disagreement about if microwaves release radiation or can cause harm this way. By their nature, they do release radiation in to food, but the disagreement regards whether the radiation is released outside of the microwave itself. Mark Sisson covered this here:
“Here’s what we found. First, to the question of transforming your home into a radiation zone… There is, not surprisingly, disagreement about this point. However, occasional home use of a fully functional microwave appliance is generally considered safe. Microwaves do, make no mistake, emit radiation, and the FDA has established what it considers “safe” levels for microwaves: over the machine’s “lifetime” the allowable level is “5 milliwatts of microwave radiation per square centimeter…approximately 2 inches from the oven surface.” Guidelines from the International Radiation Protection Association (IRPA) suggest overall radiation limits of 1 milliwatt per square centimeter “averaged over 6 minutes (0.1 h) period.” Unless you’re using your microwave on a perpetual basis, there’s little reason to worry.) Because the radiation diminishes quickly over distance, standing further away from the microwave during operation cuts your exposure even more significantly. (That instinct to not press your face against the glass door while your lunch was cooking turns out to be right after all…) Additionally, the FDA requires two interlock systems that effectively offer backup security as well as a monitoring system that shuts the microwave down if one of the systems isn’t working or if the door is opened during operation. Common sense adds that you might want to make sure the microwave seal isn’t compromised by built up tomato sauce or other grime. (Hmmm…anyone?) And, of course, it’s a good idea to replace an old, dilapidated microwave even if it’s a great conversation piece. Safety versus vintage flare…”
There are stories of patients dying after being given microwaved blood transfusions and babies being injured by microwaved breast milk, indicating that those substances should definitely not be microwaved. I’ve also seen caution against microwaving oil or water, though we don’t have a microwave so I can’t claim personal experience with either of those.
From a radiation perspective, the general consensus seems to be that microwaves could transmit radiation, though it is unlikely. Dr. Mercola gives some compelling evidence of this possibility though.
There is evidence that heating certain materials (like plastic) in the microwave can cause harm. As that article explains:
“The safest course of action is to avoid putting any plastics in the microwave. When the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tested plastics labeled microwave safe and advertised for infants, even those were found to release “toxic doses” of Bisphenol A when heated in a microwave. “The amounts detected were at levels that scientists have found cause neurological and developmental damage in laboratory animals,” the paper reports.
In fact, the term “microwave safe” is not regulated by the government, so it has no verifiable meaning. According to the Journal Sentinel‘s testing, BPA “is present in frozen food trays, microwaveable soup containers and plastic baby food packaging.” It is often found in plastics marked No. 7, but may also be present in some plastics labeled with Nos. 1, 2 and 5 as well, according to the report. Better to stick to glass or ceramics.”
So, while we’ve opted to avoid microwaves completely, if one is going to use one, it would seem wise not to use plastic.
What About Nutrients?
This is the other half of the reason we avoid microwaves. There is evidence that microwaves reduce nutrients in food. Any cooking will actually change the nutrients in food in some way, though low and slow cooking seems to preserve the most nutrients while faster methods of cooking (microwave being the fastest) destroy more nutrients. This article gives a good summary:
- Three recent studies of historical food composition have shown 5-40% declines in some of the minerals in fresh produce, and another study found a similar decline in our protein sources (1)
- A 1999 Scandinavian study of the cooking of asparagus spears found that microwaving caused a reduction in vitamins (3)
- In a study of garlic, as little as 60 seconds of microwave heating was enough to inactivate its allinase, garlic’s principle active ingredient against cancer (5)
- A study published in the November 2003 issue of The Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that broccoli “zapped” in the microwave with a little water lost up to 97%of its beneficial antioxidants. By comparison, steamed broccoli lost 11% or fewer of its antioxidants. There were also reductions in phenolic compounds and glucosinolates, but mineral levels remained intact (6).
- A recent Australian study showed that micro- waves cause a higher degree of “protein unfolding” than conventional heating (2)
- Microwaving can destroy the essential disease-fighting agents in breast milk that offer protection for your baby. In 1992, Quan found that microwaved breast milk lost lysozyme activity, antibodies, and fostered the growth of more potentially pathogenic bacteria (4).”
The article explains:
“Still, we know sufficiently little about nutrition and the cumulative effects of food science that some aren’t so convinced (of course, there is also the threat of any harmful substances present getting released upon cooking, such as the diacetyl blamed for “popcorn lung.”) In a recent article E Magazine pointed out that popular holistic health expert Dr. Andrew Weil has written, “There may be dangers associated with microwaving food… there is a question as to whether microwaving alters protein chemistry in ways that might be harmful.” According to the magazine, Dr. Fumio Watanabe of Japan’s Kochi Women’s University found that heating samples for six minutes degenerated 30 to 40% of the milk’s vitamin B12. This kind of breakdown took about 25 minutes of boiling with conventional heat. In a 1992 Stanford Medical School study often cited by microwave opponents, researchers reported a “marked decrease” in immune-boosting factors in microwaved human breast milk. In the late 1980s Swiss scientists reported decreases in hemoglobin and white blood cells in rats that had eaten microwaved food.”
