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What does the microwave *actually* do to your food?


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Photo: Stocksy/Jill Chen

Microwaving has gotten a bad rap over the years. In fact, I personally gave up microwaving for a while after hearing that it can cause cancer. (The word “nuke” is used to describe its cooking method—can you blame me?)

But, the truth is, the misconceptions about microwaving make it sound way worse than it actually is. In some cases, it can actually be a preferable method to heating and cooking food.

For one thing, it’s a myth that microwaves drain nutrients from your food, according to experts. “Nutrients are frequently well-maintained when microwaving foods,” says Dana Hunnes, PhD, adjunct assistant professor of community health sciences at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She says this is because microwaves cook food at high speed, using very little liquid. “Often, when steaming foods, nutrients get sucked out into the cooking water or in the vapor.” (Picture the chlorophyll-infused water that’s left over after you steam broccoli.)

And you don’t have to worry about your food becoming radioactive, either. “From a molecular standpoint, there is no danger in microwaving your food,” Hunnes says. “The microwave oven transforms electrical energy into microwaves. These microwaves hit the food particles extremely quickly, turning the water molecules in the food into thermal energy. The microwave energy does not remain in the food after the microwave oven is turned off.”

“From a molecular standpoint, there is no danger in microwaving your food.”—Dana Hunnes, PhD

The one potential danger Hunnes warns about is radiation from the microwave oven itself, which can leak out if it’s really old and isn’t sealed properly. “For this reason, it’s recommended to stand at least several inches—if not a few feet away—from the microwave oven when it’s turned on,” she says.

Also, microwaving isn’t the best cooking method for meat. “Depending on the thickness of the animal protein, the microwaves may not penetrate all the layers and cook the product evenly,” Hunnes explains. To avoid food poisoning, Hunnes recommends sticking to the oven or stovetop when you’re, say, grilling chicken for your keto pad thai.

So, let’s recap: Although you probably won’t get a perfectly cooked meal using only a microwave oven, you don’t have to worry about it affecting your food’s nutritional value. And as for re-heating your coffee over and over until you can actually find a minute to enjoy it? “If it’s a liquid, there shouldn’t be any taste, texture, or flavor repercussions,” Hunnes proclaims. Go on, nuke away.

Another great use for your microwave: Disinfecting your kitchen sponges. (Trust me, they need it.) You might want to avoid using it to make popcorn, however. 

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