Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Microwaves: the pros and cons

We now have a microwave sitting in our kitchen!

So what's all this about?

I would like to think I can readily embrace new technology: I'm here now writing this blog on my laptop, I use a digital camera and a mobile phone, I have no qualms whatsoever about using IT at work and I'm open to getting my head round all the new techy stuff as it's invented- YET there's one piece of equipment that's actually not new at all (it's been around since at least the 1980s) that I just haven't embraced fully, and that's the microwave oven. 
I've worked in kitchens where they use them, but then I didn't have to eat the food that came out of them. I even (briefly) owned one that I had inherited about 20 years ago, but it only ever got used by me for defrosting and the odd jacket potato. I was happy to find out when I met my husband that he too shares my deep suspicion of microwave cookery, so imagine my surprise when I got home from work a couple of weeks ago to find a brand new microwave sitting there on the worktop! He explained that it's part of our energy-saving drive, and the idea is that anyone who misses a mealtime can reheat their dinner quickly and cost-effectively without it going all brown and crispy. Okay, I can understand that.... and I have even used it myself to melt chocolate. But its arrival has forced me to look at the issues surrounding microwave ovens- after all, this is the 21st century, so modern microwaves must be safer than the early ones...right?
Take a look at what I found out:
  • We're not even sure how microwaves cook food! Microwave radiation cannot break up atoms or molecules like x-rays or gamma rays, so it is not thought to damage DNA of living things. But as microwaves heat, they can harm or kill at high energies. That's why microwave ovens on the market must operate at or below strict limits.It is most commonly believed that belief is that molecules in the food, particularly water, begin to rotate rapidly as the alternating electric field passes through. This rotation is thought to add heat to the food.However, there are some scientists who have do not take this view, suggesting that there could be some other kinds of interactions between the microwaves and the particles going on.
  • Microwaves don't actually cook from the inside out, as commonly thought. The water molecules on the outside heat up first.
  • Metals become dangerously hot in a microwave... not true! This may surprise you, but the only reason you get those scary-looking sparks if you put thin metal like as fork or foil in a microwave oven is because metals reflect microwaves rather than absorbing them. The thin metal acts as an antenna, thus producing sparks.
  • It is true that microwave ovens are an energy-efficient way to heat food, however. This is because it takes less time to cook the food, and the microwaves are focused directly on it. As part of  energy-saving measures which should include factors like low-energy lighting and laundry, using a microwave could save you money- especially if you are in the UK, where the worrying news has just broken that there will be a shortage of power generated for some years to come, resulting in higher fuel prices.
  • You can't heat oils in a microwave. They just don't heat well because the molecules can't move around like water molecules do.
  • Never heat plastics in a microwave- they release toxins into your food! That little "microwave safe" tub I bought last week is going straight in the bin, then... Tests have shown that food heated in even so-called "safe" plastic containers contain harmful levels of Bisphenol A. It's safer to use glass or ceramic containers in the microwave.
  • It's dangerous to boil plain water in a microwave: it can become superheated, and erupt out of its container when touched, causing serious scalding. It is advised that if you have to boil water, put a wooden spoon in it to encourage cooling bubbles to form (just like when water boils more naturally).
  • Microwaves don't heat evenly. This could be a real hazard for meat-eaters, as food poisoning can result from the presence of bacteria.
  • Can microwaves alter your food? -Maybe; on a subtler level than current science can detect. If you bear on mind that the Ayurvedic and Chinese wellbeing systems recommend cooking food on a wood fire as the healthiest way that is most in harmony with the elements, then (in modern versions) on gas and finally with electricity, you can see the microwave ovens will come last on the list, as not recommended. Any kind of cooking will chemically change your food, and some scientists think that there is a danger that microwaving changes proteins into potentially harmful substances. (Research is ongoing.) The opposite view is that the shorter cooking times will preserve more nutrients.
  • Do microwaves really leak radiation? This is the big one for me; I heard horror stories years ago about a waitress who stood in front of a microwave behind a counter who, when examined for kidney problems, was found to have partially cooked one of her kidneys...! (I don't know to this day whether this is true or not.) The fact is that nowadays we are exposed to potentially carcinogenic radiation, not only from natural "background" sources such as radon in the earth, but also from power lines, mobile phones, planes, computers, clock radios etc. as well as (possibly) microwave ovens. You just can't separate out all these sources. Microwave ovens are made not to leak; it is true, however, that over time the seals on a microwave can wear and radiation leakage can occur. This is supposedly well below harmful levels in itself, but this should be factored in with all the other radiation sources in your environment. The fact that you can buy radiation testing kits for microwave ovens makes me deeply suspicious.
The conclusion? There are a few possible benefits, but from my research I found that these are outweighed by the possible dangers. As with most things in this world, I think "proceed with caution" is probably the best approach.

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1 comment:

  1. Good points. Though i don't use it to cook food I am one of those people who relentlessly use it to re-heat food... :(


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