The Microwave: Why You Should Avoid It and Other Options

Written by Kate Tietje, Contributing Writer

Back when I was in high school, I remember sitting in French class one day.  I don’t remember what brought it up, but the teacher told us that she didn’t have a microwave.  We were honestly shocked.  Why, we thought (and said).  In this day and age, everyone has a microwave!  It’s so convenient!  How do you cook without a microwave?!

Why, indeed.

I continued to happily use my oh-so-convenient microwave for several more years. That is, until I began to move towards real food in 2009.  By the end of that year, I was convicted that it needed to go.  And it did — we put it away at the very end of 2009 (replaced it with my lovely Excalibur dehydrator!) and haven’t looked back.  It’s been over two years, and I don’t miss it.  Are you curious why I did that…and how it’s worked out?

Why Get Rid of the Microwave?

Microwaves are undeniably convenient — if you want to reheat leftovers, or defrost meat for dinner.  But using them comes with a price.

The way that microwaves work is by making use of an electromagnetic field.  (Hang on — it gets a little technical, but I’ll try to keep it brief and understandable.  My eyes were glazing over a little as I was researching all this, and I don’t want that to happen to you!)  Basically, there is a magnetron in each microwave, that creates an alternating current, acting on the electrons in the food and causing them to become “excited,” increasing their kinetic energy — which creates heat, cooking the food.

This process is basically radiation, where molecules gain or lose an electron through ionization.  It doesn’t sound like that big a deal, but it actually changes the molecular structure of the food.

This magnetron and the micro-waves it produces are so dangerous that all modern microwaves have to have at least three safety measures in place so that if the door opens, the microwave stops immediately.  Being exposed to micro-waves causes all sorts of problems (see below)!  Standing close to the microwave is discouraged, as is staring directly at it, because microwaves can sometimes be felt in the couple inches just outside the door.

Anyone who has ever used a microwave knows that food cooked this way doesn’t look or taste like food cooked on the stove top or in a conventional oven.  It burns more easily.  Some things become rubbery, sticky, or have other strange textures.  It doesn’t taste the same.  The food can have “hot spots” and “cold spots” due to uneven heating.  These are easy ways to notice that microwaving food is not the same as “normal” cooking, clearly!  And it is because of this ionization.

Another problem with microwaving is the containers in which most people microwave foods — plastic, or coated paper.  These can contain BPA and other chemicals that, when heated, leach into the food.  We all know how harmful BPA is now!  (If you haven’t heard, BPA is an endocrine disruptor that really messes up your hormones.)

Some experts have linked microwave use to:

  • Leukemia and other forms of cancer
  • Cataracts (from looking too closely/radiation escaping)
  • Irregular heartbeat/other heart issues
  • Diabetes
  • Nutrient loss/damage in food
  • Anemia
  • Higher cholesterol levels (which suggests damage to the body)

Source: 1, 2

Okay, that’s a little bit scary.  And definitely enough to make me glad I haven’t used a microwave in over two years!  But what next?

Image by Katalicia1

But The Convenience…!

Like I said, sure, microwaves are convenient.  Luckily, there are ways to do all those things you do with your microwave in other, safer ways!

Toaster Oven

If you want to cook or reheat a small amount of something, use a toaster oven.  It heats like a regular oven, but since it’s tiny, it doesn’t take as long to heat up (nor will it make your house hot in the summer).  Try using this to reheat foods or bake small amounts.

Oven

Your regular ol’ oven shouldn’t be ignored, either!  I use mine all the time.  We store most leftovers in Pyrex glass containers, so we simply remove the lid, pop it in the oven, and turn it on.  (Putting cold glass in a cold oven won’t shock and break the glass.  Though honestly Pyrex is really sturdy, and I have put frozen glass into a hot oven and not had a problem.  Don’t take my word on it…but I’m saying I’ve done it.)

