Forget dogs: microwaves are a mom’s best friend. They’re convenient, they’re fast, they’re the omnipresent cure to a raging case of Hangry Toddleritis. But depending on who you talk to, the old “science oven” may be portrayed as a dinner-time villain rather than the hero of your supper-time story. Despite the wide variety of fear-mongering you’ll hear from the anti-technology crowd, microwaves are nothing to be afraid of—in fact, if nutrition is your concern, microwaves are a better cooking choice than most of the other options. Let’s break down some microwave myths.
1. Myth #1: Radiation from your microwave will give you cancer.
The usual anti-science cranks talk about microwave “radiation” like it’s a four-letter word. But while most people associate radiation with the definitely cancer-causing X-ray variety (or possibly the fictional kind that could turn you into the Incredible Hulk), all “radiation” really means is that a chunk of energy is going places. When you stand next to a fire and feel its heat, that’s radiation–just not ionizing radiation, which is the kind that turns your DNA into the instruction manual entitled You Have A Tumor.
UV light and, yes, X-rays are ionizing, but microwaves are not. In fact, visible light (red, orange, yellow, etc.) is closer to ionizing than microwaves are, so if you think microwaves are going to give you cancer, you should probably also avoid rainbows.
2. Myth #2: Microwaves will create cancer-causing chemicals in your food.
Things microwaves do: zap the water molecules in your food to jazz them up with extra energy (i.e., heat). Things they do not do: spontaneously rearrange food particles to turn them into cancer-causing substances. (You know what is linked to cancer, though? The blackened burned crap you may get from cooking your food on the stovetop, in the oven, or on a grill.) Unless you were microwaving your family a hearty supper of benzene-and-formaldehyde stew, you should be OK.
It is possible to end up with some unwanted substances in your microwaved meal, but that’s a result of the container you’re cooking it in, not the microwave process itself. Check labels to make sure your Tupperware or takeout carton is microwave-friendly before you nuke it, because some plastics and styrofoams contain chemical additives that can leach into food. Gross.
3. Myth #3: Microwaves destroy the nutrition in food.
If you err on the crunchy side, you may be avoiding microwaves because you’ve heard that they destroy all the vitamins, minerals, and general healthy goodness in your food. Good news! Microwaving is actually better for retaining the nutritive quality in food than most conventional cooking techniques.
Does a microwaved mushroom contain a lower proportion of vitamins than a raw one? Well, yes – but so does a boiled or sauteed one. Cooking inherently destroys a certain percentage of the vitamin content of anything you eat, but cooking also makes food more digestible and makes those vitamins more readily accessible to your body. And microwaves happen to be one way to cook things that happens to preserve a pretty good amount of vitamins and antioxidants (thanks to how it works–energizing water molecules–as well as the comparatively short cooking time). Not only do microwaves not cause cancer, they help preserve the safety of the substances that can help prevent cancer!
So if preserving the nutritive content of your food is your main concern, stick it in the microwave. Just don’t add too much water, or you’ll lose just as many vitamins as you would if you threw your vegetables into a pot of boiling water. (Side note: the antibodies in breast milk do not count as nutritive content, and will get hella destroyed by a trip through the microwave, so don’t thaw your hard-pumped milk that way.)
4. Myth #4: “Microwave sickness” is a thing.
I had never heard of this before I began researching this article, but it turned up on site after site. I had to stop working and pop myself a huge bowl of popcorn in order to keep working. This “sickness” is a naturalist bogeyman whose effects are as wide-ranging and nebulous as “antioxidant depletion”, “mitochondria dysfunction”, and “high levels of bacteria in the blood”. It is also not real. Nuking a piece of leftover pizza is not going to disrupt your sleep cycle, and it’s not going to give you a heart attack–but arguing with someone who believes in this stuff just might.
Of course microwaves have downsides. If you stick a beautiful locally-grown organic game hen in the microwave to cook, it’s going to come out tasting like a rubber chicken. Plus, there’s the fact that while your first bite of microwave burrito is going to be slightly hotter than the surface of the sun, the inside core will still be frozen rock solid. And last but not least, there’s the risk that the oven’s insistent FOOD-IS-READY beep will be loud enough to wake the baby that you just put down for a nap.
So no, microwaves aren’t perfect–but they’re also not the devil incarnate. If your fear of “toxins” or invisible radiation has been holding you back from the most cherished of all parents’ kitchen appliances, don’t worry: your morning oatmeal is safe to zap.
Just remember to take the spoon out first.