Why haven't you heard of Hans Hertel? It's a question worth asking if you consider the prevalence of microwaves in homes and the persistent questions about whether the microwave is safe for cooking.

In some circles the microwave is considered one of the greatest inventions of the 20th century. Time-crunched families rely on them for many meals, as do the culinary-challenged crowd. Microwaves are very-high-frequency radio waves that swing back and forth at a frequency of about 2 billion cycles per second, states the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. During this process, they make certain molecules move and generate heat. Microwaves enter food from the outside, and penetrate instantly into a chunk of food, heating and cooking as they go.

Even though they're convenient, many people still wonder if a microwave is safe to heat food. The short answer is no. In recent years, for instance, public health warnings were issued about microwaving foods in plastic containers, because chemicals in the plastic can leach into food. Plus, we now know that old or faulty microwaves also increase our exposure to radiation. But, concerns about their safety go way back.

Microwaved Foods Alter Human Blood Chemistry

Dr. Hans Hertel was the first person to reveal the dangers of microwave cooking in 1989. The Swiss scientist carried out a study to determine what happens when humans eat food cooked in the microwave.

Hertel found that the food was not safe; it undergoes molecular damage, and when eaten, causes significant changes in human blood chemistry and immune systems. It reduces good cholesterol and the lifespan of white blood cells, and increased leukocyte levels, which indicate poisoning and cell damage. These findings seemed to be backed up when  a woman in Oklahoma died after being given a blood transfusion with blood warmed in a microwave.

For years, the debate about whether cooking in a microwave is safe was hushed. A court order due to pressure from the Swiss Association of Dealers for Electroapparatuses for Households and Industry banned Hertel from discussing his findings. In 1998, the European Court of Human Rights reversed the order and Hertel received compensation from Switzerland.

Microwave Not Safe for Antioxidants and Other Nutrients

On the trails of Hertel's findings came other scientific revelations about microwave safety. In the journal Pediatrics, a study revealed that using the appliance to warm breast milk reduced many of its disease-fighting capabilities.

Also, a study published in the International Journal of Food & Science Technology showed that microwave cooking had more harmful effects on the antioxidant properties of vegetables than boiling or frying. Furthermore, there is evidence that microwaving foods produces carcinogens, or cancer-causing agents.

Despite the troubling results from these studies and others, microwaves aren't banned (although they were banned in Russia from 1976 until just recently). Microwave use could be compared to cigarette smoking - while the risks are known and there's strong evidence that they're not safe, the addiction is too strong to kick the habit.

How to Lower Your Risks from Microwave Use

To make the microwave safe to use - or a little safer - follow these tips:

  • Replace an old or faulty model.
  • Don't use plastic containers to heat food. Remove plastic films from foods before microwaving.
  • Heat food for a shorter period to retain more nutrients and taste.
  • Stir foods halfway through microwaving to ensure even heating and to kill bacteria that can lurk in cool spots.
  • Don't heat milk or breast milk in bottles for babies. Use warm water from the tap and test it on your arm before feeding your baby.
  • Use your convection oven instead, or briefly reheat food in a wok or frying pan.

Source: Case of Hertel v. Switzerland

Study References

Journal Name: Pediatrics,Vol. 89 No. 4, pp. 667-669

Study Date: April 1992

Study Name: Effects of Microwave Radiation on Anti-infective Factors in Human Milk

Website: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/89/4/667


Richard Quan, MD, Christine Yang, MS, Steven Rubinstein, MD, Norman J. Lewiston, MD, Philip Sunshine, MD, David K. Stevenson, MD and John A. Kerner, Jr, MD


Journal Name: International Journal of Food Science & Technology, Vol. 43(3), pp. 560-567

Study Date: March 2008

Study Name: Effect of different cooking methods on the antioxidant activity of some vegetables from Pakistan

Website: http://pt.wkhealth.com/pt/re/injf/abstract.00009574-200803000-00023.htm;jsessionid=KSNZ99gL2yyD2MWJc70Q6qVcGp4QCBxnC0G9kLppJflVBh5V1XQ2!-631714950!181195629!8091!-1

Authors: Sultana, Bushra; Anwar, Farooq; Iqbal, Shahid