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Microwaved food safety question
February 1, 2011 8:19 AM   Subscribe

Microwaved food safety question - help me argue with (or gracefully capitulate to) my hippie friends!

I move in hippie/radical circles where it is taken for granted that if you microwave food, the microwaves alter something (the enzymes? the chromosomes?) in the food which both robs it of nutrients and makes it actively hazardous to your health, possibly carcinogenic. I've done some googling and only found a couple of so-so studies, one from the Soviet Union in the seventies which (possibly! unclear whether this actually happened!) led the USSR to ban microwave ovens.

The problem is that I haven't found any pro-microwave information that my friends would view as reliable--ie, I found a useful article but republished by CBS, thus dodgy. (And honestly, I would be more convinced myself by something that originated in Nature, for example, rather than in mainstream US media.


I am looking for material about microwaved food, nutrients and safety that is produced by an NIH-like entity (takes some persuasion to get friends to accept NIH material--from the gubmint!-- but it's possible), an NIH-equivalent from another country, a reputable scientific journal and/or published by a reputable progressive/left magazine or website.
Any scientist-type people on Mefi who could produce a science-y explanation about this would be great too.

(And of course, if there is a wealth of reputable material about microwaves destroying nutrients and creating carcinogens, please link--I'm willing to eat crow to my friends (or eat tofu crow, anyway).
posted by Frowner to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
I think you want to search for "microwave safety." I did and the first result was this FDA site.
posted by mikeh at 8:26 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Cooking by fire also changes the chemistry in food and affects nutrients....but I get it.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:28 AM on February 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Here's the World Health Organization page on microwave ovens.

I feel for you.
posted by easy, lucky, free at 8:43 AM on February 1, 2011


If you want to argue with your friends: microwaves have been around for years. Has there been a statistically significant increase in cancer rates? Does this increase correlate closely with microwave adoption rates? And this stuff about nutrients and enzymes and carcinogens--can they explain the specific processes which create (and/or destroy) these molecules? I mean, no offense to anybody, but the burden of proof might be more reasonably placed on your friends.

I dunno, though--I don't really enjoy arguing, myself. Most of the hippies I know don't either.
posted by box at 8:43 AM on February 1, 2011


Arguing with your friends is going to be like arguing with religious fantatics - they take certain things on faith, and their outlook is part of a lifestyle choice. They are going to be impervious to evidence. Try to talk sense to a 9/11 Truther or an anti-vaccine nut you're likely to get about as far.

You might try to find something on how microwaves heat food. Essentially, the microwaves interact with the molecules, imparting their energy to the molecules and making them move around faster, thus heading them up. You could ask your friends how this form of heating - as opposed any other - damages food or produces carcinogens (i.e., actually changes the nature of the chemicals themselves).

The better route is just not to bother - they've already made up their minds about this, and, I imagine, many other things on which evidence is not going to change their minds.
posted by Dasein at 8:44 AM on February 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


Unfortunately for mikeh's link, hundreds of FDA scientists report political interference in their scientific work. *mischievous grin*
posted by salvia at 8:48 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Here are a couple things from the Livestrong Foundation.

Or, if you prefer, here's an article from the Journal of Food Quality which the Livestrong pages cite. Money quote from the abstract:

"The nutrient retention was highest in foods cooked by microwave steaming, followed by microwave boiling, followed by steaming, and then by boiling. Generally vegetables cooked by microwave techniques retained higher percentages of the U. S. Recommended Daily Allowances for the nutrients than those cooked by conventional methods."
posted by box at 8:50 AM on February 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


I promise I won't thread-nanny -- I just realized that I need to clarify something: I'm looking for peer-reviewed material that specifically describes how nutrients are affected by microwaving and/or specifically says something about "we tested microwaved food in this peer-reviewed manner and it doesn't cause "inflamation"/cancer/etc any more than regular boiled food".

A general FDA statement that microwave cooking is safe isn't going to convince folks. Why does the FDA, for example, know that microwaved food is safe?

If I tell my friends that microwaves agitate molecules and produce heat and so on, they just come back with "and that process breaks nutrients and enzymes into carcinogenic things!"

One of my concerns is that I cook a lot for group events, and I often use a microwave to--for example--"blanche" spinach or partially cook eggplant. I'd like a coherent way to justify why I do this. (And to be fair, no one has refused to eat my food on the grounds of microwaving)

The level of food-science understanding in our circles is low; I'm on the informed end.
posted by Frowner at 8:50 AM on February 1, 2011


If I tell my friends that microwaves agitate molecules and produce heat and so on, they just come back with "and that process breaks nutrients and enzymes into carcinogenic things!"

