On Microwaves and Cooking Convenience

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Do you use a microwave in your kitchen? People have used these devices since the 1970s, and they have become a  hallmark of convenience in modern life. But the truth is, as with many modern advents to make our lives easier, we are paying a high price with our health for using these types of devices.

Research has shown microwave ovens to incur serious damage to food during the heating process – from tearing molecules in food apart, causing some nutrients to become inert, to altering the composition to make a healthy substance carcinogenic. There are also issues with plastic containers leeching into the food and exposure to radiation coming from the microwave during the cooking process.

According to Powerwatch, a non-profit independent organization with a central role in the microwave radiation debate:

“Even when the microwave oven is working correctly, the microwave levels within the kitchen are likely to be significantly higher than those from any nearby cellular phone base-stations. Remember also that microwaves will travel through walls if the microwave oven is against an inside wall.”

The actual safety of current regulations about radiation leakage from microwave use is unknown because microwave emissions can change over time, even during “normal” use.

From a recent study conducted at Trent University by Dr. Magda Havas, the effects 2.4 GHz radiation (which is the frequency of radiation emitted by Wifi routers and microwave ovens) on the heart was examined. The results showed “unequivocal evidence” that microwave frequency radiation affects the heart at non-thermal levels that are well below federal safety guidelines.

From Dr. Havas:

“This is the first study that documents immediate and dramatic changes in both heart rate and heart rate variability caused by an approved device that generates microwaves at levels well below (0.3 percent) federal guidelines in both Canada and the United States.”

In this guest post from Isabella York, she discusses 5 immediate dangers to cooking your food in a microwave oven and discusses the tried-and-true traditional ways to prepare and cook food which people have used for thousands of years, and the health benefits of each method. Thank you, Isabella, for this great information on how microwaving affects the nutrient content of our food!

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Microwave truths

Admittedly, convenience is something we value. In a high speed world of instant communication and 2-minute meals, we sometimes forget that convenience has its price. When it comes to convenient food, that price is our health. What affects our health is not always the food we eat, but more often how it’s prepared. We boil, bake, fry, and microwave our food, and nutrients are always altered in some way -some for better and some for worse. Microwaving is a top choice of those who are hungry and feel they don’t have the time to use traditional cooking methods.

While boiling and frying can somehow deplete the nutrients originally found in food, I’ve found out through research that microwaving does the worst damage to cuisine. The whole concept of microwaving degrades food from the inside and this ruins any attempt at nutrition, no matter if your vegetables were organic or from a can.

Below are five ways that microwaving causes harm. Read on to revisit traditional cooking and preparation methods and understanding how they affect our food.

  1. Milk is greatly affected, breast milk in particular. After a few minutes in the microwave, the immunity characteristics provided by breast milk are completely destroyed. Some studies found that heating up milk and cereal in the microwave creates carcinogens in the protein hydroselate compounds in milk. Some of the amino acids in milk are also converted into cancer-causing agents.
  2. Certain microwaveable foods have packaging that is designed to ‘crisp’ the top of the food to simulate an oven-cooked dish. In the high temperatures of a microwave, PVC leeches from the packaging and into the food, especially food with a high surface-fat content. Plastic wrap is often used to cover food heated in the microwave, but it transfers 10,000 units of carcinogens into food that we ingest. To prevent doing this, cook food only when ready to eat and use the stove when heating leftovers.
  3. Microwave technology causes food molecules to break down; this is the same technology used to alter genetic makeup. Meaning, the food we microwave is irrevocably changed. Electrons are disabled by the cooking process causing them to produce not carbon dioxide and water, but hydrogen peroxide and carbon monoxide – chemicals used to clean wounds and found in car exhaust, respectively.
  4. Defrosting food in the microwave produces a chemical known to have toxic effects on the human body. Even a brief exposure to microwaves of vegetables caused this change, found to have nitrogen after a few seconds of heating in the oven. Defrost the natural way, by removing frozen food early from the freezer, or steaming it in boiling water.
  5. Root vegetables after heated in the microwave are chemically altered and found to release free radicals, substances that are known to cause cancer in humans. Root vegetables like yams and sweet potatoes are generally known to be healthier than most, but are depleted of nutrients after a stint in the microwave.

Hail, hail, tradition!

Here are six traditional methods of preparing and cooking food. Some people relate to one or two methods more than others; the idea here is to provide information and inspire.

  • Raw
  • The Weston A. Price foundation advocates raw food, even parts of raw eggs, as they promote production of glutathione, a substance that detoxifies the cells and is called a “master antioxidant”.  People who ingest raw (uncooked, unpasteurized) milk, fruits, and vegetables get a boost of glutathione in their cells. This ingestion of raw food is better done with protein and amino acids, as these help in the absorption of the glutathione into the system. Heating these items, especially milk, can deplete the nutrients (in the case of milk, whey protein) to 87% less than in its raw state.