Stove Top

Boiling water or reheating things like soup goes just fine on the stove top, and doesn’t take much longer.  Realistically, rather than have hot soup in one minute, you have it in 10.  So what?  Start it a few minutes earlier and do the dishes while you wait. :)

Hot Water

Do you hate realizing you haven’t defrosted the meat and it’s 5PM?  Put it in a sinkful of hot water.  Now, I know — “Only cool water, hot water is a breeding ground for bacteria.”  If you are only going to leave the meat for 10 or 15 minutes until it’s mostly thawed, it will not have time to grow anything (that ‘cool water’ instruction is more for bathing a frozen turkey for several hours).  Though honestly I have occasionally forgotten about meat for a few hours and as long as I cooked it, we’ve never gotten sick.  (I’m bad…I break lots of ‘food safety’ rules all the time….)

Honestly, I don’t even have a toaster oven.  I rely on my oven, stove top, and hot water to thaw or reheat anything I need and I don’t miss my microwave at all.  I enjoy the convenience of being able to pop a glass container of food directly into my oven, turn it on, and go take care of something else — say, putting my kids down for a nap.  When I come back, it’s perfectly hot enough.  In a microwave it would have heated, stopped, and cooled back down already, not to mention been strange in texture.  “Long” stuff works better with my lifestyle than “short” stuff anyway. :)

Stephanie’s note: Our family also does not use a microwave and hasn’t for about 5 years. We don’t miss it. We heat food up in primarily the sames ways as Kate’s family, although we do own a toaster oven and find it very handy for this purpose.

What About Other Stuff?

The one use that I do admittedly miss is heating those rice-filled socks to use as heating pads.  They aren’t consumable (obviously) so it’s not a dangerous use.  If you have a microwave still, you can use it for that.  Mine is inaccessible.  I’m told you can heat these up in an oven on 350 for 5 – 10 minutes; just check it frequently so it doesn’t burn.  The same goes for other convenience things — if it can be done in a microwave, it can be done in another way, too.

Do you use a microwave?  Why or why not?  If not, how do you handle defrosting or reheating?

Top image by cookipedia
Disclosure: This post includes affiliate links.

About Kate Tietje

Kate is a work-at-home mom to (almost) 4 kids -- Bekah, age 4.5; Daniel, age 3; Jacob, 1; and baby #4, due mid-March 2013. She is married to Ben, a wonderfully supportive husband! She blogs at Modern Alternative Mama, where she writes about natural health, real food, parenting, and all things “green.” She also recently launched Modern Alternative Kitchen, a site about traditional cooking, and is about to launch Modern Alternative Pregnancy. In her “free” time, she enjoys sewing, crafting, cooking, and playing with her children. Follow her on Facebook!

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Comments

  1. Hello there,
    Just a quick point: the reason why those argue over the science are wasting their time is because when it comes to unnatural, modern inventions that even just sound bad, people would rather take precaution; it’s all well and good that your educators haven’t yet widely proven microwaves as deadly, but there’s an instinctive intuitive reason why people would disclose the possible dangers and avoid it. Especially when as many have pointed out, it simply discourages taking a proactive approach to cooking and nutrition. It is of course no coincidence that just about everything massproduced to facilitate this passive consumerist over-consumption lifestyle is at odds with a wholesome, sustainable lifestyle. This is not an academic conference, it is life, which is short, and precious. No offence to the academics though. All the best to everyone with their investigations, but there is only so much investigation one needs to simply improve behaviour so as to avoid such items. In fact, doing so is a good way to snap out of the endless bad habits that modern living has sucked us into at the cost of our health, but to the benefit of the mass-producers, including the mass-producers of drugs and medicines.
    Regards
    Riz

  2. We stopped using our microwave when we transitioned to whole foods and ditched the pre-packaged convenience foods. It simply became obsolete. I have never missed it.

