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Is your microwave actually safe?

When I was younger and we first got a microwave in our home, my mother also got a probe-looking thing that you would slowly move around the edges of the microwave to detect any radiation leaks. Freaky?!? Yes.

Years later, as I move on and out of home , I continue to pull friends away from their microwaves, for fear of them growing a third arm. Then Ben and I were first together, he did question my sanity when I suggested we don't get a microwave.  "But how will we defrost our leftovers?" he would cry.  "And what if I need to melt butter?" (!!).  It turns out we also owned a stovetop and saucepan (for melting of butter) and we became adept at a touch of planning to defrost food on the sink or in the fridge BEFORE we needed it.

However as I converse more with others regarding the use (or not) of microwaves, I felt the time has come for me to really have a look at microwaves and if my concerns are justified, or simply a fear of the unknown.

Are Microwaves safe?

Firstly I feel this needs to be separated out from the question regarding health.  Food can be prepared safely however still be unhealthy and of course vice versa.  So let's have a look to see if that radiation probe my mum had was a novelty or in fact needed.

There is plenty of information out there that explains how microwaves work but in a nutshell, by sending out radiation at a specific frequency or ‘micro waves’, water molecules inside food vibrate at a very high rate. This vibration creates the heat, which in turn does the cooking. A bit like warming your hands by rubbing them together vigorously.

Microwaves use ‘non-ionising radiation’ which means there is enough energy to move things around inside a cell, but not enough to change them chemically. Cancer Research UK advises this type of radiation is not at this stage linked to cancer and furthermore that if you use a microwave correctly, it will not cause cancer.

The radiation itself should not leak out if the doors meet strict manufacturing standards, having said that, it is possible that some radiation may leak out while in operation, but it is deemed to be ‘below acceptable levels’.

Additionally there is no residual radiation once the microwave production itself has stopped.

One other aspect to microwave ovens ‘safety’ is the emission of EMF’s (electromagnetic fields). Advocates of EMF dangers suggest a significant risk from microwave ovens, as from 3 feet away you are exposed to up to 25mG (EMF’s are measured in milliGauss or mG) and the EPA (Environment Protection Authority) recommends limiting EMF exposure to 0.5mG to 2.5mG. This does need to be looked at in comparison to other household electrical appliances however it is the second highest in the table below:

My personal conclusion (surprisingly) is that microwaves can in fact heat food safely, and in isolation, are not dangerous if in good condition and used as intended. The danger seems to come from aged appliances and the EMF’s produced individually and collectively from the sheer quantity of electronic devices and equipment used around the home.

Are Microwaves healthy?

I guess the question should really be, “is the food cooked in a microwave any more or less healthy than food cooked by any other method?”. But that is way too long for a heading, isn’t it?! J

So if we assume that indeed, the power of the non-ionising radiation is too low to chemically change the molecules it is heating, then it would appear that in that regard, microwaves don’t damage food by radiation. It is simply another method of heating or cooking food.

This then leads us to compare the methods of heating food to see if a microwave oven is significantly worse. Or even better, should we seek out a raw food diet?

Let me just say for the record, I love the raw food movement and am always trying to incorporate as much raw food into the Jackson diet as possible, however it is not our mainstay. I would like to salute those who maintain a raw food diet and also acknowledge that it may not be the way for everyone. ** I have the BEST raw caramel slice that I will share somewhere else on the site **

Much evidence suggests, while on a whole society needs to increase the quantity of fresh and raw foods in our diet, there are quite a few vegetables that are actually better for us when cooked…to a degree. Carrots for example boost their levels of beta-carotene and tomatoes increase their levels of lycopene when cooked. Other vegetables such as kale and chard are more easily digested once cooked as the heating breaks down the thick, fibrous content.

It is also generally agreed that lightly steaming is the best method of heating, while retaining as much nutrient value as possible. Boiling veggies seems to zap a significant amount of nutrients out and is apparently no better than a microwave. Frying and pressure cooking don’t really come anywhere close to nutrient retention either – but lets face it, we don’t make hot chips for the nutrient value do we.

Other health issues concerning microwaves:

  • Don’t go heating blood in it prior to a transplant (yup, apparently this is not uncommon!), as it has been shown to be fatal to the recipient.
  • Heating baby’s drinks in the microwave is ill-advised, as contents can heat unevenly, causing sudden burning sections of drink. Plus most baby bottles are plastic…
  • Which brings me to plastics. There is some advice saying ‘microwave safe plastics’ are indeed… safe for heating food in. Hmmm, are we sure they don’t breakdown over time? Are we sure they are completely safe regardless of the contents? I’m not a huge fan but knock yourself out. Can I suggest you get yourself some old-fashioned glass containers and keep re-using without ANY leaching concerns. I love the old faithful Pyrex – never broken one in an oven, unlike some cheaper varieties that shall remain nameless…

So in summary, it appears there is in fact a mixture of fact and fantasy.

  • Microwave ovens, if in good condition and used as directed, do NOT pose an immediate safety risk to society. (Put that radiation probe away until microwave is several years old…)
  • Microwave ovens DO in fact contribute to the large and growing amount of EMF’s around the home that ARE damaging in many ways to the human physiology, but no more than our love of computers, and need for vacuum cleaners.
  • Food cooked in a microwave oven doesn’t appear to lose any more nutrients than boiling, in fact it can retain more due to the quick speed of heating.

Ok, interesting exercise and more informative than I expected. I still like melting butter on the stovetop, I will continue to be a never-owned-a-microwave gal and you won’t catch me standing in front of mum’s microwave. But I will eat her micro waved beans now.


About the author

Judith has been a passionate organic foodie for more than 10 years.  She loves finding natural alternatives for anything from garden pests to cooking, from cleaning to skincare and is very honest about the idea that convenience is not always for the betterment of society.

Other passions for Judith include Ben, their 4 kiddos, her faith, camping and most things to do with gardens and salt water (not together!). 

Judith is also the co-founder of One Table, an organic food movement whose goals are to help others create healthy families, to recreate a fairer food system in Australia and globally, and to support farmers and producers who love what they do, which is giving back to the land by embracing organic and bio-dynamic practices. 

When Judith isn't writing blogs, doing the accounts, working in the One Table shop, or spinning the plates of a household of 6, she loves her hammock and a sassy Regency era novel.