  • Blanching
  • Boiling has long been advocated as the low-fat alternative to frying food. But this process makes food lose flavor and nutrients when cooked at too high a temperature, or for too long.  An alternative to boiling is called blanching. It keeps the nutrients and taste of vegetables while making them more palatable. To blanch bring water to a boiling point and drop the vegetables in for several seconds, then remove them. You can also soften the boiling process by: 1. Use less water than it takes to cover the food; 2. Heat the water first before dropping the food in; 3. Introduce spices and herbs into the boiling water to make it a broth; 4. Boil food in less time than usual, enough to kill bacteria.

  • Baking and Roasting
  • This is the method of cookery using heat by convection to cook the food from the outside in. This is an alternative to frying, and can retain food flavor and nutrients better than boiling and frying. Vegetables and meat products benefit from baking, as they retain nutrients while eliminating bad bacteria in the food. Roasting enhances the flavor of vegetables, making them a bit crisp, and retains their nutrients much in the same way that baking does. Roasted root vegetables are known to have cancer-fighting nutrients, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research.

  • Frying
  • Many folks view frying as a kiss of death for the arteries, but there are health benefits if you fry with healthy oils and fats such as butter, tallow, lard, coconut, and palm oil. Butter and coconut oils are useful for heat up to 350 degrees F., and tallow, lard, and palm oil are better for higher heat cooking (up to 450 degrees F.). The sweetness of coconut oil gives an authentic taste to healthy Asian dishes, and adds great flavor to oatmeal.

  • Slow Cookers
  • In my opinion, a slow cooker is truly the most convenient method of cooking. Slow cookers cook the food at a low temperature all day. I chop the vegetables and the meat, put in the broth, and then begin my day. The kids come home from sports practice at 5 p.m., screaming in hunger. By then, dinner is ready and I feel that I didn’t do a thing. The ceramic or porcelain pot doesn’t leach toxins into food, but the downside is that some vegetable nutrients are lost because of hours of cooking. If you’re looking for convenience without putting toxins into your food or destroying valuable nutrients (such as with microwaves), then a slow cooker is a great choice.

  • Lacto-fermentation
  • An article at The Nourishing Gourmet advocates lacto-fermentation to process food. Article author Kimi Harris puts it succinctly: “Lacto-fermentation happens when the starches and sugars in vegetables and fruit convert to lactic acid by a friendly lactic-acid producing bacteria.” This process increases vitamin content, and many people find its tangy flavor appealing, such as sauerkraut.

What about leftovers? Reheating food.

Leftovers are generally reheated. According to the nutrition data table at by Self Magazine, while the mineral content of vegetables remains unchanged, the vitamin content loss during reheating varies. It ranges from 5% (riboflavin and niacin) to 50% (vitamin C). Even more loss occurs in the microwave. But reheating on the stove is easy – simply add a bit of water or oil to your food to produce steam and retain moisture within the food. This process will take a few minutes longer than it would in a microwave, but what’s a few minutes when the benefits are so evident?

Microwaving is convenient, but that seems to be the only good thing about it.

Creating a nutritious meal using traditional methods is simple: Doing a chicken roast is quick and requires minimal supervision. While the chicken, vegetables, and potatoes are cooking in the oven, you can wash the dishes, do your tax returns, or spend some time with family. Traditional methods are convenient in unique ways.

________________________________________________________________________________________

Isabella York is a mother dedicated to living organically and sustainably without giving up her life in the process. Along with raising her son, she works for Balsam Hill, a purveyor of Artificial Christmas Trees and Christmas Trees.

For more information on the dangers of microwave ovens, read:

Why Did The Russians Ban An Appliance Found in 90% of American Homes? from Dr. Mercola.

43 Comments

  • January 17, 2011 - 8:57 AM | Permalink

    I’ve been wanting to get away from the microwave for awhile now. I have in a lot of ways. Leftovers are the biggest downfall for me.

    • January 17, 2011 - 11:17 AM | Permalink

      Hi Tara – I can understand about leftovers. We have been without our microwave for about 6 years now and I never miss it. I always just put my leftovers in a pan or in an oven-dish to reheat. I guess the only bad thing about the oven is how much energy it takes just to heat up leftovers. But, maybe the information in this article will inspire you to ditch the micro all together! :)

    • January 29, 2013 - 12:28 PM | Permalink

      I agree, I thought it would be hard at first but it’s been about 3 years for me, and I never even think about it anymore. I use little copper measuring cups I found at a rummage to melt butter (or coconut oil) on the stove, and the few extra minutes spent heating or washing up don’t even seem to count! (I always thought food reheated in a pan tasted better anyway, and seemed to keep the heat – micro-ed food always seemed to go cold in minutes!)

