The topic of whether or not microwave ovens are harmful to our health has been highly debated, particularly in the world of holistic health and natural medicine. Studies have been conducted showing both sides of the coin, and people have formed their opinions accordingly. On a personal level, there is something that simply rubs me the wrong way about using a microwave, not to mention what it does to food texture. Furthermore, it has been my feeling that, because microwaves are (relatively) new, are they an experiment on public health that will cause unexpected health consequences down the road? But, as far as the data we’ve collected so far on the known dangers of microwaves, and really looking at how they work, it looks as if there is less to fear than some might think. Let’s take a closer look.

When it comes to food and nutrition, it is critical to understand that we are not only, as the saying goes, what we eat, but we are also how we prepare and digest the foods we eat. Now, the topic of digestion is for another article (we can eat the healthiest foods in the world, but if our digestion is impaired it doesn’t do us any good), but in terms of food preparation, there are more variables we can easily control. For example, if we cook our foods in rancid oils, we are undermining some of the real health benefits of nutrient dense foods with unhealthy and harmful cooking practices.

Let’s first understand how microwave ovens work, and then examine the arguments for whether they are (or are not) safe. Microwaves function by making the water molecules in food resonate at very high frequencies, causing them to turn to steam and heat the food. That is a basic explanation, but the point is that the primary heating mechanism of microwaves work on the water molecules of food.

Now, let’s look at the primary concerns in the microwave oven debate:

Microwaves leak radiation:

To a certain point, this is absolutely true, microwaves do emit low level radiation. The limit set by the FDA for a “safe” level of microwave radiation is 5 mW/cm squared of radiation at a distance of 2 inches from the microwave oven. Interestingly, it has also been shown that, as you move away from a microwave in action, the radiation greatly dissipates, so simply stepping away from your microwave while it cooks makes a big difference in the level of radiation you are exposed to. AND, consider this study conducted in 2013 that looks at cell phone radiation, which shows that having a cell phone on your person during a call (say, on silent mode and in your pocket), exposes you to roughly the same amount of radiation than if you stand one meter from your microwave oven while it’s cooking. So, if you’re worried about radiation exposure, it might pay to be more concerned about your cell phone! However, it is not only fair, but important, to question the legal limit of radiation set by the FDA, as standards of varying toxins are always changing, and mistakes are made.

Microwaves denature protein in food: 

This is also a fact. But, all heating methods denature protein food, this is actually a given when cooking protein. Denaturing protein means that the amino acids have lost their three-dimensional shape, but are still bonded together. In fact, the acid in our stomach denatures protein to make it digestible. Furthermore, evidence has shown that the affect of denaturing proteins using a microwave or using any other method of cooking/heating foods is just about equal.

Microwaves kill the nutrients in food:

Again, every heating method of food does kill certain nutrients. This is why getting a good mix of raw foods in our diet is important, in general. Water soluble vitamins are leached into cooking liquid (in boiling, for example), so boiling tends to provide the greatest nutrient loss unless you drink the liquid, as in a soup. Another example is the myriad of anti-cancer properties found in garlic, and how many of these are killed with heat. This 2003 study showed that broccoli cooked in the microwave lost 97% of its antioxidants, vs. 11% when steamed, although this could have depended on the amount of water used.

However, more studies than not that look at the nutrient loss in microwave-cooked foods versus foods cooked using other methods, show that, in the end, the greatest variables depend on temperature, time cooked, and the amount of water used instead of whether it was cooked using a microwave or not.

Toxins are leeched into our foods using a microwave:

Depending on what you are using to heat the food in, this can definitely be a risk. For example, most of us have learned by this point not to heat foods in plastic containers (particularly fatty foods), due to the numerous toxins (BPA being the most commonly known) that leech from the plastic into our foods. This also happens with other commonly microwaved packaging, like popcorn bags (lined with plastic), and other store-bought microwavable foods. Bottom line here is that you must be very conscious about what you use to heat microwavable foods, and the best choice is a microwave safe glass plate or dish.

In Conclusion…

Like anything, whether to use a microwave or not is a personal choice. You can see here that while some evidence is mixed, many studies show and experts agree that microwaves will not harm your health to any concerning extent. However, in the scheme of food preparation, these devices are still fairly new, and I always wonder if new evidence will come out in longer-term studies that give us different information. At this point, you can likely use you microwave (as long as you don’t heat in plastic containers and you stand a safe distance away) without exposing yourself to serious risks. And most importantly, aside from the cooking method you choose (microwave or other), it is definitely more important to choose healthy, high quality foods on a daily basis.

Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM Rachel Fiske is a Holistic Nutrition Consultant and graduated from Bauman College of Holistic Nutrition in Berkeley, California, and a Certified Personal Trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Rachel works with clients individually via skype, focusing on issues of weight management, GI problems, hormonal imbalances, fatigue and more via a whole foods diet and lifestyle changes. Consultations include diet journal analysis, individualized menu planning, and herbal/supplementation protocols.