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Settling the Microwave Debate: Are They Safe to Use?

August 31, 2019

"The biggest issue surrounding microwaves is the type of container in which you choose to microwave your food."

Dr. Nancy ends the great microwave debate once and for all in today’s live show. Learn about the real safety issues when it comes to today’s microwaves, including which containers are the safest and the best in the microwave, and what dishes are best prepared in the microwave. Find out if it’s time to give our microwaves a little more love or kick them to the curb.

Video Highlights

  • 04:14: The History of the Microwave
  • 09:29: How Dangerous Is Your Microwave, Really?
  • 18:09: Top Things You Should Not Put in the Microwave
  • 25:37: What Containers to Use (and Not Use)
  • 35:55: Microwave Vegetable Medley
  • 37:34: Microwave Mushrooms 
  • 38:26: Microwave Scrambled Eggs
  • 39:35: Wrap-Up

Today, we’re going to do a deep dive into the great microwave debate — should you or should you not have one in your house? Should you kick it to the curb with tomorrow’s trash or is it safe to use? Since most of you probably won’t want to throw out your microwaves or you can’t because it’s attached to your wall, I’m going to tell you which containers are the safest and the best to microwave, as well as go into which containers you should not be microwaving with. 

The History Of The Microwave

Did you know that the microwave oven was created as a new way to utilize magnetron tubes used to generate radio waves for short-range military radar? Sounds like something out of a science fiction movie, doesn’t it? But it’s true! 

A magnetron, in case you were wondering, or in case someone asks, or you end up on Jeopardy, is two magnets permanently attached to either side of an electron tube where microwaves are generated.  

The creator of the first microwave, Percy Spencer, realized these magnetrons could cook food wholly by accident. While visiting a lab where the tubes were being tested, the peanut bar he had in his pocket started to heat up and melt. When he brought a package of popcorn into the lab, you can guess what happened: it exploded all over the place! 

In 1947, the first microwave was available for commercial use. It was called the Radarange 1161. It was 5 and a half feet tall and weighed 750 pounds. The price tag was set at a whopping $5,000! 

Gradually, though, as you well know, the microwave gained popularity, as well as decreased vastly in size, weight, and price. Still, there’s always been a stigma surrounding just how safe microwaves are. 

Microwaves cook food using radio waves generated by the attached magnetron and those microwaves are coming at the food from all directions. The water in food absorbs the microwaves and when those water molecules start to vibrate, they heat up and cook your food. The microwaves going into your food are also known as microwave radiation, and radiation is definitely a word with some negative connotations. After all, another term for microwaving your food is called “nuking it”. 

How Dangerous Is Your Microwave, Really? 

If you haven’t already done so, we recommend you check out our episode on healthy cooking methods

In it, we discuss the best ways to cook your food so they retain as many nutrients as possible. Microwaving does get a brief mention, and in fact, some vegetables, when using the steam microwave method, see a very minimal amount of antioxidant loss compared to other methods like boiling or frying. Despite the fact that some microwave nay-sayers believe microwaving food changes it chemical make-up, very little evidence has been found to support that fact. 

Another huge misconception is that your food will become radioactive. This is simply not true. For one thing, radiation does not automatically mean radioactive so let’s end that negative stereotype right now. Your food would have to be exposed to enormous amounts of radio waves to become radioactive, something that just doesn’t happen with a microwave.  

Then there’s the notion that you, yourself will become radioactive. Okay, that may be an exaggeration, but there is and always has been this idea that standing in front of a microwave while it’s running will expose you to radiation. Now, this might be possible if you decided to cook tons of food in the microwave for hours on end and pressed your face to the glass while you did it. But it’s pretty unlikely outside of that scenario. This one was more of a concern when microwaves first came about, and it’s not something you have to worry about now.

Plus, most modern microwaves are required to be built with a system that stops microwaves from being produced the second you open the door. 

One thing you do have to watch out for when using a microwave is overheating your food and beverages. This can lead to an explosion, which, in turn, could land you in the hospital with some really serious burns. 