  • Rose
    January 17, 2011 - 9:27 AM | Permalink

    get a cast iron skillet–small if you’re reheating for one; put in the leftovers, a little dab of water, and heat on medium for a few minutes. (a tad longer than microwave, but quick, and more evenly heated. And more healthful.

    • January 17, 2011 - 11:21 AM | Permalink

      Hi Rose – we use our cast-iron skillet for many things, I love it! I want to get at least one more, as the one we have is a little on the small side. I have never minded that reheating or cooking takes longer than a microwave. Besides the health issues, I don’t like the way it makes my food taste and feel. Thanks for your tips for the other readers! :)

  • January 17, 2011 - 10:01 AM | Permalink

    Here’s my post on tips for microwave free living – it is sooo easy, After one week, you won’t miss it! http://aspiringearthmama.blogspot.com/2010/09/microwave-free-living.html

    • January 17, 2011 - 11:21 AM | Permalink

      Hi Elizabeth – thanks for stopping by, and for leaving a link to your post about microwave-free cooking, I appreciate it!

  • January 17, 2011 - 11:32 AM | Permalink

    Great post again. The old Soviet Union banned the use of microwave ovens for all purposes.

    I do everything I can to avoid microwaved food.

    We do best when we cook food the way our ancestors did. Our bodies have adapted to process and digest food cooked that way. None of our ancestors “nuked” their food in a microwave, and neither should me.

  • Kelli
    January 17, 2011 - 2:23 PM | Permalink

    Oh, I’ve still got work to do with this one! I’ve used a microwave for everything for most of my life. I just think its terribly inconvenient to use the stove everytime you need to heat up something. But I guess the price of your health isn’t worth it. Its just that I love to drink tea throughout the day and the stove would be running constantly if I needed warm water. Are their alternative ways to heat up water? Not sure.

    • Leah
      January 18, 2011 - 4:58 PM | Permalink

      I recommend a keurig coffee machine (or other ‘pod’ machines) for hot water for tea! You have hot water in 30 seconds or less and you do it one cup at a time. AWESOME for drinking herbal teas all day.

    • Elena
      February 17, 2011 - 10:30 AM | Permalink

      You can also use an electric kettle! I got one from Amazon for about $30, and it boils water very quickly, more quickly than a microwave. I love it!

  • January 19, 2011 - 9:03 AM | Permalink

    Our microwave is used minimally… leftovers and an occasionally defrost (when I forget to put the meat out early enough) is about it. But I like these tips and hope to improve.

    Do you have any suggestions for people who work away and only have access to a microwave? My husband often takes leftover for a work meal, and I hate the thought that the only way he can heat it up is with the microwave. Obviously his work doesn’t have a kitchen with a stove or oven.

    • January 19, 2011 - 9:44 AM | Permalink

      Hi Robin – being away from home is a challenge, and usually all that are available are microwave ovens wherever you go. I have a friend who told me she keeps a toaster oven in her cubicle at work (apparently she has room). Toaster ovens aren’t too expensive, I think you can get a decent one for $75 – $100 or maybe less. One of the things we do is pack thermoses full of hot foods and take them to school or work if we can’t be at home. It works great. I frequently have broth or soups or stews on the stove or in the crockpot for days and we just eat out of those until they are gone. I load up thermoses with hot foods and take them wherever we need to go. There are also hot pockets you can buy from the store to help keep other foods warm (like the reverse of a cooler) like hot sandwiches or meat, etc. I’m not sure how long the heat lasts on those, but you’ll have to read the label. There are also pouches you can buy which you can heat up in your microwave or in your oven which can help keep foods warm. I forget what they are called, but some people also use the homemade ones with fabric on on the outside that are filled with buckwheat groats or rice. When you pop them in the oven, they hold heat for several hours.

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  • January 24, 2011 - 1:30 PM | Permalink

    For cooking vegetables, I like steaming best. It’s easy and quick, and you don’t lose as many nutrients as you do when boiling the veggies.

    For reheating leftovers, especially ones that you want to eat dry (sandwiches, quesadillas, etc.) toasters are a quicker and more energy-efficient way than the oven. Or, for things like meat with gravy, heat the gravy nice and hot on the stove and pour it over the meat. That’s what Joy of Cooking recommends to keep the meat from drying out when you reheat it — just reheat the gravy, and it will warm the meat.

  • February 17, 2011 - 10:42 AM | Permalink

    Raine – I am ashamed to say that I am still using my microwave. I don’t use it a lot, but I still own one and it gets turned on a couple times a week. I don’t think I would have much of a problem getting rid of it at home, however, I work a normal 9-5 job and I have no other choice for heating foods at work. They don’t have a stove in our kitchen and eating cold dishes every single day just doesn’t appeal to me, especially during the winter. During the summer, it’s not so bad because I have more access to fresh fruits and veggies, so eating salads and such isn’t as big of a problem.