  3. I don’t use my microwave to cook or reheat foods. I understand that it will destroy enzymes needed for digestion

  4. I don’t know where you’re getting your information from, but as an electrical engineering student, I can tell you the science behind your argument is wrong. A microwave oven works by producing electromagnetic waves with a frequency of about 2.45 GHz. This electromagnetic wave interacts with polar molecules (mainly water) within the food. The polar molecules will rotate to attempt to align with the field, but since the the electromagnetic wave produces an alternating electric field, the atoms are continually “flipping” back an forth. In the process, these atoms collide with other molecules in the food to disperse energy which increase the temperature of the food. Yes, microwaves are technically radiation, but not the dangerous type that the average person would think of ( like the type emitted from nuclear reactions that cause radiation poising and cancer). Electromagnetic waves include radar waves, microwaves, infrared (thermal) waves, VISIBLE LIGHT, ultraviolet radiation, x-rays, and gamma rays. The biological damage radiation causes is correlates the energy the wave carries (which is related to the frequency of the wave). This is because if it has enough energy, it knocks electrons out of the “orbit” of the atom which ionizing the atom causing to to react in undesirable ways in the body. Microwaves are NOT ionizing radiation (only x-rays and gamma rays are considered ionizing radiation) they actually carry less energy than visible light. Not to burst your bubble or anything but there is also a significant amount of electromagnetic radiation in conventional ovens too in the form of infrared (thermal) radiation which actually carry more energy than microwaves (though its still not considered ionizing radiation). Also, the safety measures in place to keep the microwaves from exiting the enclosure are there, not because of dangerous ionizing radiation, but because you may recall that our bodies are mostly water, so you probably wouldn’t enjoy being cooked along with your food. Also uneven heating of the food is not caused by ionization, but rather by wave interference in the microwave and by difference absorbent/thermal properties of the various part of food. Also real experts have found that even long term direct exposure to microwaves are not linked to cancer actually more carcinogens are produced by cooking with an oven; in general, more of the food’s nutrients are lost using an oven too. It’s true that food generally tastes worse in the oven because of the nature of the heating process, but it’s not any more dangerous for your health, and I advise you do a little more research before trying to scare people into throwing out their microwaves on the basis of false information.

    • Food does not taste worst when cooked in a conventional oven. It tastes worse when cooked in a microwave oven. Have you ever cooked something in the microwave and ate it and cooked the same thing in a conventional oven and ate it? The tastes are definitely not the same. Microwaved food doesn’t taste good. Plus I think microwaves are for lazy people and for those who like eating processed packaged foods instead of making their own so they know exactly what they are eating.

  5. Your whole article is based on “ionisation” and the chemical structure of the food changing. Unfortunately you have the science completely incorrect. The microwave radiation is actually NON-ionising (meaning it doesn’t cause electrons to be lost or gained). The radiation merely affects the magnetic dipole of polar molecules (water for example) and doesn’t affect the structure in the slightest. This excitation of the molecules releases IR radiation (heat) and heats the food.

    Microwave heating is actually safer and healthier than other methods, as it is sterlising (kills all bacteria in the food) and there is less chance of burning the food and ending up with free radicals than in other cooking methods.

    If you are going to advise people on giving up a convenient and safe cooking method, you should at least base it on accurate science and not just big words.