Sometimes, especially when heating liquids, the water molecules within them vibrate so quickly, they don’t have enough time to escape before the timer goes off. The liquid becomes superheated when it’s heated beyond boiling, and when bubbles don’t have time to form, the liquid expands and essentially erupts. These eruptions can be so severe they can cause first and second-degree burns. 

A good rule of thumb to prevent this eruption from happening to you or a loved one is to allow the container to rest in the microwave for a minute or so after it’s done heating. 

The bottom line is please don’t kick your microwave to the curb or relegate it solely to sanitizing sponges out of concern about safety. It’s safe and can be a real time saver in the kitchen. 

Top Things You Should Not Put in the Microwave 

  • Metal — This one is pretty widely known. While most people know not to put foil or silverware in the microwave, you might miss it on some coffee mugs that have gold lining. Make sure to check your mugs before putting it in the microwave. 
  • Styrofoam — Styrofoam never biodegrades, so it’s best not to buy it at all, but if you do, definitely don’t put it in the microwave!
  • Chinese Takeout — Most Chinese Takeout boxes are lined with a waxy, plastic substance you don’t want in your food. Take the food out and put it on a paper or ceramic or glass dish!
  • Baby formula in plastic bottles — heat the formula on the stove and pour it into the bottle!
  • Plastic saran wrap — if this touches the food, it leaches toxins into your food!
  • Water — whenever you can, use the stove or an electric kettle or water heater to heat water.
  • Clothing — This may sound crazy, but some people do this to get a quick dry if they don’t have time to wait for the dryer. Don’t put wet laundry into the microwave! 
  • Hard boiled eggs — under pressure, your egg shell will explode! 
  • Popcorn — WHAT? 99% of popcorn bags have a lining that is toxic to the body! Get yourself an air popper or pop your corn on the stovetop.
  • Hot peppers — When peppers are heated under pressure, they release a gas into the air that can irritate or burn the eyes.

What Containers to Use (and Not Use)

The container you use to cook your foood in the microwave is where there is the most cause for concern. 

By now, you’re all probably aware of the potential dangers that certain plastics can pose to our health. This includes the water bottles we drink out of, the containers we store our food in, and yes, the containers we microwave our food in. 

Some plastics contain BPA which stands for bisphenol A. BPA can leach into food when it’s either exposed to the chemical too long or when plastic is heated to a specific temperature. BPA has been linked to:

One of the biggest issues found with overexposure to BPA is that it mimics estrogen in the body, which can lead to the body thinking there’s too much of the hormone present and cause a host of issues including reproductive and endocrine issues, early puberty, increased risk of miscarriage, and increased risk of polycystic ovary disease. 

It is vitally important to your health, then, that you always use BPA-free products, and especially when heating food in the microwave. Most containers these days are labeled BPA-free, but you might have some older plastic containers lying around that you don’t want to toss in the trash can. If you do, please toss them. A lot of people save to-go containers, but then after it’s put in the dishwasher and microwave, and reheated multiple times, the toxins leach into your food,

The way to tell if your containers contain BPA to flip them over and look at the recycling number on the bottom. If there’s a number “7” on the bottom, chances are good that the container has BPA, but that’s not the only way you can tell. You can’t tell just by looking at the container, either, since most plastic containers with BPA are clear, hard, or containers that are colored but you can still see through them. Most opaque containers — the ones you can’t see through — are BPA-free, but how many of you have a cupboard full of those? Please check and ditch the BPA containers

So, if you see a number “7” on the bottom of your container, we recommend you get rid of it because it likely has BPA. Other ways to tell if your containers contain BPA include:

  • The container is not labeled as “unbreakable” or “microwave-safe”
  • There’s no recycling number on the bottom at all
  • You bought the container prior to July, 2012

If the container is made of acrylic or says “handwash only,” that’s a container that’s most likely okay to keep and likely does not contain BPA. 

Some metal containers, such as water bottles, might also contain BPA, and a good way to check is feel the inside. If it’s lined with a plastic coating and it doesn’t say “BPA-free” anywhere on it, you might want to get rid of it because, chances are good it’s got BPA in it. 