Using heat to denature proteins is what happens when you cook, not just with a microwave. It enables us to digest things. It doesn't sound like the level of food science understanding is low, it sounds like the level of science understanding is low. Seriously, no serious researchers are investigating if microwaves "destroy nutrients" because this question is long, long since been settled. I wouldn't bother arguing with them.
posted by proj at 8:57 AM on February 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


You might try a Google Scholar search. Though you'll have to sift through the results, there may be something there. I tried "microwave food carcinogens" and found this article on how cooking methods affect levels of a certain carcinogen, and there may be more papers like this.
posted by statolith at 9:07 AM on February 1, 2011


This NYT article lists a study like the one you want.
posted by proj at 9:08 AM on February 1, 2011


I'm a hippie. I use a microwave, though I have stopped microwaving most plastic. A close friend is a Nutritionist(master's degree) and hippie. She uses a microwave.

You can google sites in the UK with this syntax:
microwave safety site:*.co.uk

You can go to Google.co.uk or google.ca to get info.

I think the problem with your friends is not that they are hippies; it's that they are not science-literate, and may be anti-science.

Microwaving is quite convenient for many foods, and uses less electricity for many cooking projects. This site is pretty interesting; you might like it. I think your friends are choosing to be unconvinced, and I can't see any harm in their beliefs. Better anti-microwaved food than creationist. You may find redirection a useful tactic: if they challenge microwave oven use, redirect to the safety of plastic containers.
posted by theora55 at 9:12 AM on February 1, 2011


FWIW, a housemate I had once was vehemently anti-microwave, and he ranted about a book some guy had published that spilled the beans on how microwaves destroy the "aura" of the food and cause various health problems besides. He said that all the copies of the book had been bought up by the government in order to suppress the truth. To this day, I wonder if that was a real book, or some weird story one of his crazy friends told him.

I don't think you're going to find any kind of evidence that's going to convince your friends that food cooked by microwaves is not much different from food cooked by other methods, safety-wise. It seems to be a tinfoil-hat subject, in which people who are suspicious of food technology find pseudo-scientific reasons to believe it's unsafe.
posted by Maximian at 9:28 AM on February 1, 2011


Maximian - that actually sounds like a vaguely detail-shuffled account of Wilhelm Reich's books on 'Orgone Theory', a vaguely pseudosciencey postulation on life force auras. The books he wrote and had published actually WERE gathered up by the FDA and destroyed, but mostly because he was violating an injunction to stop putting out misleading and false claims (i.e. - claiming that 'orgone energy' existed, etc).
posted by FatherDagon at 9:38 AM on February 1, 2011


Big difference between this and anti-vax people is... well not using a microwave doesn't really hurt anyone. It seems like an argument to have only if you want to have an argument. What is the point of the argument? Do you want to convince your friends they should buy a microwave? Do want to prove yourself right? Unless they are actively hassling you about microwave usage, let it go.

I don't have a microwave, I also don't think they are particularly harmful, except when used with certain plastics, I just don't like cooking with a microwave.
posted by edgeways at 9:54 AM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had a girlfriend say something similar once. I'd say you hit them with "burden of proof" - if they have evidence (not just claims, anecdotes, etc.), present it. It's not your job to prove microwaves safe; it's theirs to demonstrate they aren't.
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 9:58 AM on February 1, 2011


You might want to start by talking about weird it is that people will hold onto their beliefs even stronger when faced with evidence to contrary. Relate it to something that they agree with and how stupid it is that people won't support even though that there is so much evidence that is great.

Then, roll out your evidence.

It seems like everyone involved accepts that microwaves make water molecules get excited (DO NOT take that out of context) which makes them vibrate and heat your food. How is this different from boiling? I'd accept the assertion that it could break down water soluble nutrients in the same way that boiling does. I don't know if it does or not but it at least seems like it could. Beyond that, it seems to me that most of the physics involved are the same as boiling (IE. water molecules impart energy to food). So, either boiling food in water is unsafe, or using a microwave is safe.

Before getting into how microwaves work (and assuming I'm correct in my understanding of the physics involved) I'd ask if they think boiling food in water is safe.

posted by VTX at 10:05 AM on February 1, 2011


What is the point of the argument? Do you want to convince your friends they should buy a microwave?

