Microwave Health Risks: Are They Just Myths?

By Ashley Henshaw. May 7th 2016

In today's fast-moving world, microwaves are certainly one of the most commonly utilized kitchen appliances. Since they first became widely available a few decades ago, microwaves have transformed the way people make food at home. Microwave dinners have become commonplace, and even people making dinner in the oven often use their microwave to speed up some of the steps, such as defrosting frozen veggies or softening butter. But does all this microwaving affect a person's health? Read this article to learn whether some of the myths surrounding this technology are really true and how you can cut down your risk of health problems due to microwave use.

How Microwaves Work

Microwave ovens are named for the very same type of waves that they emit. Microwaves are high frequency radio waves that reflect or are transmitting off of many objects. However, microwaves are readily absorbed by items that contain water, such as foods and fluids. That's why they are so effective at heating food in a very short period of time.

What a microwave oven does is it pulses these radio waves inside its confines. Once the waves penetrate the food, the molecules inside the food start to vibrate, which produces heat. Contrary to what some individuals believe, the radio waves given off by a microwave are not radioactive. Instead, they are produced electronically. Furthermore, the radio waves do not remain in the vicinity once the microwave is shut off. Once the microwave timer runs out, the radio waves disappear.

Health Risks of Microwaving Food

In general, microwave cooking is quite safe. The biggest danger lies in food that has not been thoroughly cooked. For tips on how to prevent this problem, see the "How to Minimize the Risk Associated With Microwaving" section below. According to the USDA, using a microwave to cook whole, stuffed poultry isn't recommended since the stuffing may not reach temperatures high enough to remove harmful bacteria.

A common myth is that microwaving alters the chemical make-up of a food or fluid. The idea is that, by altering the chemical composition of a product, new compounds (such as carcinogens) could be produced when a food is heated in a microwave. Health Canada researchers have conducted multiple studies on this topic, however, and found that microwaving food does not produce any toxicity or carcinogenicity.

Packaging That Should Not Be Microwaved

While microwaving food items is generally quite safe, there are certain products that should not be heated in a microwave, either alone or with food. Avoid heating any of the following items in a microwave:

  • Any type of plastic that is not labeled as "microwave safe." This is often denoted by a symbol of three wavy lines stacked on top of one another. This applies to bowls, plates, cups, bags, etc. Many common containers like yogurt or margarine tubs are not microwave safe. In addition to the fact that the plastic may become warped or melted, many people believe that there's a chance that plastics could leak into the food when heated inside of a microwave creating a major health hazard.
  • Any type of metal, including silverware, kitchen utensils, aluminum foil, bowls or trays. Even fine China has some metal in it. The microwaves could potentially create an electric current when heating these objects or even sparks.
  • Styrofoam creates another potential health hazard inside a microwave. Most types of Styrofoam are not microwave-safe, including takeout containers. Those that are safe should be clearly labeled as such.

How to Minimize the Health Risk Associated With Microwaving

There are several ways that you can help ensure that your food is cooked safely and thoroughly by microwaving, including:

  • Avoid microwaving large items that are more than a couple inches thick. The thicker the item, the harder it will be for the microwaves to penetrate it completely. Cut up your food into smaller pieces if necessary to ensure safer cooking results.
  • Always follow the packaging directions on microwave meals. Set your power levels and timing precisely to what the packaging indicates to make sure the food is cooked thoroughly.
  • Clean your microwave periodically. Clean microwaves function better than dirty ones, so if you want to be sure your food is always cooked properly, then scrub down the microwave every week or two.
  • Rotate and stir foods partway through microwaving them to ensure that all parts of the meal are heated evenly.
  • Use a thermometer to check thicker items, particularly cuts of meat. Health Canada explains that food should be cooked to about 160-to-165 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bottom Line

According to the USDA and other knowledgeable sources, cooking in a microwave is relatively safe. While the health risks commonly associated with microwaves are mostly myths, there are certain hazards that people should be mindful of. The USDA has several resources pertaining to food safety and microwave use for further reference:

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