Plastics labeled “microwave-safe” are, in fact, safe to put in the microwave, according to the FDA. You should steer clear of using plastic wrap, however, especially if there’s the potential for it to come into contact with your food while it’s heating. If you’re leery about using plastic, skip it altogether and opt for glass or ceramic containers. Just make sure they’re labeled as microwave safe or heatproof. 

Paper is microwave safe, too, so, feel free to use paper plates, paper towels, and napkins to reheat last night’s leftovers. Even parchment paper or wax paper will work without causing negative repercussions to your health.

As we already mentioned, metal is a big no-no when it comes to heating things in the microwave. Metal is the only material that microwaves can’t pass through, and if you’ve ever accidentally heated something in the microwave and covered it with aluminum foil, you inevitably saw a nice fireworks display. 

It’s also a good idea to avoid microwaving pre-packaged meals, including pizza and popcorn. We don’t want to go into this too much, because, really, we don’t recommend eating these types of foods anyway since they tend to be loaded with artificial ingredients and overly processed foods. But the packaging you’d be microwaving them in is just one more reason why they should be avoided.

Microwave Vegetable Medley 

You can use any assortment of your favorite veggies, but here’s Dr. Nancy’s favorite combo:

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Carrots
  • Green beans
  • Water

First, chop up the veggies so they’re all roughly the same in size. This way, they’ll cook evenly. 

Then, place them in a microwave-safe dish or bowl. You want to make sure the container is large enough that you can spread the vegetables into one even layer. 

Next, add enough water to line the bottom of the container. Cover the bowl with either a lid or a paper towel and microwave for 2 minutes. Check for doneness. If they still need a little more cook-time, give the vegetables a stir before placing them back in the microwave for another couple of minutes, checking and stirring after each minute. The result is crisp, beautiful steamed veggies in half the time!

Microwave Mushrooms 

This is maybe the easiest recipe ever… we can’t even call it a recipe because all you do is fill a microwave-safe bowl or dish with 8 ounces of mushrooms and place in the microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring them about halfway through. That’s it! You don’t even need water, oil, or butter! So easy, right? 

Microwave Scrambled Eggs 

Cooking time is 2 minutes and involves very little clean-up because you’re using one bowl from start to finish. 

You’ll need:

  • Olive oil
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons dairy-free milk of choice, like almond or coconut
  • Salt and pepper to taste

To make Microwave Scrambled Eggs, use a small amount of olive oil in a microwave-safe bowl, then in the same bowl, beat the eggs, dairy-free milk, and salt and pepper until combined. Then, place in the microwave and cook for 45 seconds. Stir them up a bit and cook them for 30 to 45 seconds more. Then they’re done and ready to enjoy! 

Feel free to dress them up with any herbs and spices you like. You could use basil and thyme, or add a little Mexican flavor to them with some cumin, cilantro, cayenne pepper, and garlic. The sky’s the limit! Just add them in with all the other ingredients before popping the eggs in the microwave. 

Wrap-Up

So, the 4-1-1 on your microwave oven is that, by and large, it’s safe to cook with. In fact, some foods retain their nutritional value better when cooked in the microwave versus any other cooking method. This is because food retains the most nutrients when it is cooked in a minimal amount of water for a short amount of time — two things cooking in a microwave accomplishes. 

Additionally, modern day microwaves have been built with strict standards and regulations in place, which limit exposure to radiation, something that was perhaps more of an issue when the microwave was first developed. 

The biggest issue surrounding microwaves is the type of container in which you choose to microwave your food. Opt for BPA-free or microwave-safe plastic, as BPA can leach into your food when heated, causing a host of reproductive, heart, liver, and fertility issues. 

If microwaving using even the safest of plastic containers makes you a bit nervous, use microwave-safe or heatproof glass or ceramic, and even paper products like napkins, paper towels, and paper plates are safe. Avoid using plastic wrap, though, since it can melt and attach to your food when heated to too high a temperature. 

Speaking of which, always let your food and beverages rest in the microwave for a brief period after it’s done cooking. This will limit potential for eruptions and explosions, which could limit your trip to the hospital.

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