Samui Wining & Dining
Microwave Mystery

Modern marvel or hidden hazard ?


6Instant gratification. That's how life has evolved over the last few decades. Think back to your childhood holiday photos. Mum and Dad would snap away and when the roll of film was finished you'd hand it in at the photo lab. If you were lucky, you'd get the prints back the next day. Then we got 'one-hour service' and you could pretty much hand in the roll, do the groceries, and then browse through precious memories over a cup of tea. Nowadays, we point, shoot and see the results instantly. Instant gratification. Today's kids don't understand the concept of waiting in anticipation for anything.

    Staying with this train of thought, we have the microwave. Remember when you had to heat milk on the stovetop to make a cup of hot chocolate? Now we just pop a mug in the microwave, and it's ready in 90 seconds. Remember making popcorn? You'd put a thin layer of kernels into the pot, cover with the lid, and wait in anticipation for the first 'pop!', that seemed to take forever. Now we get microwave popcorn. Ready in two minutes.

The microwave is great. Who has time to waste these days, right? But what does this little wonder-box do to our food? Is it good for us, or hazardous to our health? Well, after a bit of Googling, here are some interesting facts, that will allow you to come to your own conclusion. Ah Google. Another example of instant gratification. Need to know something? Well as long as you have access to the internet, the world is your oyster. It's no wonder Encyclopedia Britannica announced, in March 2012, that it was selling the last of their printed 32-volume sets, and would now only offer the online version. Everything is about speed and efficiency; that's how the world is changing and even this 244-year old publisher has had to change with the times.

      Before we go into what's good and bad about the microwave, lets look at how it works. Microwaves cause water molecules in the food to vibrate at very high frequencies and eventually turn to steam, which heats your food. While this can rapidly heat your meal, what many don't realise is that it also causes a change in the food's chemical structure.

      There are numerous issues that have emerged since microwave ovens first went onto the market more than 40 years ago. The first thing you probably noticed when you began microwaving food was how uneven the heating is. Now that's fine for a bowl of soup that can be stirred, but how do you stir a portion of lasagne? Well, you can't of course, so you end up with bits overheated to a frazzle, and cold blobs elsewhere. 'Hot spots' in microwaved food can be hot enough to cause burns, or build up to a 'steam explosion'. That's why so many mums gasp in terror on seeing someone heating the baby's bottle in the microwave.

       Another problem with microwave ovens is that carcinogenic toxins can leach out of plastic and paper containers and into your food. Now lets not get into all the technical jargon and long-winded names of plastics and chemicals, but you're better off transferring your food into a microwave-proof dish before heating. Nowadays, we hear horror stories of pretty much everything and anything contributing to cancer, so why add another to the list that would be easy to avoid.

      We've heard the stories too about radiation escaping from your microwave while it's operating. But really, this was more of a risk with earlier models than with recent ones, which undergo more rigorous testing. Theoretically, there is a small amount of radiation leakage through the viewing glass, but reports consider this level to be insignificant and well below the level known to harm people.

      On a nutritional level, minerals are largely unaffected by 'nuking' food, so you’ll still get the same magnesium, calcium and zinc in microwaved foods as you would in non-microwaved foods. But some reports say that the all-important B vitamins, flavonoids and other nutritional elements are easily destroyed by this cooking process.

      Now just search the word 'microwave' on the internet, and you'll get page after page mentioning the health risks of using this time-saving device. There're surprisingly few links mentioning the good points – other than speedy cooking. Mmm... now this could be that, well, microwaves really are bad for us. Or, it could have to do with the fact that human nature loves drama and hype, in much the same way that we are more likely to complain about a bad meal than compliment the chef on a good one.

      Those in favour of the microwave argue that water-soluble vitamins and minerals are better preserved with this method of cooking than traditional methods such as boiling, where all the goodness ends up in the cooking water, and ultimately down the drain. Also, because microwaved meals are cooked in their own juice, there's no need to add butter or oil, and also less salt, reducing the kilojoule and sodium intake for those watching their diet. Vegetables also retain their colour and crispness when cooked in the microwave. Remember Granny's over-boiled, soggy, grey broccoli? None of that with a microwave.

      So who should we believe? Well, like with everything in life, it's all about moderation and common sense. Use suitable containers and utensils, and follow the instructions provided with the appliance. Don't over-cook food, and don't stare through the glass door with your face up close – it's not a TV after all. It's about weighing up the pros and cons and making an informed decision, ignoring websites and 'information' that seem overly one-sided. If these appliances were so dangerous, would they really still be on sale to the public after 40 years? And no, you can't dry your dog in the microwave, as, according to urban legend, one idiotic woman in America once did – and promptly sued the manufacturer when her poor pooch died. Because they didn't actually say she couldn't do it!

      Anyone who enjoys cooking will admit that there's less satisfaction from cooking in a microwave than oven roasting or baking. But, with this speedy cooking process there's more time to sit back and enjoy that cup of tea rather than slaving over the stove. Let's face it, in today's high-paced world, we can all do with a little help in creating a 25-hour day.

Rosanne Turner


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