What Really Happens when you Microwave Food?

The microwave oven is ubiquitous in most home across America. When Americans get hungry and want a quick, hot, meal, they no longer turn on the stove or oven — they pop something in a plastic container into the microwave, and in a matter of minutes they’re ready to eat a steaming bowl or plate of whatever suits their fancy. Twenty years ago the microwave seemed a miracle of modern technology. Today, it’s taken for granted like cell phones and big screen TVs.

But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of people’s minds when it comes to microwave cooking — how much, if any, of the basic nutrients are disabled when a dish is microwaved, as compared to baking, frying, or boiling? Of course, it’s always been obvious to food scientists, and then to the general public, that the best way to preserve and consume nutrient is in their raw and natural state. But who wants to eat a raw potato? Heat will always diminish the nutrient factor in any kind of food, according to nutritionists. And compared with other and more traditional methods of heating and cooking food, the damage to nutrients with microwave cooking is usually minimal.

Scientists have shown that the major nutrient influences in cooking are, first of all, the amount of time an item is actually cooked. The longer it remains heated the more vital nutrients are destroyed or disabled. Secondly, food loses a significant amount of nutrients when it is cooked with excess liquids, such as water or tomato puree — vitamins and mineral have a tendency to leach out faster and in more abundance when more liquid is used. That is why cooks are encouraged to incorporate their cooking liquids in their recipes — it helps retain minerals and vitamins that would otherwise simply be poured down the drain.

The way a microwave oven works is basically simply physics. The machine sends out waves on a micro frequency that are picked up by molecules of water in the food item; these molecules then generate a large quantity of heat as they vibrate with the micro wavelengths inside the food. The uniqueness of this style of cooking comes from the fact that cooking food in a microwave requires little or no liquid, whereas when a food item like carrots are boiled in water the water will turn slightly orange — indicating that some of the important nutrients have leaked away from the vegetable itself and are now contained in the liquid medium.

When baking and roasting food, the problem lies in the fact that the exterior of the food item is heated quickly while the interior of the item, such as a roast or a baking potato, takes longer to reach the proper temperature. This creates carbonization of the outside of the food, which is what chefs strive for in restaurants for flavor, but which actually destroys a good deal of the nutritional value of the food and has been linked to possible carcinogens.

The bottom line is that while not all the facts and figures are in about microwave cooking yet, scientists believe it to be one of the best ways to prepare food in today’s busy, time-starved world.