Oh, I have no interest in whether they microwave or not (except in making minor alterations when I give recipes)...it comes up when 1. We're cooking at my house; 2. People ask about how I cook something; 3. Someone makes a throwaway remark in a large group about how foolish microwaving is.

I've been known to rise to the bait in circumstance 3, less because of the microwave itself than because that activist thing of "I assume that we all agree about how foolish Outgroup Behavior is and so I make contemptuous little asides" really annoys me.

I'm also trying to figure out whether--knowing that friends have weak objections to microwaved food--it's worth hand-blanching the spinach, salting and pressing the eggplant, etc when I'm cooking for groups. So I feel like I need to talk about this issue to gauge response.
posted by Frowner at 10:29 AM on February 1, 2011


Take a look at this study, which shows that microwaving and boiling both result in a significant loss of certain compounds in comparison to steaming. As you can see in the charts in this USDA guide, many different types of cooking result in various losses of various compounds in various foods.
posted by Dasein at 10:39 AM on February 1, 2011


Seconding "...hit them with "burden of proof" - if they have evidence (not just claims, anecdotes, etc.), present it. It's not your job to prove microwaves safe; it's theirs to demonstrate they aren't."

And tell them you want their evidence to be studies published in Nature, or by the NIH or an NIH-equivalent in another country.
posted by exphysicist345 at 12:31 PM on February 1, 2011


It's hard to get traction with something like this. Some people's beliefs are fact-proof. However, I have had some luck by gently explaining that while microwaves do indeed cook with "microwave radiation," it's the use of "radiation" as a scientific term.

When your hippie pals hear "radiation" they think of a pile of cartoon plutonium glowing green and making a "wom wom wom" noise. They think of Chernobyl, where you're not allowed to visit for very long, and where you do not want to eat the irradiated plants.

But that's only one kind of radiation.

Heat is a form of radiation. So are radio waves, and television signals, and the sound that comes out of speakers, and wireless internet, and light. It's all just radiation - it's energy, man. We are all just energy.

And given that, some forms of radiation are okay (like heat) and others are not okay (like plutonium). Put your hand up to a speaker and feel the vibration. That's what microwaves do to your food, except they do it really fast, and it makes your food warm up.

Then they will carefully explain that wireless internet signals give you cancer and ADHD too, and you must try very hard not to roll your eyes and suggest a tinfoil hat. Just walk away, knowing that the seed of knowledge has been planted, and maybe some day it will sprout a little bit of scientific understanding.
posted by ErikaB at 1:01 PM on February 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


hm. i don't have a microwave, and it's because i think it's no good for the food and for our health. i think i could be a good stand-in for your friends, in this case. so i read all the comments and judged my responses. i wrote my reflections down in the hopes that it might be helpful for you to see where they are coming from (or possibly to have better arguments to counter their opinions?? whateva).

i found myself changing my arguments as to why i don't use a microwave according to what evidence people put forth. which of course makes me irrational in my anti-microwave stance, but then all of us are irrational about different things in our lives; we just see other people's irrationalities far more clearly than our own.

when i see people putting their flimsy plastic containers filled with leftovers into the microwave, i think of plastic leaching into our food. when i see people cooking food in a microwave, i think about how unevenly the food is cooking and how much more delicious food is when it's cooked through evenly. i know i have a choice to use a microwave or not; i can protect myself in a tiny way against spaghetti-a-la-tupperware-container, so i choose not to do that stuff.

all this 'burden of scientific proof' talk means very little to me (or, let's face it, to any of us), because you can drown ANY topic in carefully selected data to PROVE the point you're trying to make. we all know that. plus, in the 'olden days', people thought smoking was fine if you were pregnant, and had a similar dismissive reaction to people who suggested it was bad. now studies have shown its harm on babies, and you won't find anyone who thinks it's a great idea to smoke while pregnant. there are 8 bajillion examples like this. things we take for granted as 'the truth' are very time specific. which isn't to say that your friends are right or wrong, just that neither side can possibly KNOW that they have the answer.

I've been known to rise to the bait in circumstance 3, less because of the microwave itself than because that activist thing of "I assume that we all agree about how foolish Outgroup Behavior is and so I make contemptuous little asides" really annoys me.

i hear ya. this is THE WORST. it happens on both sides of the fence, and when i'm faced with a situation like this, i try to remember to say "you may be right". said in the right tone, with a mischeivous smile, it can infuse enough doubt into any situation as to possibly encourage the person speaking to consider what they are saying without actually upsetting them. you ARE friends, after all.
posted by andreapandrea at 8:37 PM on February 1, 2011


all this 'burden of scientific proof' talk means very little to me (or, let's face it, to any of us), because you can drown ANY topic in carefully selected data to PROVE the point you're trying to make.

