If you’re not already familiar with News Target.com, it’s basically one-stop shopping for alternative medicine and woo, brought to you by musclebound “Health Ranger” Mike Adams. There’s everything from “your fillings will kill you” to “suntan lotion will kill you” along with a dash of Scientology-like hate for all medications and assurances that the FDA is conspiring with Merck to keep you sick.
This Thursday, News Target “Citizen Journalist” John Andrews published an article claiming that microwaving your food is unhealthy. He starts off on the wrong foot by defensively assuring his readers that he doesn’t “walk around with aluminum foil wrapped around my head in an effort to shield my thoughts from the aliens.” (Oh? That’s uh… that’s good.) By the end of it, he’s nuking his CDs in a microwave.
I figure that a collection of bad ideas this concentrated deserves a little loving attention.
Cooking kills food?
Now, it’s worth noting at the outset that the nutritional science on microwave cooking is still somewhat inconclusive: some studies show that microwave cooking can destroy certain nutrients in food (especially B12) faster than other methods, but others suggest that the short cooking time preserves most of them better than other methods. The scientific jury is still out, though most qualified nutritionists seem to agree that there isn’t going to be any one simple answer.
Irrelevant in any case. Even if microwaves did break down some nutrients significantly, that in itself hardly makes microwave cooking “unhealthy” or “bad for you” in the sense of actually worsening your health. Of course, Mr. Andrews eventually goes on to argue that cooking is bad idea period. In fact, Mr. Andrews appears to be a raw foods advocate:
This is what kills every living organism that goes through the irradiation process, including the food. (emphasis added)
“Killing food” is a classic raw foods concept, and this one is based off of the belief that there are delicate enzymes in all living things which are destroyed by heat, but would supposedly be energizing (either digestively or to your body in general) if ingested “naturally.” Like many fad nutrition ideas though, this idea mixes truth with fiction: living things do contain special enzymes, and cooking does generally destroy them. But so does human stomach acid, making the point moot (enzymes also only work at very particular ph levels).
More importantly, there’s just no evidence that enzymes from, say, plants, are going to have useful effects in humans. Enzymes are just special proteins that catalyze all sorts of different bio-chemical reactions, but the cells in a healthy human body are perfectly capable of figuring out how much of which specific enzymes they need to produce at any given time. Even if you could get significant quantities of random plant enzymes into your tissues undamaged, there’s no reason to think that they would catalyze useful or relevant reactions in whatever part of the body they end up in.
But what about those nutrients that do survive digestion?
Cooking Neutralizes Nutrients?
Again, it is true that all forms of cooking can break down chemical structures in food, including natural vitamins and other nutrients. And some cooking reactions, like the frying, charring, or browning of carbohydrates and fats, can create “toxic” (though tasty!) compounds that everyone knows you should consume in moderation. But what raw foodies don’t tell you is that cooking can help your body break down and digest nutrients that it would otherwise miss out on: so the harm of destroying some nutrients can be balanced out by the good of being able to absorb and use more of what’s left. In the case of some foods (like tomatoes), cooking can even release new antioxidant compounds. In others, it actually destroys toxic compounds. Some foods (like kidney beans) are downright poisonous if not cooked, and of course, there’s the all important consideration of flatulence: some uncooked foods will give you stinky, noisy gas. Ewww.
Raw foods can be a great thing to introduce into a well-diversified diet, especially if they replace processed foods full of sugar and poor quality ingredients. But declaring cooking to be unhealthy, period, is just wrong: the science says that it’s just not that simple.
Of course, it’s also worth noting that all this talk over destroying delicate vitamins in food is a bit ridiculous in any case: aside from those that eat nothing but Cheetos, few people with decently balanced diets are actually significantly deficient in any vitamins or nutrients. The problem with most people’s diets is simply combining too many calories with too little physical activity: this problem dwarfs virtually every other nutritional issue.
The making of microwave myths
Okay, so nutritional value isn’t a good basis on which to dump cooking in general, but what about microwaves in particular? Mr. Andrews cites a study in which microwaved broccoli loses, for instance, 97% of its flavonoids. What he doesn’t mention, or doesn’t know, is that the proceedure for this particular study was to sink broccoli in water and cook it on high for five minutes. This is both a patently ridiculous amount of overcooking, and as well as a completely unnecessarily use of water (into which the water-soluble flavonoids are predictably then dissolved and lost instead of retained in the final consumed food). Again, this is not a particularly compelling reason to nix nuking, especially in light of contradictory evidence about how microwave cooking can better preserve all sorts of nutrients. (Oh crap, I forgot: the FDA is in on the conspiracy!)
Anyhow, Mr. Andrews next gives a fairly involved description of how he says microwaves work. The first part of his discussion is generally sensible, but it starts to run off the trolley tracks when it starts talking about scary ionized plasma being involved in microwave cooking and causing all sorts of hypothetical havoc. Microwave radiation is, as even he admits, non-ionizing: that is, its energy level is too low to liberate electrons from molecules. Mr. Andrews, however, is still convinced that the dangers of ionized plasma are somehow relevant to microwave cooking.
His citations here are… youtube videos of geeksperiments. But while it’s true that microwaves can create brief plasma effects in these carefully engineered situations, when was the last time anyone cooked food in a microwave with a lit candle in an inverted glass jar or a single, specially prepared grape? Again, these effects really aren’t relevant to how people actually use microwaves.
Andrew’s finally claims that high power cooking in microwaves is especially bad, and to illustrate this point he again resorts to…. non-food:
I decided to try microwaving some audio CDs to prove that the power level had an effect on the amount of damage done while cooking to the same temperature. …
I set my inverter-magnetron microwave to cook at 30% power for 3 1/2 minutes. I placed the CD in a plastic bowl and added 1 cup of water at 74°F. After cooking, the temperature was 158°F. I dried off the CD and stuck it in my CD player. It still played. All 16 songs were still ok. I then placed a second, identical CD in the bowl and again added 1 cup of water. I cooked it for one minute on high power. It went from 73°F to 162°F, so it got approximately the same amount of heat. But the CD was visibly very damaged. The CD player obviously couldn’t even read it.
Although this was a crude experiment, it illustrates the fact that cooking on high power causes more damage than cooking on low power. So, the higher the power, the more damage it causes, even if the final temperature is the same.
Mr. Andrews claims that this experiment demonstrates that cooking in a microwave, and more specifically, cooking on high power, causes more “damage” in general. While he does admit that the experiment is “crude,” it is, in fact, flat out ridiculous.
Compact Discs contain metal: specifically a thin layer of conductive aluminum (or, in some cases, gold or silver) that reacts to microwave radiation in a dramatically different way than organic compounds. Simply put, a sufficiently high electromagnetic field can cause “arcing” which melts the plastic layers of the CD (often creating rather beautiful patterns). None of this, let alone the (I hope tongue in cheek?) test of whether it plays in CD player afterwards, has any relevance to what happens with food at any level of microwave cooking.
Serious nutritional science is still somewhat in its infancy, and for all we know, we may someday discover a sound medical reason to ditch microwave cooking. But then, it’s just as likely that we could discover reasons to ditch raw foods in favor of microwaving. What we can say for sure is that the arguments and evidence that Mr. Andrews presents to make his case range from unconvincing to outrageous.
So for now, feel free to keep on killing your kale and zapping your zucchini.