How do microwaves cook food?

If you follow your microwave's instructions, it is in good working order with no damaged or broken parts, and it automatically shuts off when you open the door, it is safe and won't harm you or your food.
If you follow your microwave’s instructions, it is in good working order with no damaged or broken parts, and it automatically shuts off when you open the door, it is safe and won’t harm you or your food.

Microwave ovens use electromagnetic radiation called microwaves to cook food. These microwaves, along with infrared and radio waves, are a type of low-energy radiation called non-ionizing radiation.

Materials that have a lot of water, like food, easily absorb microwaves. They cause the water to vibrate and quickly heat up, which cooks the food.

Are microwaves safe?

Many American houses have a microwave. They’re fast and safe for cooking meals, but there are some things to consider while cooking.

Radiation and leaky microwaves

Your body’s tissues contain lots of water. Exposure to direct, intense microwaves can cause your tissues to heat up, which can lead to damage and burns. This is uncommon. People who work around large sources of microwaves are most at risk.

Microwave ovens are not a major concern, though. This is because they’re designed to keep the radiation inside the oven. If your microwave door is broken or warped, radiation can leak out. These leaky microwaves can potentially be a risk.

To avoid any problems, follow your manual instructions. Don’t use the microwave if it is damaged or the door won’t close fully or properly. If it doesn’t automatically shut off when you open the door, stop using it and get it fixed.

Burns

Microwaves can superheat water beyond its boiling point. This happens when you overheat water in a smooth container like a mug. It won’t appear to boil, but as soon as you add something to the water like a spoon or instant coffee, it will suddenly boil or explode. This can throw water over your body and cause severe burns.

To avoid this, handle your food and drinks with care. Don’t heat the liquid for longer than the recommended time.

Microwaving food in plastic

You might have heard that microwaving food or your baby’s milk in a plastic container is unsafe. Generally, using microwave-safe plastic containers is not a concern.

It’s true that some plastics contain chemicals that can leach out into other materials when they’re heated. These are usually single-use containers that aren’t meant to store food, like disposable water bottles or margarine tubs. If these are heated, they melt and warp. But containers that release large amounts of chemicals aren’t allowed to be used to store food.

On the other hand, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you avoid plastics as much as possible and especially avoid microwaving food and drinks in any plastic containers.‌

If possible, heat your food in glass containers or on a regular ceramic plate or bowl. If you must use plastic, make sure it is labeled as microwave safe. Also, check that your plastic cling wrap is microwave safe before using it in the microwave.

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Do microwaves zap nutrition?

Microwaves are often said to deplete or zap the nutrients out of your food, but this isn’t true. In fact, research from as far back as the 1980s shows that microwaved food has only slight nutritional differences from stove-cooked food. Mostly, microwaves cause extra moisture loss, which makes your food dry.


Additionally, microwaves might actually stop some nutrient loss. Heating and cooking food can cause nutrients to break down. The longer something is heated, the more degradation that happens. Microwaves have a shorter cooking time, though, and this stops some of the nutrient breakdown. Take vitamin C, for example. Vitamin C in microwaved foods is actually preserved better than foods cooked in a regular oven.

Does microwaved food cause cancer?

Ionizing radiation like X-rays can cause cancer. This happens because this radiation has high enough energy to remove electrons from atoms. This can damage your DNA inside your cells and lead to cancer.

But microwaves are non-ionizing radiation, which is low-energy radiation that doesn’t have the same action. There are no risks when you use your microwave according to the instructions.

Further, while microwaved food absorbs radiation, it isn’t radioactive. Microwaved food isn’t shown to cause cancer.

Does microwaving create acrylamide in food?

Acrylamide is a chemical that is produced when some foods are cooked at high temperatures. This usually happens in starchy foods like bread and potatoes when they are baked, fried, grilled, or toasted. French fries, crackers, cookies, potato chips, cereals, and coffee are major sources of acrylamide.

Some evidence shows that acrylamide might cause cancer. Microwaves don’t produce acrylamide in foods.

Other considerations for microwave use

It’s also important to consider what foods you’re cooking in your microwave. Many microwave meals are processed and pre-packaged foods, which can cause you to eat more salt, fat, and sugar than recommended. Read food labels and opt for fresh foods where possible.

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Medically Reviewed on 9/23/2021
References
American Cancer Society: "Radiofrequency (RF) Radiation."

Canadian Cancer Society: "Should I put plastic containers in the microwave?"

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "The Electromagnetic Spectrum: Non-Ionizing Radiation."

Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition: "The effect of microwaves on nutrient value of foods."

U.S. Food & Drug Administration: "Microwave Oven Radiation," "Risk of Burns from Eruptions of Hot Water Overheated in Microwave Ovens."

Harvard Medical School Harvard Health Publishing: "Microwave cooking and nutrition."

NHS: "Eating processed foods." "How to prepare and cook food safely."

NIH National Cancer Institute: "Acrylamide and Cancer Risk."

Pediatrics: "Food Additives and Child Health."

World Health Organization: "Radiation: Microwave ovens."