Thursday, May 15, 2008

Zap Zap Zsssst!

The question is whether or not food cooked in the microwave is safe for hoomun beans. The answer is, at best, ambiguous. Testing has been done, to be sure, but there seem to be as many conflicting results as tests. It's enough to make you stick your head in the microwave and turn it on -- except it won't work if the door is open. In that way, at least, we know it's safe for hoomun beans.

Bex, when you asked the question, I think you were talking about reports that microwave cooking altered the structure of food in ways that were nutritionally destructive and unhealthy for consumption. I've read those reports too and was concerned about them. I'll try very hard not to inundate all y'all with the boring stuff through which I waded while wearing protective hip boots and tossing grains of salt all around. Because no matter which side of the pro/con argument you find yourself, it's necessary to discriminate and weigh.

Of primary concern would be the quality of the testing. How many "samples" and how often or for how long? Blind testing? Double-blind? Laboratory conditions, controls? And, very important in the "follow the money" method of detection -- who is funding the research?

I have great respect for science and scientific research. That doesn't mean I'm not aware that scientific methodology can be sloppy and inaccurate or simply insufficient for conclusions. Or that it can be slanted according to desired results. Sometimes, no matter how smart those scientist critters are, we just have to go with what we laughingly call our own common sense. After all my Google activity and reading and contemplating, I'm left with this -- a microwave oven is like any other tool. Used wisely, it's helpful. Used foolishly, not so much, as anyone who has ever blown up an egg can tell you.

Some testing will insist microwaving food retains more nutrients than any other method of cooking. The same claim is made about steaming. As near as I can figure out, that really depends on the food in question and little things like the amount of water used and the time factor. Water will leach out nutrients no matter what cooking method you use and overcooking screws up your dinner all the way around.

Does microwaving change the structure of the food in a detrimental way? I don't know. I do know that the dairy industry processes milk in ways that change structure, solely for the purpose of adding to shelf life and thereby extending the radius of the retail market. Ultra-pasteurized milk is one of those processes, one I hate because it renders the milk unusable for making homemade cheese by preventing the coagulation of the milk curd. Boo! Hiss! But does it make milk unhealthy? Well, aside from the fact that I don't believe adult mammals need milk and I only use it for cooking anyway, I really don't know how nutritionally valuable the ultra-pasteurized version is.

When you think about it, the raw food enthusiasts use much the same anti-microwave type of arguments against ALL methods of cooking. Let's face it -- cooking by any method changes the structure of the food. As for the retention of nutritional value, that is influenced by so many variables, it's a wonder we're still alive anyway. The further food gets from harvest, the more nutrition it loses. The way it's stored contributes to nutrition retention or loss. The way it's cooked, likewise. And the way each individual body assimilates that food, at whatever stage, varies wildly from person to person.

I think we just have to use common sense. Microwave ovens have been around for something like 60 years without, apparently, decimating the population. In fact, they may be one of the most underused appliances in the kitchen. Most of the folks I know use their microwaves for little more than heating coffee or convenience food or for baking potatoes.

This is my opinion but I think we are probably in more danger from preservatives, chemicals, hormones and insecticides in our foods than from any method we use to prepare it. As far as preparation goes, simple rules of cleanliness go a long way in terms of safety and maintaining the balance between undercooking and overcooking addresses both safety and nutrition.

There are, I think, some reasonable precautions to take with microwave cooking. There seems to be some question as to the safety of plastics so ceramic or glass are the recommended utensils to use. I haven't found any prohibition against paper plates or paper bowls but I would assume the safest would be those without dyes. To avoid uneven heating, cover foods and stir during the cooking cycle. And never overcook the goodies.

I had a whole slew of web sites to pass on to you, both pro and con, but it would probably be easier for you to just Google with key words like microwave, nutrition, safety and so on. But I will pass on this Snopes page because (a) it has interesting photos, (b) it indicates the requirements of valid testing and, (c) at the very bottom of the article, addresses the often-used scare item about the microwaved blood killing a patient.

There is one more thing about microwave ovens I want to pass on to you -- the guaran-damn-teed easiest way to clean the durned thangs. Splash a couple of ounces of either vinegar or lemon juice into a bowl. I use vinegar because I save the lemon juice for curd. Add water. We're talking about maybe a cup of liquid, total. Nuke on high for 3 or 4 minutes. Leave undisturbed for at least 5 or 10 minutes. Read a chapter in a book. Go for a walk. Play with your furkid. When you open the oven, pull out the bowl and wipe down the inside with a damp sponge. All that residue that was clinging to the walls and door and turntable has become softened by the steam and absolutely NO scrubbing is required to clean it out. Would plain water do the same thing? Durned if I know. Using the vinegar makes me feel more -- uhmmm -- technologically robust. There's something about vinegar that, when you set it to do a job, you just know the job gets done.


John Bailey said...

I love my microwave and I'll happily throttle anyone who tries to take it away from me. When I say 'it' I do of course mean the umpteenth in a thirty-five year succession of the things. I prefer green vegetables done in the nuke, and baked potatoes of course. Otherwise it's a heat-and-run device for me, acting as an able assistant to the classic range and oven.

Love the vinegar cleaning tip, Dee, thanks!

Dee said...

Ah, I think you've nailed it, John. The microwave *complements* the work of the range and oven. Each of them are better for some things than the other.

Bonnie said...

With hot TX summers I'm not turning on my oven.

I seem to recall hysteria over slow cookers aka crock pots too. Well maybe not hysteria per... se.. however that is spelled. I don't remember right now. :-)

Dee said...

You're gonna love this, Bonnie ... it's somewhere around 80 degrees here for the second day in a row and I'm just floppin' around and panting. No oven stuff here, either!

Bex said...

I thank you Dee for the thoughts on microwaving. I just bought a new Black & Decker large size toaster oven (convection) and it's not as great as it was advertised to be, but it saves on heating the big oven sometimes. It even fits a 12" pizza in it! Nothing's perfect. I use my oven most days for cooking, and just got a new (Cuisineart) bread maker as the old one bellied-up. Hmmm. there'a a loaf of "granola bread" downstairs cooking in it now.