Microwaves utilize…well, micro-waves of radiation to zap your kitchen leftovers, giving your Frankenstein foods life once more.
The miracle box emits forms of electromagnetic radiation with three characteristics that’ve made them a kitchen staple, explains Dana Hunnes, adjunct assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health:
- They are reflected by metal. (That’s why you should never put metal in your microwave.)
- They pass through glass, paper, plastic and similar materials.
- They are absorbed by foods.
“The latter is why microwaves work so well at cooking foods quickly. They cause water molecules in the food to vibrate – rapidly,” Hunnes explains.
“This vibration creates energy, producing heat that cooks the food. This is why foods that are high in water content, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, cook quickly. This heat is absorbed by the food.”
Related: What’s the Best Way to Brew Tea?
Thankfully, research supports ‘nuking’ our food, because we aren’t really nuking anything. Re-heating food doesn’t increase cancer risks, despite the urban legend that’s associated with radioactive microwaves.
“The type of radiation typically associated with cancers and with ‘nuclear’ reactions are gamma, neutron and ionizing radiation. This type of radiation can change a cell’s DNA and predispose a person to cancer,” Hunnes says.
“Microwaves and the radiation from microwave ovens, however, are non-ionizing radiation. This type of radiation can move things around in a cell – hence the heating of food – but cannot chemically change cells or DNA in the food you eat.”
Radiation can leak from microwaves however, so there is a bit of a residual radiation risk, but nothing that reaches fatal levels. The American Cancer Society says the farther you stand from a microwave, the less radiation you’re exposed to. So don’t go pressing your face against the glass while you watch your meat and potatoes rotate.
Are Microwaved Foods Nutritious?
“Much of this has to do with the fact that microwaves heat foods so quickly. Vitamin C, a nutrient that is frequently lost in cooking, has been found to be well-preserved when microwaving,” Hunnes says. “In general, cooking methods that best retain nutrients are those that cook quickly – heating the food in the shortest amount of time and using as little liquid as possible.”
Why shouldn’t you use liquids? Well, the food in water will lose nutrients as they’re leached out – going right down the drain, rather than being enjoyed by your body.
“The nutritional effects of microwave cooking on protein, lipid and minerals seem to be minimal. For microwave reheating of foods, nutrients like thiamin, riboflavin pyridoxine, folacin and ascorbic acid are retained,” explains Leslie Bernstein, a professor in the department of population sciences at the City of Hope’s Beckman Research Institute.
“Furthermore, microwave-cooked bacon actually has lower levels of nitrosamines, potentially carcinogenic compounds, than conventionally cooked bacon.”
And there you have it – microwaves are indeed safe to incorporate into your diet. Now if you’ll excuse us, it’s time to electrify some bacon.