Did you know the creation of the microwave was an accident? Yea me neither.

In 1945, Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, the maker of the first microwave, noticed something peculiar while experimenting with the technology. The high-powered radar turned a chocolate bar in Spencer’s pocket into goo. He then deliberately experimented with—you guessed it—popcorn. And it worked. – Quartz

But it wasn’t until 1967 when the common countertop microwave was introduced to the American household. The technology may have been accidental, but the post-war housewife and new societal roles definitely helped turn the corner for the “convenience food era”.

In a previous post I briefly touched on the history of salt-preserved foods, but here’s a brief timeline of how mainstream convenience foods came to be:

1809- Hermetic bottling technique invented for French troops by Nicolas Appert

1810- Canning invented by Peter Durand

1864- Pasteurization developed by Louis Pastuer

1925-1929-  Frozen food technology development and eventual household distribution via Clarence Birdseye

1945- Microwave technology discovered

1953- First “TV dinner” meals introduced

1967- Non-industrial/common countertop household microwave available

Food preservation methods were developed with the sole intention to support troops  in the efficient transport, prolonged shelf life, and easy preparation of foods on bases and battlefields. In post-war times using this “technology” greatly changed the way we treat and look at food today: by a measure of convenience. This is a good time to remind anyone reading I am by no means a microbiologist or Ive League lab researcher, but instead just a normal person looking through articles online to create a base of information for you. I encourage all of you as you’re reading to give thought to some of the ideas I’m going to suppose. Now that I’ve clarified my level of expertise, back to convenience. I find that to be a very interested way to describe food. Labeling as such it implies that the ways we had made our meals until around the 1950s was by comparison INconvenient.

inconvenient |ˌinkənˈvēnyəntadjective- causing trouble, difficulties, or discomfort


discomfort |disˈkəmfərtnoun- slight pain

By those definitions it could be supposed that any food preparation considered to be less than convenient can cause pain, and as humans it is part of our evolutionary intuition to avoid things that cause or inflict pain. Well, that’s just ridiculous. Unless you get popped by some hot bacon grease, spill hot water, or are careless with your knives, I think it’s highly unlikely you’ll experience pain while cooking. (For full disclosure the remaining definition of the noun form of discomfort reads, “a state of mental unease; worry or embarrassment.” But I also highly doubt anyone reading this blog experiences high enough anxiety around/about preparing food that causes so much worry or embarrassment that they find themselves helpless in the kitchen.) Regardless of how I view things, I cannot argue that there have been benefits thanks to the convenient food market. Prepared foods, ready-made dessert and pancake mixes, improved shelf-stability, have all eased the burden on everyone from the single person to homemaker. Does anyone remember Pasta Roni? Oh man, that stuff was my crack growing up..and in college..and after college. And hey, since I’ve got the internet handy I’ll go to their website and check the ingredients: WHEAT FLOUR, DURUM WHEAT SEMOLINA, WHEY, SALT, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED PALM OIL, MALTODEXTRIN, CORN SYRUP, NATURAL FLAVOR, MODIFIED CORN STARCH, ONIONS*, MONOSODIUM GLUTAMATE, PARSLEY*, GARLIC*, SODIUM CASEINATE, SPICES, SOY LECITHIN, NIACIN, FERROUS SULFATE, YELLOW 5, YELLOW 6 LAKE, YELLOW 6, THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID.

So just looking this list we have trans fat in the partially hydrogenated palm oil, sugar from the corn syrup, MSG in the monosodium glutamate, and look, our favorite food colors yellows 5 & 6..and yellow 6 lake?? WTF? 

• Yellow #5 (aka Tartazine, E102): Banned in Norway and Austria, it contains the cancer-causing compounds benzidine and 4-aminobiphenyl. Six of the 11 studies on Yellow #5 showed that it caused genotoxicity, a deterioration of the cell’s genetic material with potential to mutate healthy DNA. It’s found in gelatin desserts, candy, pet food, and baked goods.

• Yellow #6 (E110): Banned in Norway and Finland. Due to the same cancer-causing compounds as Yellow #5, it causes tumors in the kidneys and adrenal glands of laboratory animals. It’s found in American cheese, macaroni and cheese, candy, and carbonated beverages.

aka : Sunset Yellow FCF

As EU regulation came into effect in 2010 mandating that food manufacturers include a label on foods containing the Southampton 6 stating: “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children”

Cool, and what about YELLOW 6 LAKE?

In industrial production of colorants, the term “lake” is applied to pigments or dyes that are precipitated with metal salts such as aluminum, calcium, barium, or others. Most lake pigments are synthetically produced from coal tar or petroleum.

Awesome, so I used to eat the same ingredient that is used to power engines. Excuse me while I research self-induced exorcism.

And now for the “Nutrition Label” (aka: ugh why do I do this to myself)

Serving Size: 2.0 oz (56 g/about 3/4 inch circle dry pasta & 1 1/3 Tbsp sauce mix) (1 cup prepared)
*Does this make sense to anyone btw? They intentionally write it to be confusing  FYI. 
Servings Per Container: about 2.5 (dry)
*Note, so one of these small boxes is meant to serve two adults and 1 child…but really folks, who does that? 
Amount Per Serving Packaged Prepared using 2/3 milk (type unspecified) and 2 T.butter or margarine
Calories: 190 310
Calories from Fat 20 120 (39% – I did this calculation on my own)
Total Fat: 2g(and THIS doesn’t make sense because it doesn’t show where the other gram of fat is coming from, see? ↓ 3% 19%
Saturated Fat 1g (where’s the other 1g to equal 2g?) 5% 17%
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg 0% 2%
Sodium: 620mg 26% 31%
Total Carbohydrate: 38g 13% 14%
Dietary Fiber 2g 7% 7%
Sugars 2g
Protein: 7g
Vitamin A: 0% 10%
Vitamin C: 0% 0%
Calcium: 4% 10%
Iron: 10% 10%
Thiamin: 25% 30%
Riboflavin: 15% 20%
Niacin: 10% 15%
Folic Acid: 15% 20%