One the contrary, @andreapandrea, many if not most of us care very, very much for proof and evidence, and we're usually skeptical enough to know when the facts are being manipulated. The fact that some people cherry-pick does not make evidence-based reasoning wrong, and raising that as an argument simply shows your desire for a mental crutch that allows you to summarily dismiss any evidence that invalidates your opinions.

plus, in the 'olden days', people thought smoking was fine if you were pregnant, and had a similar dismissive reaction to people who suggested it was bad. now studies have shown its harm on babies, and you won't find anyone who thinks it's a great idea to smoke while pregnant.

So how exactly does "before there was evidence, people dismissed this danger, and once there was evidence, the people who considered the evidence changed their opinions" square with your "evidence, smevidence...I'm not going to let that silly science stuff change what I believe" attitude? Not to put to fine a point on it, but smoking is the canonical example of evidence-based science and the people who care about it changing attitudes and society in a positive direction overcoming even the powerful objections of a massive and well funded corporate lobby. Indeed, the tobacco lobby was very fond of arguments like "if you select the facts right, you can prove anything..." and "you can't say that new evidence won't prove us right..." to try and discredit anyone who didn't support their business plan. So enjoy being on that side of science.

which isn't to say that your friends are right or wrong, just that neither side can possibly KNOW that they have the answer.

Right out of the pseudo-science handbook. The ultimate hand-wave, allowing anything to be justified. There are still people who believe the earth is flat and the Holocaust never happened; it's just a matter of time before they're proven right. I mean...you don't *know* the Earth isn't flat, right?

i try to remember to say "you may be right". said in the right tone, with a mischeivous smile, it can infuse enough doubt into any situation as to possibly encourage the person speaking to consider what they are saying without actually upsetting them.

Your definition of "friend" is clearly different than mine, because I can't imagine any of mine, even the ones who vehemently disagree with me, pulling something so patently condescending on me. But then I probably self-select for people who respect discourse and intellect.
posted by kjs3 at 9:36 AM on February 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you bring up burden of proof, prepare to hear about The Precautionary PrincipleTM.
posted by salvia at 2:18 PM on February 2, 2011


look, i am a Friend of Science. and honestly, if i explained myself so poorly that even one person was able to conclude that people not using microwaves is the same as being on the side of big tobacco, then i'd like to try again.

my point here was to say that your friends may in fact understand science quite well. they get that it takes a long time to amass data, to fund research projects, to get articles published. and there are just some things we don't know about yet. the 'microwave debate' here is obviously contentious, and yet nobody has been able to produce that peer-reviewed material that the OP has requested. while we're waiting for this data to be google-able, we have the choice to think 'it's probably okay to microwave my food' or 'maybe it isn't.' and your friends might ask themselves, "who is more likely to have the power to direct the discourse in this situation: the Massive Microwave Lobbies, or brown-rice-eating vegetarians?" and then err on the side of caution. which might seem excessive, or crazy because it's not what everybodyelse does, and maybe it is. But it's not a mental crutch used to willfully ignore Our Lord And Saviour, Science. it's looking at both sides, and seeing which side is the least likely to cause harm down the road.

So when the OP wants to talk to his friends about microwaves, throwing studies at them is probably not going to be the most effective way to talk about this, since, although science probably certainly plays a role in their decision-making process, intuition and caution probably play a larger role.

if microwaving is actually okay, nothing bad happens to your friends. if it's actually not okay, people will be harmed, but your friends will not be (or, you know, maybe they will be, by the death rays coming from the office kitchen. whateva). yup, it's the precautionary principle. your friends may think that it's more important to proove that something is NOT harmful than to have to prove that it is. difference of approach.

some really great advice in this thread, however i don't think the tinfoil hat references and aggressive responses have helped this post. I mean, these are the OP's FRIENDS. it can be hilarious to sit alone at our computers crafting clever, biting responses, but it seldom helps the OP solve the problem.
posted by andreapandrea at 7:45 AM on February 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


andreapandrea: Concern about plastic leaching is well understood and valid - but that's not specific to microwaves.

That microwaves heat food unevenly is also well understood. Neither of these concerns point to any danger with actually heating food (not containers) with microwaves.

It sounds like your concerns are reasonable and based on common knowledge. I'm not sure why you stepped further into "and so we can never truly know anything about microwaves."
posted by odinsdream at 8:05 PM on February 4, 2011


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