  6. Kate, I appreciate your post on microwaves. My family also wants to get rid of ours, because (1) we heard that it wasn’t healthy and (2) I like the aesthetic of a clean “natural” kitchen. However, I’m skeptical by nature and I ‘m always curious when everybody says something is bad without a ton of proof for it. So I wanted to see if this fear and panic over microwave ovens was justified before deep- sixing ours in the name of health. In terms of danger, I think there is no real evidence that microwave ovens do anything harmful to food while heating up as another person posted previously, but when cooking or running at low to high power, microwave ovens emit EMF radiation which is considered harmful. It is suspected that EMF pollution may nurture or grow many types of microbes that make human infections and diseases more difficult to cure. So in order to test how much EMF my microwave oven produced, I bought a good Gauss meter and I measured the EMF when the microwave was turned off, and it was completely safe, no measurable EMF produced. However, when I turned the microwave on “high” for 45 seconds and placed the Gauss meter on top of the oven, the needle (as they say) was way off the charts in measuring EMF. But, and this is a big point, when I moved the Gauss meter 2 inches away from the microwave oven, the measurement was half as strong as when on top of it, and when I further moved just 5 inches away from the oven, the Gauss meter measured nearly zero EMF. So my conclusions are that most microwave ovens (ours is 8 years old) are very well insulated from EMF pollution and so the hype over EMF pollution that Dr. Mercola and others warn against is just not evidenced or apparent in terms of modern microwave ovens. Frankly, there is way more measurable EMF pollution when you talk on your cell phone. My Gauss meter showed that when speaking on an iPhone the EMF was equal to that of a microwave oven on ‘high” with a Gauss meter sitting on top of the oven. A safe distance for EMF pollution when speaking on an iPhone is about 8-10 inches away from your body. And a headset doesn’t dissipate the EMF much either. So getting rid of your cell phone is probably a safer health bet than dumping your microwave oven. That said, there is again a certain clean aesthetic that I like in a kitchen that doesn’t have a microwave oven, so if people get rid of their ovens for that reason, I find it a more honest and truthful reason. But to think you are protecting your family from dangerous EMF pollution by chucking your microwave oven is not verifiable and you and your readers should be aware of that fact. Thank you.

  7. I enjoyed the article and agree with all of your comments. I think you should visit the website listed above and learn about the Macrowave. It’s really a great product. It’s been featured on the DIY network “the best of KBIS (kitchen and bath show) 2012, as well as “I Want That”. You should check it out.

  8. We tossed our microwave out about three years ago, and I don’t miss it at all. We got rid of it because we wanted to distance ourselves from convenience foods, like frozen meals and packaged foods full of preservatives. We hoped by not having a microwave, we would be more likely to eat whole foods and cook from scratch. It really did help!

  9. Our microwave just stopped working this weekend. I had tried to convince the family to get rid of it earlier this year with no persuasion. So God moved! Beware to not preheat the oven to reheat food, our loss of a plate and a lesson learned.

  10. If researching the necessary science gives you a headache, then you probably shouldn’t be reporting on the subject. That leads to ill-informed fallacies and misconceptions. Understand that microwave radiation (oo scary word!) is LESS energetic than visible light. And if visible light isn’t ionizing your food, then neither is your microwave appliance. There is a difference between excitation and ionization, the latter being the stripping of electrons from host atoms. Think of your microwave as simply vibrating the water in your food to heat it up.

  11. Joseph Ayeh Selevan says:

    I have an aversion to microwave ovens and all types of unusual radiation.I would like to be a member of an organization that advocates against the use of microwave ovens and being subject to unusual radiation.Does such an organization exsist? Would you know of any people interested in starting such an organization?

  12. Microwaves are a form of NON-ionizing radiation, in the same class as radio waves and visible light.

  13. I haven’t had a microwave in 10 years, more for the ruined flavor and texture and because I like my kitchen without a clutter of appliances. But to save energy and time I use a water kettle to heat the water before I start cooking rice/pasta on the stovetop. The kettle also allows me to make coffee quickly in a french press pot, so I don’t need any filters either (saving a little time, money and environment in one go).
    A regular bread toaster will also do for defrosting slices of bread quickly too, but mostly its just about taking things out of the freezer in time. What I also do is to freeze the foods in flat packs and portion sized to begin with, they will defrost much faster and I can easily cook for one when I want to.
    I never really had a habit of reheating food, I eat it when I cook it, what is left over is turned into something else the next day. Besides, the more time spent heating foods the more the vitamins have time to break down.

  14. EngineertoMD says:

    It is impossible that in the physical world we currently occupy that microwaves can in any way, shape, or form ionize our food.

    Please, please, please everyone do your homework before swallowing this hook.

    *Disclaimer, I do not own, nor endorse using microwaves. But this kind of pseudo- science and the amount of re-posting from blog to blog to blog is just sad. Unfortunatly I think this tall tale can be traced back to Dr. Mercola’s site.