    Any suggestions on what I can do to wean myself off of it? This is one area that I have been struggling because as a real food blogger and a believer in slow, traditional food, I feel like a hypocrite every time I use the microwave. :(

    Also, getting my husband to let go of the microwave is going to be tough … I haven’t even broached that subject with him! I guess it comes down to baby steps, but it can be overwhelming too!

    • February 20, 2011 - 6:08 PM | Permalink

      Jessica – it’s such a shame that places of employment don’t make better preparatory environments for making food. I know someone who brought a toaster oven to work and uses it in her cubicle. I don’t know how practical that is to do in every place of work, but maybe it depends on the environment. Or, I wonder if you could bring the toaster oven to work, store it at your desk, and use it in the kitchen area?

      The other thing I would suggest is to take a thermos with hot food in it, we do this frequently when sending lunches to school with my son, and my husband also takes hot food in a thermos to our office. The food stays hot for at least 5 hours, sometimes a little longer depending on how hot it is when you prepare it. I put leftovers in a pot on the stove, add a little water and then when it’s the desired temperature, I add it to the thermos. I hope that’s helpful! :)

  • February 17, 2011 - 10:53 AM | Permalink

    Don’t forget about steaming veggies! We store our leftovers in glass and just pop them in the oven. You can defrost things in a sinkful of hot water if you’re in a pinch. There are LOTS of ways to do it! I have been microwave-free over a year and don’t miss it. Except…for heating those rice-filled heating pads (non-food) and having a place to put my plate if I have to leave the kitchen and don’t want the cats to get it! But those are the ONLY two things I miss about it, I don’t miss it for heating or cooking food!

    • February 20, 2011 - 6:03 PM | Permalink

      Hi Kate – yes, steaming is a great way to prepare vegetables and serving them with healthy fats like real butter, olive oil, lard, or coconut oil. I don’t miss my microwave at all. I’m really glad we got rid of ours.

  • Mike
    February 17, 2011 - 2:10 PM | Permalink

    Does anyone have any thoughts about the infrared/convection ovens that have been popular “as seen on tv” items lately? I know Mr. T is selling one. Looks interesting to me. I hate to use the microwave too. I wondered if this would be a good alternative thing to reheat or cook things quickly. I go home for lunch every day, and like to reheat leftovers. I often do it in the microwave still, just because my time is limited. Anyone have any thoughts on these things?

  • Angela Bailey
    February 17, 2011 - 4:25 PM | Permalink

    We working moms have to give ourselves and each other a break. I actually work two jobs, have two kids and make all our meals from scratch. I spend nearly all my non-working time either researching recipies, planning meals or cooking them. And if I need to reheat some leftovers in the microwave every now and then in order to lighten my workload a little, well that’s ok. It might not be perfect, but chasing perfection only drives us all nuts.

    • February 17, 2011 - 5:36 PM | Permalink

      Angela – I understand what you are saying. I’m a working mom and I’m as busy as the rest of the people in the world. This post was intended to inspire people to stop using microwaves, as they are dangerous, and they also totally diminish the quality of nutrition content in your food. Why do that when you can just reheat something? Come on, reheating something in the oven or stove really doesn’t take that much more time. I do it multiple times a week, and I’ve been doing it for years because I want to make sure that my family gets the most out of their meals. And, I don’t want to expose my family to dangerous radiation. Please know I’m not putting you down, just saying that it is possible to do this without wasting monumental amounts of time, and the benefits are really worth it.

  • cat
    February 19, 2011 - 4:21 PM | Permalink

    Are you aware of any studies that clarify how far dangerous radiation extends in a room when the microwave is on and long it takes for the radiation to disappear?

    • February 20, 2011 - 11:53 AM | Permalink

      Cat – I have read numerous studies about microwaves, some of them detailing the amounts of radiation generated from different models and how far out that radiation extends. So the short answer is that data will vary according to study, model, and other factors such as length of cooking times, how high the temperature setting is, etc. This would be an interesting thing to research, but I can guarantee that you’ll find varying answers depending on the study about how far of a distance you’d have to be to be clear of radiation exposure, etc. and also how long it takes for radiation to dissipate.

  • cat
    February 22, 2011 - 3:13 PM | Permalink

    Hi Raine, also curious about how microwaves compare to cell phones in terms of exposure-graphs and comparative studies would be helpful..many thanks, c.

  • Janet
    December 29, 2011 - 3:32 PM | Permalink

    Slowly “weaning” ourselves off microwave-use did not work for us. What did work was cleaning the microwave thoroughly, putting it in a garbage bag, and storing it in the basement “just in case” we decided we could not live without it. By not having it on the kitchen counter we found it MUCH easier to discover other ways to cook and reheat food. We never brought it up from the basement. That was four years ago and the microwave has since been removed entirely from the house :)

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