Take a moment to think about your favorite kitchen appliance. It might be your oven, if you enjoy baking, or your blender, if you’re a fan of smoothies. But if you’re like scores of other people, your favorite appliance is probably your microwave.
From cooking instant meals to reheating ones from the night before, microwaves are a convenient and efficient way to prepare food. That said, some health gurus are against them and claim that they lead to radiation exposure and other harmful side effects.
So what does the science say? Are microwaves harmful to human health, or is that nothing more than another prevalent urban legend?
How microwaves work
Contrary to what you might think, microwaves don’t run on magic. They also don’t “heat” up your food, at least not in the way that your oven does.
Microwaves work by converting electricity into electromagnetic waves called—you guessed it—microwaves. These stimulate the molecules found in your food. As the molecules vibrate and react with one another, the energy gets converted into heat. This, in turn, causes your food to get warm.
If you’ve ever had cold hands in the winter, you might’ve tried rubbing them together to warm them up. This process works similarly to a microwave.
Is the radiation harmful?
The word ‘radiation’ may connotate atomic bombs and nuclear war, but it doesn’t have to be a scary one. Light is also a form of electromagnetic radiation, as are the cellphones that people often use to talk about radioactive microwaves.
Microwaves are built with metal shields and screens—both of which prevent radiation from escaping out of the appliance. While you shouldn’t press your face to the microwave door, most microwave users have nothing to worry about.
What you do want to ensure, however, is that your microwave is in good condition. Old or damaged microwaves have a higher chance of leaking out small bits of radiation.
Do microwaves affect nutrition?
Some people also claim that microwaves affect the nutritional value of food. But the reality is that all forms of cooking do this. How nutritious food or a meal is after cooking depends on the cooking method, temperature, and time.
Microwaves cook food fast and at comparatively low temperatures. Because of that, it doesn’t lead to a loss of nutrients, especially when compared to other cooking methods such as boiling or frying.
Although there are some conflicting studies, most seem to indicate that microwaves don’t lead to nutritional loss any more than other cooking methods (1).
Be mindful of what goes in
While you can put many types of food into the microwave, you want to avoid putting certain types of plastic inside. That’s because they often contain hormone-affecting compounds, the most common of which is bisphenol-A, or BPA. Studies have linked BPA to cancer, obesity, thyroid problems, and other health issues (2).
Because of that, avoid putting plastic containers into the microwave. Only put them in if you’re confident that they’re microwave safe. And remember—plastic containers can be harmful no matter which cooking method you use.
Reheat and enjoy
Despite some common misconceptions, microwaving your food is just as safe as using other cooking methods. Provided your microwave is in decent condition, you don’t have to worry about radiation, loss of nutrition, or any other perceived downside.
So reheat, and enjoy!