The pervasive ‘microwave myth’ has been around since they first appeared in the 1960s. But can microwaves really cause harm to you, or your food? Nutritionist Catherine Saxelby separates fact from fiction.
The myth that the energy waves generated by microwaves destroy vitamins and nutrients in food, and that it can cause cancer if we stand too close to it while ‘nuking’ food, has been around for decades. So should we bin them in favour of traditional methods?
How it works
Microwaves are a form of electromagnetic energy, like light waves or radio waves. These waves of electrical and magnetic energy move together to pass through food and ‘excite’ the water molecules in food, causing them to vibrate, which produces heat. That’s why foods with a high water content, like vegetables, tend to cook more quickly than other foods.
Unlike baking or boiling, you are ‘exciting’ molecules, rather than ‘conducting’ or transferring the heat from one to another. But it’s still just heat. Your food doesn’t get ‘contaminated’, or become ‘full of radiation’.
Does it destroy nutrients?
Microwaves can destroy some of the nutrients in food – but so does any cooking method that involves heat. Cooking vegetables until they’re grey and limp, by any method, kills the nutrition levels. In fact, a landmark study conducted by the department of Nutritional Science at Cornell University in the US showed that foods prepared in a microwave retain more nutrients than foods prepared using conventional methods. Why? Because microwaves generally use less heat than conventional methods and involve shorter cooking times.
Microwaves and cancer
According to the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency, “extensive research has provided no substantiated evidence that microwave exposure, at any level, either causes or promotes cancer.” Additionally, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has set a limit on how powerful microwaves can be, and there are laws to ensure they are manufactured and tested to be free of leaks. Overall, the vast majority of research says that a microwave in good condition, used correctly, is safe.
The bottom line
The word ‘microwave’ sounds a bit sci-fi – but used properly, microwaves aren’t dangerous and don’t destroy all the nutrients in your food. In fact, microwaving food is one of the healthiest ways to cook.