Now, I was old school and used the stove to heat up all the ingredients. But since then Rice-A-Roni started making single-serving microwaveable “snacks”, and while they omit the use of any artificial food colors (yay!) they do add autolyzed yeast which, “according to Joe Dickson, a past member of the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board,[2] a number of consumer groups have claimed that certain food ingredients, such as autolyzed yeast and hydrolyzed protein, are MSG in disguise”  It’s by no means a win in my book, and since I don’t have access to the packaging I can’t see what type of container they are deeming safe for microwave “cooking”, but at least I knew all but 1 of the ingredients listed on their website, so that’s a very small step in the right direction if I had to give a concession.

What I’m getting at is that almost every single box of prepared foods and most snack foods, while sold under the veil of making our lives easier, are basically just short of poison and are the real INconvenient foods here. This is just one of hundreds of inconvenient food truths. What got me started on this piece, though, was about microwaves and I seem to have taken a hard left onto tangent highway. Back to the creation of convenient foods!

Here’s what we know about microwaves. Non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation was found to induce rotation of polar molecules in the food through a process known as dielectric heating. Thought to be a more uniform heating process, foods prepared must faster than stovetop methods. As far as what microwaves do to denature our food? The jury is still mostly out. There isn’t enough longitudinal data or strong evidence showing that putting low-wave radiation through our food is damaging to it or us in the long-term. Vitamin C does break down under any form of prolonged heat exposure, and Vitamin B12 can be made inactive if microwaved for too long. Other, and what I feel to be more significant unknowns are the materials in which we microwave our food. Cheap plastics companies use to save money exposed to radiation probably aren’t safe for us, jussayin. And citing the FDA as a 100% trustworthy resource to tell use what quantities of toxic chemicals are “safe” for us to ingest? I don’t think so. The small conspiracy theorist inside me screams that they want to make and keep us sick for BigPharma… anyways.

When looking at the effects of microwaves on food, breastmilk was one of the first items researched. Results showed that anti-infective factors (what helps our immune system develop) of ImmunoglobulinA (IgA) and lysozyme significantly decreased with regard to one E coli stereotype 6 under low microwave temperatures, and all anti-infective factors showed marked decrease under high temperatures.

Lysozyme and antibody degradation in the coolest samples may simply reflect the development of small hot spots-potentially 60°C or above-during microwaving, noted Madeleine Sigman-Grant of Pennsylvania State University, University Park. And that’s to be expected, she said, because microwave heating is inherently uneven-and quite unpredictable when volumes less than four millilitres are involved, as was the case in the Kerner’s study.

“Goldblum considers use of a microwave to thaw milk an especially bad idea, since it is likely to boil some of the milk before all has even liquefied. Stanford University Medical Center no longer microwaves breast milk, Kerner notes. And that’s appropriate, Sigman-Grant believes, because of the small volumes of milk that hospitals typically serve newborns-especially premature infants.”

Time wrote a great article exposing some hard truths about plastics. Some easy changes we can make as consumers is to: “microwave food in glass or ceramic and replace plastic housewares labeled ‘microwave-safe’ if they have been scratched or if the color has changed.” That means a certain area designed not to come in contact with food is coming in contact with food and potentially more chemicals present in that container will migrate into food,” says Rolf Halden, Director of the Center for Environmental Security at the Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University. “

-Microwaving food covered in plastic has the potential for any condensation created to pull harmful phthalates from the plastic and into the food; swap out for a paper towel.

-Avoid any plastic containers that have the code 3 or 7. “The USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service advises Americans not to reuse margarine tubs, take-out and other one-time use containers, which are more likely to melt and cause chemicals to leach into food.”

“An analysis of 455 common plastic products, including supposedly BPA-free ones, found that 70% tested positive for estrogenic activity; that number went up to 95% when the plastics were microwaved.”

Most of us have heard of bisphenol A, aka BPA. This commonly known plastic has been used commercially since 1957; it’s clear and tough, ideal for packaging and storing almost anything. In 2012, this compound was banned from use in baby products, and in 2015 another article by the Endocrine Society basically said results causing concern pointed to hormone disruption and needed tight regulation. But BPA isn’t the only compound we need to be paying attention to. About ten years ago, another plastic compound known as DHEP was classified as a known human carcinogen. Companies began replacing it with other compounds called DIDP and DINP. Two separate studies have linked these replacement chemicals with high blood pressure and insulin resistance, in a review of existing research on BPA replacements found they’re “hormonally active in ways similar to BPA.”

“What ends up happening is one chemical will get a lot of scrutiny, so a company will use one that’s very similar because it has the same properties,” says Sathyanarayana.

In the end, as Mount Sinai ‘s Galvez sums up the dilemma: “It’s really hard to be a smart shopper when you don’t necessarily know what’s in a given product, so ideally the legislation and labeling would be in place so that this wouldn’t be a concern.”

So in summation, all of the advancements we’ve made a long the way with improved kitchen appliances and proper storing methods and all of the options we have, there is still a little too much blind trust from the consumer. READ the labels, do a  quick Google search on your phone if you don’t know what an ingredient is or what the plastic labeling symbols mean. Take those extra few SECONDS to educate yourself on what you are potentially putting into/near your body. This “microvenience” might make a macro-change in your life.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Suzanne says:

    Great overview of microwave use….enough alarming information shared here to encourage us to do our own due diligence investigative review!


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