The Nukes of Hazard: Safe Microwaving

by in Food Safety, Healthy Tips, April 28, 2009
Is this thing safe?

There’s more to know about the microwave than which buttons to press. Sure, it’s handy for leftovers or a quick snack for the kids, but you can’t just pop anything into the insta-oven.

Hazards of Microwaving
Here’s an oldie: Never stand directly in front of the microwave when something’s cooking. My dad always said we’d get radiated. The FDA, however, says the microwave actually emits very low levels of radiation and is safe for everyday use. If you’ve got an older model with damaged doors and loose latches, it could leak more. Replace that baby immediately — newer ones are more energy-efficient, anyway. And while the levels of radiation may be minimal, you still don’t need to stand directly in front of the microwave while something heats up. Get back to cooking and prepping other stuff! That’s the beauty of the microwave…

The Right Containers & Covers
Rule #1: No metals in the microwave ever! Unless you want to see sparks, that is. Certain plastics shouldn’t be in there either. Check the number on the bottom of the containers to see if yours is microwave-safe. Numbers to avoid are #6, #3 and #7 as they’re more likely to leach chemicals into your foods. (And definitely don’t heat acidic foods — tomato sauce especially — in plastic containers.)

Other definite no-nos: Chinese food take-out containers, whipped topping bowls, butter or margarine tubs and other one-time use containers. Instead, use glass, ceramic containers and plastic contains specifically made for microwave use.

Add to that list: plastic storage bags, brown paper or plastic grocery bags, newspapers or aluminum foil (remember, foil is a metal). Wax paper, cooking bags, parchment paper and microwave-safe paper towels are better choices. Plastic wrap can melt or warp and get into your food — gross! Covering food when microwaving helps keep in moisture and heat evenly. I like to use a glass pot lid to cover my food instead of wasting plastic or paper.

Defrosting & Cooking
If you’re defrosting food in the microwave, remove the packaging — especially the foam trays. They’re not heat stable at high temperatures and can melt.

We’ve all defrosted or reheated food in the microwave — the plate is hot but the food is cold! That’s because there is an uneven distribution of heat. You need to rotate or stir food halfway through the cooking or defrosting process. Once the beep says your food is done, wait a couple minutes to let the heat distribute throughout the food.

Your Best Option
Most experts consider microwaving a safe cooking choice, but it’s still unclear how much exposure might cause harm or how it affects the food. If you’re not in a rush, the stove top and conventional oven are still classic options.

Want to know more about cooking meat in the microwave? This USDA article has good info.

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Comments (25)

  1. Katie Bazzel says:

    good to know that the FDA states that microwaves give off low levels of radiation

  2. Al says:

    Can you microwave styrophome?

  3. Amanda W. says:

    Thank you for the information – especially on the plastic #’s — I never knew that! I do have a question – I’ve been buying the microwave-ready frozen steamed bags of vegetables. The bags are plastic. Are those bags safe?

  4. Gayle says:


    It is not a good idea to heat styrophome. It will melt; especially with high fat or
    high sugar foods. Better to use glass or or microwave-safe plastic (I have become very cautious in using any plastic containers in the microwave).

  5. Paula G. says:

    Tupperware has specifically designed containers for SAFE microwave cooking and re-heating!

  6. Ray says:

    Plastics especially designed for heating?? DON’T BELIEVE IT! DuPont is facing a huge lawsuit and prosecution for DECADES of cover up over the fact that Teflon out gases (emits) toxic fumes. How many millions have been poisoned? Be safe. DON’T use ANY plastics in the microwave. DON’T expect a government agency to consider YOU worth protecting when bribes are abundent.

  7. S Roberts says:

    Why can’t you use brown paper bags? I have been using them for years to make no fat popcorn.

  8. Toby Amidor says:

    Hi S Roberts,
    The FDA guidelines were talking about those large paper brown bags that you get in supermarkets (you know, when the check-out person asks: paper or plastic). Those big brown ones are not for microwave use.

  9. Chef Jeff says:

    I would never use a microwave for anything other than killing terrorists. It is the single most dangerous cooking utensil in your home. If your idea of a meal is eating irradiated food then this is the appliance for you.

    Your’s truly, over reactionary article writer.

  10. InF says:

    Most of plastic containers we buy (used for food storage) are made of #5 plastic, which is polyproplyene. One time use food containers are almost always #5 plastic, so I’m not sure what the argument is based on.

    Teflon is basically a trade name for PTFE which contains fluorine. At high temperature, it may emit fluorine particles, but PP is just carbon and hydrogen, neither of which should be that much of a problem when ingested. Unless something is used during making of the polymer, then I don’t know.

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