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December 6th is Microwave Oven Day!  Everything You Wanted to Know About That Helpful Device

Posted in Food Policy,Food Safety,Our Blog on December 6, 2018

December 6 marks Microwave Oven Day.  This life changing appliance has made life easier for college students, single people, over-worked parents, and kids wanting some independence.  This happy little appliance makes for convenient and quick reheating or even cooking.

On this special day we honor that helpful little box that sits on the counter or hangs from the cabinet.  You can show your support by making some popcorn, preparing a snack or meal in the microwave, or heating up your favorite warm beverage.  Whatever you decide, the handy microwave has your back.

How Does the Microwave Work?

Essentially, the microwave works by bouncing electromagnetic waves in the box that agitates the water, fat, and sugar molecules in food.  This creates friction that generates enough energy to heat and cook food. This promotes heating and cooking more quickly and evenly than other cooking methods. The waves are produced by a vacuum tube within the oven known as a “magnetron.”  While it might sound like a name from the new Transformers movie, the magnetron just makes those microwaves needed to get the job done.  This might seem scary, but it is a kind of non-ionizing radiation.  Essentially this means that they do not pose the same risks as x-rays or other types of ionizing radiation.  The waves reflect on the ovens interior and bounce around, passing through glass, paper, plastic, and similar materials until they are absorbed by the food.

Who Invented the Microwave?

The microwave, like many modern marvels was created by accident.  In 1945, an American engineer, Percy Spencer was working on a project with active radar.  During an experiment, he noticed that a candy bar in his pocket was melting.  He discovered that the high-powered microwave beans created a heating effect ideal for cooking.

Armed with this idea, he attempted to cook popcorn.  Success!!!  Then an egg.  Well…  Not so successful.  The egg exploded in his fellow engineer’s face.  Sometimes science can be messy.

At the time, Spencer was employed by Raytheon.  He was then tasked to experiment with different methods of heating food safely with microwaves.  On October 8, 1945 Raytheon filed a United States patent application for Spencer’s microwave cooking process.  The first commercially available microwave oven (named Radarange) hit the shelves in 1947.  Fast forward to modern time where an estimated 90% of households in the United States have a microwave.

Is Microwave Cooking and Heating Safe?

Most people are familiar with the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and their role in food safety.  Did you know that the FDA also regulates microwave ovens?  Each microwave oven manufacturer must certify their products and meet established safety performance standards. These safety performance standards are enforced by the FDA.

According to the FDA, “Microwave ovens are generally safe when used correctly.  But people have experienced burns, and in rare cases, other injuries from microwave radiation, particularly in cases involving improper use or maintenance.”  Always follow your user manual to ensure proper and safe usage.

How Healthy is Cooking in the Microwave?

Any type of cooking breaks down nutrients.  That is what heat does, whether from a regular oven or a microwave oven.  Shorter cooking times help preserve nutrients in food.  As microwave heating and cooking is shorter than other traditional cooking methods, it often does a better job of preserving nutrients.

Cooking vegetables in water degrades nutrients more than other methods.  Vegetables lose their nutrients to the water.  A study from Harvard University uses broccoli to explain this phenomenon.  Boiled broccoli loses glucosinolate (the compound responsible for its cancer-fighting properties) when boiled.  Steaming and even microwave steaming broccoli held onto more of that valuable glucosinolate than boiled or fried broccoli.  Microwave steaming, even more so than traditional steaming requires a smaller amount of water and essentially steams food from the inside out.  This helps to retain more vitamins and minerals than any other cooking method.

How Safe is it to Cook in the Microwave?

Most injuries related to microwave oven are caused by heat-related burns associated with hot containers, overheated foods (too hot microwave pizza bites have gotten us all), or exploding liquids.  Almost all injuries related to microwaves are caused by things other than radiation.

Radiation injuries occur when large amounts of microwave radiation leaks through openings – such as gaps in microwave oven seals.  FDA regulations require microwave ovens to comply with specific standards.

Historic concerns involved potential interference with electronic cardiac pacemakers.  Luckily today’s pacemakers are designed to shield against this kind of interference.  There is hope for those people who want to make their microwave popcorn before a home matinée.  Always consult your health care provider if you have concerns.

Safety Tips

  • Always follow manufacturer’s instructions. The user manual will provide directions for operating the equipment and safety precautions for the device.  Some instructions might include not operating an empty microwave or provide maximum time to heat water or other liquids.
  • Use microwave-safe containers. Cookware that is specifically designed for use in the microwave exists.  Look for the symbol for microwave safe before placing any container in the microwave for heating or cooking.  NEVER put metal pans or aluminum foil in the microwave.  This could damage the oven at worst or generate uneven cooking at best.  Most likely the former.  Some plastic containers will melt in the microwave or leech chemicals into foods.  “The FDA recommends using glass, ceramic, and plastic containers labeled for microwave oven use.”
  • Avoid super-heated water. “Super-heated” means more than just really really hot.  Super-heating involves heating water beyond its boiling temperature without signs of boiling.  When using a microwave to heat water beyond boiling temperature, a slight disturbance or movement may cause the water to “violently explode out of the cup” causing serious skin burns or scalding injuries.
  • Check for leakage. Check door hinges, latch, or seals for damage.  If the microwave oven is damaged or won’t close firmly it can leak microwave radiation.
  • DO NOT use oven that seem to operate when the door is open. The microwave should not operate when the door is open to prevent radiation leaking into the room.  If the microwave appears to stay on when the door is open, immediately stop using it.

“A failure in the door sensing switch can sometimes allow the fan, light and/or turntable to operate when the door is open.  But safety interlocks in the microwave ovens are intended to stop the magnetron from generating microwaves.” explains Ting Song, Ph.D., a biomedical engineer with the FDA’s Magnetic Resonance and Electronic Products branch.  “When interlocks work normally, the magnetron will not operate.  However, since each oven design is different, consumers cannot be 100 percent sure that microwave radiation is not being emitted in this situation.”

No matter how you decide to celebrate this holiday, be sure to do so safely.  Enjoy your magic heating box.  Microwave away!

By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)