Today, in the modern and fast-paced life, microwave ovens have become a common kitchen commodity. Nobody has time to spend in front of the stove and cook meals. Instead, they prefer the device that allows their food to be heated, defrosted and cooked by merely pushing a few buttons. But is convenience really as beneficial as it has been represented? Or is there another side to the picture?
In this article, we try to answer the question and concern of does microwaving food cause cancer?
What are Microwaves?
Contrary to popular belief microwaves are not just the devices we use to heat and cook our food. Microwaves are a type of electromagnetic radiation having frequencies between 300 MHz to 300 GHz and wavelength of about 12 cm. Microwaves are used for a number of different purposes such as telecommunication, radar networks and satellite systems. So, now the question arises that how are microwave radiations used to heat up and cook the food?
Microwave ovens use a specialized vacuum tube called a magnetron that converts electrical energy into a certain type of electro-magnetic radiation (microwaves). When the photons of these microwaves interact with the molecules of food, they cause food particles to vibrate, generating kinetic energy or energy of momentum. The movement is opposed by the force of friction which results in the generation of heat/thermal energy that cooks or heats up our food.
Another important thing to understand is that microwave ovens do not cook your food from the inside out. Instead, the microwaves heat the outermost layer of food down to the molecular levels. The inner portions of meat, vegetables, fruits or any other type of edible items are cooked by the entrapped heat which is being transferred via conduction. Most people are unaware of these technicalities and as these come to light, they begin to ask that does microwaving food really cause cancer? The answer is not so straightforward.
What is Radiofrequency Radiation?
Microwaves are often confused as radio waves but there are a few technical differences between micro frequency and radiofrequency radiations. Let’s have a quick look at them.
On an electromagnetic spectrum, radiations are characterized into 7 different types based on their frequencies and wavelengths. Radiofrequency radiations are waves whose frequency lies between the range of 3 kilohertz (kHz) to 300 gigahertz (GHz). The wide range also includes microwaves which are basically radio waves with the highest frequency and the shortest wavelength.
Owing to the short wavelength, microwaves also have the highest energy which makes them a good fit for short-distance communication i.e. wireless communications or even long-distance communication that includes relay links.
Radiofrequency radiations have both natural and artificial sources. The natural sources include the Sun, the Earth and the ionosphere which means that every individual is exposed to a certain amount of radio waves on a daily bases.
The artificial sources of these waves have a long list but they are mostly from devices or apparatus that are used in some form of telecommunication, ranging from short distance cordless or wireless networks to larger radio, radar, navigation or even satellite networks. The household heating device used to cook and reheat edibles (microwave oven) is also a contributor of these waves.
Is the Radiation Harmful?
As simple as the question may sound, the answer to it can be very complicated as it involves the inspection of harmfulness on various levels. Let’s look at it in a bit of detail.
The very first thing that needs to be cleared is that radiofrequency radiations are termed as ‘non-ionizing radiations’ which in simpler words mean that they do not have sufficient energy to damage the molecule of their target substance by breaking it’s bonds or releasing ions. What they do however is that they excite the molecule which causes them to vibrate faster and produce heat. However, does microwaving food cause cancer due to the effect of the radiations?
Microwaves are electromagnetic radiations which means that they have both, the electronic component as well as the magnetic component. The human body is a very sensitive machine which is affected by the slightest changes in the environment. Even low amounts of electromagnetic radiations interfere with it and cause body heat to rise.
The rise in temperature may lead to tissue or even organ damage. But having said that it is also imperative to know that the body besides being sensitive to environmental fluctuations have a very strong fighting mechanism which is constantly working to maintain the delicate balance within. The body’s immune and homeostatic responses are generally capable enough to deal with low-intensity exposure to radiofrequency radiations.
There are people who claim that microwaving the food may destroy the essential nutrients present in it but those claims are again not backed with scientific and experimental proofs. On the contrary, an article published by Harvard Health along with many other studies show that microwaving food is in more ways than one, better than using the stove and burner method to cook food.
You see, nutrients such as vitamins, proteins and antioxidants are all heat labile molecules, that means that under excessive heat they may lose their structural and functional properties. Since the cooking time for microwave ovens is lesser than that for regular ovens or stoves that means that our nutrients will also be exposed to the heat treatment for lesser amount of time hence lesser chances of them becoming denatured.
Health-related studies suggest that excessive exposure to the said radiation may lead to glioma (a type of brain cancer) however limitations in the methodology of these studies have failed to establish a causal relationship between the two. Several studies have been conducted to investigate whether there is any relationship between cancers such as breast and prostate cancers but till date, no evidence has been collected which prove the presence of Heterocyclic aromatic amines (HCA)- one of the best-studied cancer-causing compounds or any other carcinogen in foods that have been microwaved.
The Worst that can Happen from Microwaving your Food.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regards burns as the severest damage that can be caused by microwave ovens. It however, does emphasize on ensuring that the appliance be designed in such a way that it minimizes the human exposure to microwave radiation in the form of leakage or design flaw. Special care must be taken by patients with pacemakers if their concerned doctor has prescribed so because different pacemakers have different levels of resistance to external radiations.
Another important thing to realize is that microwaves can only penetrate a few centimeters of food which means that if your slice of meat or batter of cake is thicker than that, then it may be left undercooked from the center. The edges are optimally cooked or if you chose to increase the time duration then you may have a steak or cake that is burnt or overcooked from the edges yet perfectly done in the center.
Excessive durations or low quality of plastic containers may cause the material to melt and infuse our dish with harmful and toxic chemicals hence make sure that such incidents don’t happen and if unfortunately, they do happen then at least make sure not to eat the dish and discard it instead. After all, nothing is worth more than our precious health.
How to Heat your Food Properly
The first thing to consider while microwaving our food should be the type and quality of the containers we might use for the said purpose. As most people who have used the device know that metal and aluminium containers a big no-no as they might cause the microwaves to be reflected back and forth within the compartment and in turn cause damage to the device itself resulting in an accident.
Plastic especially non-microwave safe plastics should be avoided as well as they may either melt or contain chemicals which may seep into the contents of our food. So if metals and plastics are out of the way then what can we use? The answer is either micro oven-safe plastic containers or better yet use glass or ceramic utensils to heat and cook your food in a microwave.
Second, as previously mentioned is keeping in mind that the food which is being microwaved should preferably be as thin as possible. This would allow heat to be conducted thoroughly and food to be cooked optimally conserving as many nutrients and saving electrical energy as much as possible.
Microwave ovens tend to heat up the water molecules present in the food as water most easily absorbs heat. Therefore, dishes that have crusts or crispy surfaces are at a risk of drying out while the stuffing inside remains nice and juicy. What we can do is place a glass of water inside the microwave along with the dish. This way the moisture content of the food can be preserved.
In order to ensure that heat is spread evenly throughout the meal while heating it is advisable to remove the food from the microwave after a few cycles and stir it before placing it back for a few more minutes.
Lastly, in order to preserve food for longer periods of time, it is recommended to leave the heated edible outside until it reaches the room temperature before refrigerating or freezing it. This way whenever you reheat the food in a microwave it would be just as enjoyable as it was the first time.