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Nuked - The hidden hazards of microwave cooking

Amy Pongrass
Thursday, January 31, 2008
Pic: Snapper Media

In a modern world there are appliances to do everything for us, faster and more efficiently, and most of us rely on the microwave as an important domestic device. There is no denying that microwave ovens reduce cooking time and reheat foods when we're in a hurry, but have you ever stopped to wonder what harm they may be doing?

How do microwaves work?

Food molecules have a positive and negative end, similar to a magnet's north and south polarity. With each cycle of microwave energy, the polarity is shifted from positive to negative, billions of times each second. The water molecules within the food, as well as the amino acids, fats and proteins are forced to realign with the constantly changing field of energy, swinging back and forth around their axis billions of times per second. These continuous rotations create friction between the molecules, generating heat and energy.

What happens to the food?

The agitation between the food's molecules creates heat, but at the same time it damages the surrounding molecules, tearing them apart and distorting them. In conventional cooking, the cell walls of nutrients remain intact, whereas microwave energy deforms the cell's structure. Vitamins and enzymes contained within the food we eat have fragile structures, so by heating food in the microwave, the health benefits of a particular food will decrease.

Is it dangerous?

In 1992, two food scientists from a small town outside Switzerland conducted a study about the effects of microwave cooking on the human body. Blood samples from people who ingested microwaved food were compared with those who ate food prepared conventionally, and the results were so astounding that a Swiss court issued a 'gag order' against them, preventing them from publishing their work. The tests found that:

  • Haemoglobin (carries oxygen to the body's tissues) values were decreased

  • HDL (good cholesterol) levels decreased, and there was a sharp rise in LDL (harmful cholesterol) levels

  • White blood cells (they fight infection) levels decreased

In addition to pathologic changes occurring within the body, the nutrients in food are significantly depleted, and the formation of radiolytic compounds occurs. Such compounds do not exist in nature, so it seems natural that we should not want to eat them. The artificial energy created by microwaves is transferred to our bodies when we eat the food. According to Chinese medicine, microwave heating diminishes the food's "qi" (pronounced "chee"), depleting it's energy and inherent life force.

Microwaves also heat food unevenly, leading to 'cold spots' of uncooked food which may be a breeding ground for bacteria such as Salmonella.

How to minimise risk

  • Food continues to cook once the microwave has stopped, so be patient and allow the food to stand for an extra one third of the cooking time

  • Microwave foods for the shortest time indicated and add more time if necessary

  • Reposition, turn, stir or move foods during cooking so the heat is transferred evenly

  • Do not microwave foods in plastic containers as harmful toxins may leach into the food

It is unlikely that people will stop using microwaves unless further research is conducted to show substantial harmful effects, but in the meantime focus on cooking by conventional methods and use the microwave only when necessary, for quick defrosting or short reheating. Take time to enjoy the cooking process and the effort that goes into preparing a nutritious meal that can be enjoyed by all.

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Do you use your microwave regularly and feel concerned about long-term health risks? Anything to share on this subject? Tell us below...

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