The Microwave Bottom Line
Microwaves are convenient… So is fast food, so is letting the TV be a babysitter. Convenience doesn’t always make something the best option.
Microwaves don’t produce the best tasting food, they might destroy nutrients, and there is a possibility that they might release harmful radiation. For me, this was an easy choice- if it might be harmful and doesn’t make good tasting food, we avoid it.
Obviously, most people aren’t willing to give up the convenience of a microwave, so at least avoid using plastic in it!
What We Use Instead
This should be pretty obvious (especially to anyone if our parents’s generation) that there are a lot of alternative cooking methods. In general, we use:
- Conventional Oven: I use my regular oven multiple times per day to cook or reheat food.
- Toaster Oven: For times when I don’t want to use the oven or need to heat up a small amount of food, a toaster oven is easier.
- Pan Heating: I use pans at most meals. Breakfast omelets are cooked on the stove, leftovers heated for lunch and veggies steamed for dinner. I use these pans as they are the most non-toxic and environmentally friendly ones I’ve found.
- Crock Pot: I use the crock pot multiple times a week, and have one constantly going with bone broth. I use this one because the research I found showed that it didn’t have any lead in the crock, though any slow cooker will work.
- Convection Oven: I don’t have one personally (it is on the wish list), but a close friend of mine loves her countertop convection oven and uses it everyday. This supposedly combines the quick cooking of a microwave with the safety and quality of the oven).
Do you use a microwave? Would you consider giving it up? Why or why not? Share below!
Discussion (178 Comments)
I use a rice cooker with a steamer basket and warm things up in there. I can warm up 2 bowls of anything in about 10 minutes, or heat up bread too.
I use a stove top rice steamer. Reheats food in seconds. Unlike electric steamers they don’t take up counter space. They are an easy 1:1 for white rice 1 cup rice to about 1 .25 cups of water or other liquid for brown.
The inside basket has holes only at the rim for the steam so the rice or other grain or seed can remain inside with the liquid. Very traditional in SC where they eat a lot of rice.
Not sure if you’ll see this but hope you do, which stove top rice steamer are you currently using that you could recommend in this case?
Carrie Ann Underwood
Thanks for this post. A friend suggested it to me after I was recently pondering if a toaster/ countertop convection oven is a comparable replacement of my crapped out microwave. The oven I chose was both nicer and cheaper than the most inexpensive new microwave I found. It has certainly been an adjustment for my family but I actually like the personal test it gives me…”do I want to eat this bad enough to dirty a dish and wait for it to cook?”. The largest inconvenience has been liquids or soups having to be heated or small servings of leftovers however it was a HUGE convenience to have basically two ovens when cooking thanksgiving dinner. I’m planning to keep pushing the ” no microwave” attempt with my family 🙂
We gave ours up recently and I still miss being able to warm my coffee in it, which is the only thing we really used it for anyway.
Please tell me how mineral content can be lost…that would be in the realms of atom splitting which you outlined couldn’t happen at that energy level. You also said molecules aren’t split either, but which would have to happen if vitamins are destroyed. I would suspect minerals are preserved, as microwaves cant split atoms and vitamins may be destroyed as high heat can denature or break weaker molecular bonds. Remember atomic bonds are different to molecular bonds.
yes, I agree. Mineral content would not go down. The only thing that I could see happening chemically is minerals converting to a less absorbed form, like ferric to ferrous, but this is more based on what it is cooked WITH (i.e., the pH) rather than the heat that is formed. In fact, breaking apart the phytates and other phytochemicals that trap minerals might actually help them be absorbed MORE.
You two are correct!
Ha! Glad I’m not the only one who finds the information conflicting.
I use a double boiler for reheating leftovers.
Gave up using the microwave for food about 5 years ago – only use it to heat a stone to keep my rising dough warm and to sterilise cloths and sponges. Reheating foods by steaming is much easier and thorough, and making sauces and scrambled eggs on the stove gives a far better flavour!
I recently pulled out our microwave, although I still have it in the garage, incase of dire emergencies. I purchased a steam oven to ‘fill the spot’ it in the kitchen bank of cabinets. Perfect fit – and now I can steam large amounts of veggies most nights for dinner. Excellent swap, as it steams veggies, defrosts and reheats…all using steam. Am loving it!
What a great idea! I “inherited” a steamer combo and have never used it due to lack of counter space.
We use the coffee maker carafe to heat water, vegies are steamed on the stove top, and the microwave stores baked items/bread. The top is used as a place for coffee cups and snack plates.
I see a reorganization in my future.
I will not allow a microwave in my house, we use the wood stove mainly, and cast iron for everything! LOVE it. 🙂
Ronda Ryan Colavito
I have one and we use it. I typically use it for reheating select foods. I agree, that food cooked and reheated in the microwave just doesn’t taste as good and the texture is often weird.
I do not own a microwave. The main reason was that it took up too much counter space in my small kitchen. Hubby had a fit at first but now has admitted that it is just as easy to heat with “old fashioned methods.”