Microwave: Friend or Foe?

I once refused to buy a microwave and vowed to use only my oven and stovetop for reheating purposes. I believed microwaves were not only another appliance to clutter my countertop, but couldn’t possibly be good for the nutrients in my food. Around this time, I also dabbled in a raw diet (curse those ovens and stovetops, too!)

The truth is, microwaves are easy. And they’re fast. Transferring food to an oven safe dish and gently heating it within the warmth of your oven or on top of your stove seems more “natural,” but microwaves really aren’t that bad, and they’re not killing you or your meal.

Raw foodists would argue that we shouldn’t cook our food at all if we want to retain all of the vitamins, minerals, and even the enzymes that help with digestion. While there is merit to their claim (cooking does destroy some nutrients), cooking can actually be a benefit, too.

When cooking works to our advantage

Rui Hai Liu, an associate professor of food science at Cornell University, found that cooking actually boosts the amount of lycopene, a potent antioxidant, in tomatoes. In an interview with Scientific American, Liu also says carrots, spinach, mushrooms, asparagus, cabbage, peppers, and many other vegetables also supply more antioxidants to the body when cooked than they do when raw.

Some nutrients do break down when exposed to heat. Vitamin C is particularly fragile in the presence of heat, but its loss in some foods due to cooking is made up for in its abundancy in many other foods. The ability to cook our food also means reducing exposure to foodborne pathogens and making certain foods more palatable.

An argument for microwaves

Microwaves cook via waves of energy that primarily affect water and other molecules that are electrically asymmetrical, causing them to vibrate and quickly build up thermal energy. That’s a mouthful of jargon, so basically: microwaves cause the food molecules to get all excited and move around, heating food from the inside out. It’s hot and bothered, essentially.

According to an article by Harvard Medical School, the cooking method that best retains nutrients is one that cooks quickly, heats food for the shortest amount of time, and uses as little liquid as possible. The method that fits this criteria? The microwave. Microwaves are sort of mysterious and coupled with our (reasonable) fear of radiation, explains the doubts people have about them.

According to Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D. of Harvard Health Publishing, people generally have two concerns when it comes to microwaves: first, exposure to the microwaves might somehow injure our bodies and second, microwaving food might damage nutrients. The first of these comes with limited to no evidence to support the claim. The second is somewhat true, but cooking via any method is going to damage the chemical structure of the nutrient to some degree. Don’t worry – there’s plenty of nutrients left.

The verdict

Go ahead and nuke that plate. Not only is it easy, but the cooking time is shorter (preserving nutrients!) and you can skip any added oil you may have used to grease up a baking pan or skillet. Plus, less dishes in the sink.

Just remember to watch what you microwave. While some plastic is microwave safe, other containers, like takeout containers, margarine tubs, and the like, are not intended for the microwave. Microwaving these containers might cause them to melt and leak chemicals into your food. Your safest bet is to put it on a plate intended for the microwave. If you’re a Vegetable and Butcher subscriber, the bottom of your meal container is microwavable – just remove the lid first!


Emily Smith

PR and Marketing Specialist of Vegetable and Butcher and a self-proclaimed nutrition nerd and sustainability junkie. Emily called DC home for three years before making her way to California. Emily has her master's in Nutrition Education and is a Certified Nutrition Specialist® (CNS®) candidate. She's passionate about helping people learn to use food to fuel their outdoor activities, and in her free time you can find her rock climbing. . You can connect with her on her website and on Instagram.

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