Microwave Facts and Myths

Microwave Facts and Myths

Since the advent of the home microwave in 1955, fear of exposure to radiation has been a consumer concern. For people with heart arrhythmias, early models of pacemakers were adversely affected by closeness to microwave ovens. However, the level of radiation emitted from modern home microwaves is considered too low to pose any health risk.

How Microwave Ovens Work

Cooking in a microwave oven occurs through exposure to microwave radiation (a form of electromagnetic energy)—which causes the water molecules of the food to rotate, resulting in a temperature increase (according to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety). Inside the oven, the microwaves are actually produced by an electron tube (called a magnetron). The Food and Drug Administration in the United States is charged with national oversight of standards of performance in accordance with public health safety laws. Federal regulations limit the amount of microwaves that may “leak” from a microwave oven to 5mW of microwave radiation per square cm over its lifetime (according to the website of the FDA).

Microwave Risk to Restaurant Workers

The amount of radiation exposure from industrial microwave ovens to restaurant workers far exceeds that of people using microwaves at home. Therefore, there is a health risk for restaurant workers who spend a high number of hours working in close proximity to them—as well as for those restaurant employees working with aging or malfunctioning microwave ovens. Since “fast-food” retail establishments usually employee youthful staff, microwave risk is also increased due to the potential for burn accidents from over-heating foods.

Damage to the eyes (e.g., cataracts) and reproductive organs are emphasized as health risks by the Communications Workers of America website. An article in the Survey of Ophthalmology suggested the possible cause as damage to the lens’ cell DNA. Damage to rat lenses was demonstrated by continuous microwave-pulsed radiation (per an article in Scanning Microscopy [12(4):609-629; 1998]).

Spontaneous miscarriages are a risk for pregnant women who work intensively with microwave ovens during their first trimester (per an article in 2012 in the Observer college newspaper of Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women). In general, pregnant women need to be careful when using microwave ovens.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Cooking in Microwave Ovens 

Higher moisture losses occur in microwave cooking as compared to conventional methods. As a result, nutrients in vegetables can leach out into the cooking water (according to the Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide). However, an article in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition—entitled, “The Effect of Microwaves on Nutrient Value of Food”—suggested only slight differences in nutritional quality between food cooked in microwaves and conventional methods.

While important to working mothers in enabling fast preparation of meals for their children—and a boon to “fast-food” retailers—some food items should not be cooked in a microwave. In particular, the consistency of tofu is altered by microwave cooking. Food items that are best “crisp” do not usually taste as well after microwave cooking as compared to deep-frying them.