5 myths about microwaves nuked by science

Microwaves are not little nuclear reactors about to go into meltdown. (rawpixel.com pic)

Microwaves cause cancer! While a seemingly facetious claim to some, there are quite a few people who take these claims seriously.

While there is some truth to the claims about microwaves, particularly that it is safer to avoid microwaving food in plastic containers, some claims are misinformed and scientifically unsound.

Have you come across these five myths at your workplace pantry?

1. Microwaves destroy the nutrients in food

First things first, vitamins and nutrients in food can be destroyed by any kind of heat. Vitamin C and omega-3 fats, in particular, are very vulnerable to destruction by heat.

Just boiling a cabbage will remove a good chunk of its nutrients, with most of them leeching out of the food and into the water, which is normally thrown away.

Considering that cooking with a microwave takes a shorter amount of time and less boiling than normal cooking methods, fewer nutrients are actually lost.

However, don’t take this to mean that microwaving everything is the way to go; you are probably getting sufficient nutrients from other sources anyway.

2. Microwaves produces dangerous radiation

Yes, microwaves do produce radiation. So do light bulbs. Sunlight is also a form of radiation. A microwaves oven emits radio waves with wavelengths from one millimetre to one metre, which have even less energy than visible light.

They are not gamma rays which are indeed dangerous to human tissue. In any case, all microwaves come with a Faraday cage (the wire mesh in the glass door) to keep the radiation inside the oven.

In the unlikely chance that the Faraday cage has a hole in it, the leaked radiation will travel a measly 30 centimetres and will be spread out so thin to the point that it is about as harmful as the mobile phone in your pocket.

The only radiation microwave ovens emit into the environment is thermal infra red radiation, which literally every household object at room temperature emits.

3. Microwaved food is cancerous

No, it is not.

Microwave ovens may employ radioactivity in how they work, but they are not little Chernobyls sitting on your kitchen counter top.

Perhaps this myth originates from a fundamental misunderstanding of how microwaves actually work.

When microwaves pass through food, they make the molecules inside vibrate faster which results in the food heating up.

In addition, microwave ovens are incapable of burning food like roasting or grilling can, so it is possible to say that microwaved food is actually safer and contains less carcinogens than roasted or grilled food.

4. Microwaved water kills plants

Why you would want to water plants with microwaved water in the first place is a mystery.

Some people believe microwaved water is radioactive and will kill plants if used to water them.

This is not true as microwaved water is every bit the same as water boiled in a kettle, with the only difference being in how the water particles were heated.

The television show, Mythbusters, actually tackled this myth by conducting an experiment in which plants were given tap water, microwaved water, boiled water and no water.

The plants watered with microwaved water grew just as well and healthily as the plants watered with tap and boiled water.

Only the unwatered plants died.

5. Microwaves cook food all the way through

Unfortunately, microwaves have their limitations when it comes to cooking. The microwave field only penetrates a relatively short distance of five centimetres into food.

Further cooking is only possible when heat on the outer layer of the food migrates inward. This is why if you want to cook a whole chicken, you’re better off using an ordinary oven.

Heat will not be able to reach the centre of the chicken, resulting in quite a few parts of the chicken being uncooked.

It goes without saying that uncooked food can easily result in food poisoning.

Bonus Fact

There is actually some truth to your mother’s warning not to heat up food in plastic containers.

While plastic will obviously not literally melt in microwave ovens, the particles in the containers can break down and release harmful chemicals.

Even containers labelled “microwave safe” are not exactly completely benign.

A 2011 study found that plastic products leach estrogenic chemicals, which can cause obesity and cancer.

So for now, it is actually advisable to transfer your food onto a ceramic or glass plate before microwaving it.