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Microwave Ovens Are Totally Cool... But I Won't Use One

Microwave ovens may be convenient, but are they really as healthy as we want them to be? Learn which microwave rumors are fact, which are fiction, and what you need to know to have your speedy kitchen appliance, and eat the food cooked in it, too.

A quick Google search on microwave dangers could leave you rather unsettled, with claims spanning everything from causing cancer to creating harmful franken-foods. I get it. The rumors made me nervous, too. As a dietitian, though, I'm a science girl, and I have to go with the facts. So, we're going to talk about all of the reasons why it's totally cool to use your microwave oven (and some tips on how to use them even more effectively); and then we're going to talk about why I still avoid using mine.

Microwave Controversy #1: THEY EMIT RADIATION AND ARE SLOWLY KILLING US ALL!

False. Well, true and false. Yes, microwaves emit some radiation. So do laptops, cell phones, and televisions, and that doesn't seem to stop us from being glued to those devices practically 24/7. Here are some other facts about microwaves and radiation:

·   Like a light bulb, the only time a microwave oven emits energy (in this case, radiation), is when it's turned on.  So if it isn't on, it's nothing but a big hunk of metal and plastic.

·   If it is on, only teeny tiny amounts of the radiation leak out into the surrounding area, provided the microwave is (a) clean, (b) sealed tightly, and (c) not tampered with by your crazy Uncle Joe who thinks he's the next Inspector Gadget.

·   The very small amounts of radiation that can trickle out (well below government safety levels, by the way) drop off almost completely the further away from the oven you stand while it's on.

Microwave Controversy #2: THEY DESTROY THE NUTRITION & MOLECULAR STRUCTURE OF FOOD!

Microwaves can actually be the best tool in the kitchen for cooking vegetables without losing many nutrients. Avoid cooking them in a big bowl of water, though; the same way that boiling vegetables on a stove can lead to serious nutrient loss, it can happen with vegetables cooked in the microwave with lots of water, too. Oh, and the only molecular changes that happen to food in a microwave are the ones that would happen when you cook that food with any appliance: stove, oven, or toaster.  

Ok, so we have established that microwaves aren't giving us cancer and they actually can be pretty handy for cooking foods, but you're still feeling uneasy. Here are some tips for microwaving even more safely and effectively:

·   Don't stand next to the microwave when it's on! Go take out the trash, grab the mail, even walk to the other side of the room.

·   Definitely never microwave in anything that doesn't specifically say "microwave safe," because it could very well break down and leach into your food. Ick. Also, I encourage everyone to stick specifically to glass. No matter how plastic containers are labeled, even "safe" ones get rather soft and flimsy after being used in the microwave repeatedly.

·   Keep your microwave oven clean and in working order. Never use a microwave that doesn't close properly, or one that can be started/turned on while the door is still open.

·   Never put metal or foil in the microwave.

·   Be careful when heating liquids. Sometimes in the microwave, liquids become "super heated" which basically means they are hot enough to be boiling but you don't see any bubbles. Something as simple as bringing it into contact with a spoon to stir it can trigger the boiling, and that can cause some nasty heat burns.

Microwave ovens do not cause cancer. They do not emit appreciable amounts of radiation. They do not inherently destroy our food. So why, then, do I, as a health professional, avoid them? Because I'm just paranoid and overly cynical?

Maybe a little.

Mostly, though, it comes down to this: we live in a world of instant gratification. We eat hyper-palatable processed foods that compromise our ability to appreciate the beautifully complex flavors found in nature. Twitter became the faster-paced FaceBook; SnapChat became the faster-paced Instagram. Do we really need one more thing to speed up our lives and cater to our constant craving for immediate placation?

Do you really need to thaw that slice of bread in 20 seconds as opposed to 1-2 minutes in the toaster? Do I really not have 5-10 minutes to boil water on the stove for tea?  Can we not pull vegetables out of the freezer a few hours in advance to let them thaw on their own in the fridge? (It's ok, sometimes I forget, too.)

I'm not asking anyone to trash their microwaves. They have their place; they're there for us in a pinch. I'm simply asking, what would happen if once, every so often, we actually slowed down and savored the sweet, sweet anticipation of waiting for something for a change?

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