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Microwave ovens - overview

Every microwave oven contains a magnetron, a tube in which electrons are affected by magnetic and electric fields in such a way as to produce an electromagnetic field with a microwave-length frequency of about 2,450 megaHertz (MHz) or 2.45 gigaHertz (GHz). This field interacts with the water molecules in food, which:

  • causes them to reverse their polarity back and forth from north to south millions of times a second, generating heat
  • cooks the food from the centre outwards

Unfortunately, the extremely fast polarity reversal can also cause substantial damage to the molecules, often tearing them apart or forcefully deforming them. The scientific name for this deformation is ‘structural isomerism’. This potential to deform and damage the very molecules of the food means that a more accurate name for ‘microwave ovens’ would be ‘radiation ovens’, but fewer would be sold!

Whilst in action a microwave oven represents a radioactive hazard, especially if its protective insulation has been damaged in some way. As a general principle, the older the oven, the more likely it is that its insulation was ineffective in the first place and that it has been damaged during its life. Food cooked in a microwave oven does not in itself present a radiation risk. The microwave radiation ceases to exist as soon as the power to the magnetron of a microwave oven is switched off.

Possible athermic effects
In addition to the ‘thermic effects’ described above, there are ‘athermic effects’. These are denied by the manufacturers and rarely discussed even in scientific circles. These athermic effects are not presently measurable, but they can also deform the structures of molecules. In genetic technology, for instance, microwave radiation is used to weaken cell membranes. The forces involved actually “break” the cells, changing the electrical potentials between the outer and inner side of the cell membranes, and making them easy prey for viruses, fungi and other micro-organisms.

Radiolytic compounds
The deformation of molecules caused by ‘microwaving’ can also lead to radiolytic compounds (combinations of atoms created by the action of radiation). Microwave oven manufacturers insist that microwaved foods do not contain different or significantly higher levels of radiolytic compounds than broiled, baked or other conventionally cooked foods. The information below suggests that that is not true, but adequate research has not been conducted in the West and scientists working in the West are reluctant to accept the work of scientists working in the East until they have replicated it (especially if the findings are not to their taste - Ed).

Most nutritionists agree that boiling foods can leach the water-soluble nutrients they contain, especially vitamins C and B1 (thiamin). It is also generally accepted that the longer food is exposed to heat, the greater the nutrient loss. In these respects, in many instances microwave cooking should be the preferred means of cooking, providing the issue of radiolytic compounds can be settled.

Food safety
Food cooked in a microwave oven does not heat uniformly, because ...

  • the microwaves heat water particles far more quickly than ice particles
  • the microwaves heat substances in the food differently, according to their water content. The higher the water content, the quicker the heating
  • the microwaves only penetrate approximately a centimetre into the food. The innermost parts of the food or dish are only heated indirectly by contact with this microwaved outer layer

... raising the possibility that some areas have been insufficiently heated to kill any unwanted micro-organisms. Manufacturers use rotating tables and ‘stirrer fans’ and recommend standing times to help alleviate this problem but it remains a danger (see articles and ‘Food poisoning’ below).

Ed.- The oft-quoted ‘fact’ that microwave ovens cook from the inside outwards is a myth. The common phenomenon of microwaved items being hotter in the middle than on the surface is due to lower water content closer to the surface due to evaporation.