Do you have a friend who doesn’t own a microwave oven? Are you that friend? Here in the 21st century, more than 90 percent of U.S. households have microwaves, but though they offer speedy cook times and a lot of convenience and energy efficiency, some people eschew them with a firm hand. But why? Here are five reasons — some myth-based and some based in reality — for persistent, 21st-century microwave dissing:
1. Takes Up Precious Counter Space
Some microwave ovens are big. Not as big as the first commercial microwave ever, the Raytheon Radarange, which was 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall and weighed over 700 pounds (320 kilograms). But today’s microwaves can still be big enough to seriously throw off the feng shui in your kitchen.
2. Concern It Emits Harmful Radiation
When a product becomes pervasive enough to spawn other consumer product industries (microwave popcorn and burritos, anyone?) you know it’s going to have its detractors — especially when you have to use the word “radiation” to describe how it works.
But “radiation” is just a term used to describe waves of energy on the electromagnetic spectrum, which includes radio waves, visible light and X-rays. Microwave ovens work by emitting microwave radiation, the wavelengths of which are just a little shorter than the radio waves used in radar technology. These waves are used to jiggle water molecules inside food millions of times per second, while rubbing them together in the same way we rub our hands together for warmth. This can create a whole lot of heat very quickly.
Even though certain wavelengths on the electromagnetic spectrum are very dangerous, microwaves are pretty benign.
3. Fear It Zaps Food’s Nutrients
In the film “American Hustle,” Jennifer Lawrence’s character Rosalyn Rosenfeld receives a microwave oven as a gift. She calls it a “science oven” and promptly tries to use it to heat a foil-covered casserole in an aluminum pan. After the resulting fire is extinguished, her exasperated husband asks her how she could be so stupid. She turns the tables on him: “You know, I read it takes all the nutrition right out of our food!”
Although the idea that microwaves destroy the nutrients in our food is about as old as the appliance itself, turns out the opposite is actually true. Food loses its nutritional value when it’s cooked in a lot of liquid at high heat for a long time. The good stuff in the food you eat is best preserved by cooking it quickly and using very little water, which is just what microwaves do. In fact, studies suggest that microwaves preserve nutrients like folic acid and antioxidants at a much higher rate than stovetop cooking.
4. It Heats Food Unevenly
While conventional ovens heat food from the outside in, microwave ovens cook all areas of the food at once. But since microwaves are calibrated to focus on heating water, and the water in your food isn’t always distributed evenly, the cooking method can heat unevenly. Protein, fat and starch molecules heat more slowly than water, and the presence of a bunch of salt prolongs cooking times as well. So, it might take only a couple of minutes to take that microwave meal from ice cube to fragrant, bubbly lunch, but expect pockets of ice crystals and molten cheese. Or just, you know, stir it a few times while you’re cooking it.
5. It Doesn’t Kill Bacteria That Might Be Present
Although you probably shouldn’t be chowing down on contaminated food anyway, reheating can definitely kill some of the bad bacteria if you’re just hell-bent on eating those two-week-old Thai leftovers. In this case, the problem with the microwave is it heats pretty unevenly, as previously discussed. Eating contaminated food is a terrible idea to begin with, but know the microwave won’t be doing you any favors on the bacteria-killing front because it doesn’t heat all your food to the same high, bacteria-killing temperature.
A microwave oven uses something called magnetron to microwave radiation. American physicist Percy Spencer discovered it could heat food while he was using a magnetron in radar research during WWII and it melted a chocolate bar in his pocket.