Is microwave cooking really safe?

For as long as I can remember, my mother and father have quietly resisted technological advances going on in the outside World. My parents were the last of my peer group to convert from black and white TV to colour, and to this day profess to finding no need at all for a video recorder. Bearing in mind my folks’ quasi-Luddite ways, it was inevitable that my first experience of microwave cooking was not to be in my own home. At a school friend’s house for tea, I was quite fascinated when piping hot cod-in-batter slabs emerged from some space-age contraption after only a few minutes of cooking. Even at the tender age of 11, the timesaving and convenience factors of this new wave of cooking were not lost on me either. When I came of age and got a place of my own, I saw a microwave oven as much of a must-have item as a fridge, washing machine (and video recorder).

Over the years, however, my enthusiasm for microwave cooking has cooled considerably. The fact that microwaves heat food in a way very different to conventional cooking methods has given me considerable cause for disquiet. Traditional means of cooking, from the campfires of early man to modern-day electric ovens, give off radiant heat which makes its way into a food, cooking it from the outside in. Microwave ovens, on the other hand, generate what is known as an alternating current, the effect of which is to cause food molecules to gyrate quite unnaturally, billions of times each second. All this movement creates frictional heat, effectively cooking the food from the inside out.

The unique effects microwaves have on food appear not to be altogether healthy. One study dating back to the 70s revealed that microwave cooking deformed the cellular structure within vegetables in a way not seen with conventional heating. Other research, published in the Lancet, found that the microwaving of milk led to structural changes in the proteins that might well pose hazards for the body. Some scientists have suggested that one particular protein formed in this way (D-proline) is toxic to the nervous system, kidneys and liver.

In 1989, Swiss research revealed that consuming food thawed and/or cooked in a microwave oven could cause undesirable changes in blood chemistry. Two notable effects were a reduction in the level of the blood pigment haemoglobin (predisposing to anaemia) and an increase in the overall number of immune cells in the bloodstream (generally taken to be a sign of stress, infection or inflammation in the body). Also, exposing light-emitting (luminescent) bacteria to blood drawn after the consumption of microwaved food caused them to glow more brightly. The suggestion is that microwaves may lead to unnatural energetic changes in food that could pass to those who eat it.

There is no irrefutable proof that microwave cooking is hazardous to health. However, in the absence of large, properly conducted studies, there is no irrefutable proof that it is safe either. What exists, though, is evidence that microwaving can have undesirable effects on the food we eat, and that eating it can have undesirable effects in the body. Two years ago I chucked out my microwave, and have not knowingly eaten microwaved food since. I’ve come to the conclusion that, in this instance at least, my parents’ less-than-enthusiastic attitude to new technology is right on the button.

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