  15. I enjoyed the post and the comments on this. I appreciate the civility of all involved,too.
    We have been without a microwave for almost 5 years. This is due to, mostly, space constraints, and generally we have not missed it. I do like to heat things quickly somtimes and have found that using my colander over a small amount of boiling water with a lid on it does wonders. I place an oven proof bowl in the colander because it can tolerate the heat. It’s like a micro steam table and since steam gets hotter than boiling water it heats up the food pretty quickly, without crisping things like mashed potatoes.

  16. We recently lived a few months in Italy very happily without the microwave. I’d be happy to see it go, but I think my husband would object. Growing up, my family didn’t have one until I was around 14 years old, so I suppose I just got used to living without it. Plus, I really love a simple low-tech life.

  17. My microwave serves 3 main purposes. It holds up my shamrock plant. It is my kitchen timer and clock, and it is used to melt cheese on nachos. I can move the plant, buy a clock, and melt cheese in a double boiler, though it would be healthier to give up the nachos altogether. I like what one commenter said and may replace my m’wave with a nice excaliber dehydrator. :)

  18. We are without MW since feb/2011…..before that also we didn’t had it for almost 3 yrs. but this time it’s gone for ever…..well I grew up in a house without MW so it all seemed possible….stove top & toaster oven do all my jobs….I do miss it while baking for heating/melting small amounts of chocolate but that’s about it….blogged about our life without MW here in this post….
    http://spicebuds.blogspot.com/2011/05/back-to-basics-1-life-without-microwave.html

  19. We moved about 7 months ago to a new apartment. The landlord provided a microwave. It sits on the top shelf in our laundry room. We also have our own toaster oven, and it sits up there in the laundry room too. We just warm things with the oven or stove because the toaster oven was taking up too much room in our kitchen. We’ve been microwave-less for a little over a year now, and we’ve never once wished we had it. Food tastes so much better reheated on the stove top or in the oven!

  20. We haven’t used a microwave in years, and I am happy about it. I don’t even think about it. Nearly everyone else thinks we are strange, but that’s okay. :-) I use my toaster oven and the stovetop for reheating items, and it is just fine. Good things are worth the wait. :-)

  21. bibliotecaria says:

    One of the methods I found for heating things up without the microwave that didn’t require me to dirty another pot is the power of steam. A double boiler or just a pot with a metal strainer and the item to be warmed inside the strainer is the setup. Get the water in the bottom pot to boil and let it sit for a little while. It warms up the contents of the plate or bowl beautifully.

  22. we haven’t used a microwave in almost 5 years as well. i still have our mostly as a clock in the kitchen and to warm my heated wrap for my back when i am pregnant. i am not tempted at all to use it for anything else because of all the reasons you already listed. i have found it really easy to live without one and i think food tastes better the old fashioned reheating ways…

    my recent post: a little bit of real life (and my 37.5 week maternity pics!)

  23. When we moved into our house, five years ago, we did not have the counter space for the microwave and the toaster oven and the toaster oven was much more loved. Micro was demoted to the top of the dryer in the laundry room. I thought every grown up had to have one in the house. When people came over it would be moved out of the way, until we just didn’t set it back out. Eventually, it was donated and we haven’t missed it since!

  24. We haven’t had our microwave in the kitchen for several years….it’s in the basement kitchen, for the very rare ‘just in case.’ At one time I could cook a whole meal using the microwave. I finally decided that I don’t like the texture of food, and many times foods have been ruined by over-micowaving. We’ve discovered lots of ways to reheat meals on the stove top and in the oven….and it really doesn’t take long…just a little planning. The results are deeelish!

  25. I have never developed an appreciation for microwaving, even though most of my peers have had them since we were kids at home. When microwave popcorn first came out, I thought it tasted awful compared to making homemade. That popcorn cast a lot of doubt in my mind about the quality of microwaved foods. Maybe the popcorn has improved since then, but I still see no real advantages, other than potential convenience, and that is not enough motivation for me to want a microwave.

    When I was a young adult who didn’t like to cook, the toaster oven got a lot of use, and it still does, only now I’ve learned how to cook real foods.

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