The Dangerous Truth Behind Cooked Food

Brevity is not one of my strengths. For this reason, what often begins as a minor correction or a response to a question in the comments section often becomes its own blog post (the character limits imposed by various blogging platforms also plays a role).

This is a follow-up to a post from several months ago, in which I discuss the shortcomings of an article from the hilarious TruthTheory.com: The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves. Here, I respond to some criticism that I received.

This blog is no more an authority than the ones you mocked.

Excellent.

Seriously, that’s great! I’m just some beardy dude who likes science and occasionally has the opportunity to do science, but my specialty is in artificial intelligence (although recently I’ve been helping out with research in robotics and psychology). I make no claim to either authority (something that’s pretty much worthless in matters of science) or expertise (something that’s a little more relevant) in this (or any) subject. I’m trying to instill in people an appreciation for science and critical thinking generally. If you think that I want people to consider me an authority on matters scientific in any domain, either I’m not getting a properly skeptical message across (certainly debatable) or you’re not paying attention.

Firstly, lets define “harmful”: carcinogens are harmful…

Granted.

…as well as, destroying phytonutrients that the body needs to sustain itself and strengthen defenses.

I do not grant that the reduction of phytochemicals in food is harmful. Stipulating that the compounds in question are healthful, it does not stand to reason that reducing the phytochemical content of a given food is harmful unless it is also established that the subject has a deficiency.

To illustrate by example: I would not consider a carton of pasteurized orange juice to be “harmful” (although its high sugar content may be problemmatic for some), despite the fact that the pasteurization process destroys much of the vitamin C content in the juice (and not all manufacterers add supplemental vitamin C to their juices)—unless, of course, the person consuming the product were deficient in vitamin C and counting on the orange juice in this regard.

Returning to the point about carcinogenicity, I’ll remind the commenter that many common methods of cooking are implicated as cancer-causing, to some degree or other, including pan-frying, grilling, or barbecuing meat (source), smoking meats, roasting coffee beans, or even cooking with vegetable oils (source), or simply heating carbohydrate-rich food by means other than boiling (source).

This is complicated by the fact that several foods contain both compounds found to be carcinogenic and anticarcinogenic compounds.

What’s worse, these phenomena are much better established both epidemeologically and from a basic science standpoint than the carcinogenicity of some microwaved foods. So why the outcry over microwaves? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it’s because they’re scary and new and complicated, and people tend to distrust things that they don’t understand. Luckily, I’m under no obligation to hazard such a guess, so I won’t.

Name the evidence that would be good enough to convince you there is “proof”?

The word “proof” is in scare quotes, as though to imply I’m asking for proof. I’m not. Science doesn’t deal in “proofs”: it deals in evidence, and no level of evidence constitutes “proof” in any sense but the colloquial.

But here’s what I think would qualify as good evidence that microwaved foods are harmfully carcinogenic (for example): Replicable (and replicated), peer-reviewed studies establishing from a basic science standpoint that carcinogenic compounds are formed in foods heated or cooked in microwave ovens (and that these compounds are not formed in foods heated by other conventional methods), followed by epidemiological studies showing both statistically and clinically significant correlations between microwave use and cancer incidence.

That’s a lot to ask for, of course, but I’d be happy to give my provisional assent to the proposition if it looks like a consensus is forming in the literature. It would also help if the IARC recognised microwaved foodstuffs as even potentially carcinogenic (Group 2B); but, as it stands, microwaved foods don’t even make the list of things that the IARC can’t rule out.

Is it possible that some foods are less nutritious when microwaved? Of course! I’d say that it’s likely! But the same could be said for boiling, for frying, or for just about any other method of cooking, depending on the food.

Is it possible that some foods are carcinogenic when microwaved? Again, of course! But let’s look at the specifics, and let’s not forget (while we make sweeping generalizations), that the same is also already well established for many popular methods of cooking.

Do these admissions run contrary to my previous article on the safety of microwaves? Hardly. Even if it were (somehow) conclusively “proven” that microwaved food was harmful, that would not make the article I was critiquing “true” in any meaningful sense!

As I’ve said several times now, my problem with the original article had nothing to do with its conclusions and everything to do with the fact that it put ideology first and evidence second. It was horrendously sourced, made sweeping generalizations, got the basic science wrong, and cited as sources sites that were (to put it very mildly) disreputable and dishonest.

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The Not-So-Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves

I received the following message the other day from a close friend of mine.

Hi!

I saw this and for a moment was terrified until I remembered that I’m friends with YOU and therefore a much more rational person than I might otherwise be just by sheer proximity. Regardless, please remind me again that microwaves aren’t destroying my baby and various loved ones.

http://truththeory.com/2012/01/27/the-dangerous-truth-behind-microwaves/

The link she provided was The Dangerous Truth Behind Microwaves by Mike Barrett of TruthTheory.com. Ah, EMF scare-mongering. It’s been too long, old friend!

I didn’t have much planned for the next few minutes (aside from playing some Super Meat Boy), so I dove right in.

The article is, as you might expect, riddled with misinformation. That misinformation, however, is crammed cheek-by-jowl with accurate statements, leading me to suspect that the author is guilty only of sloppy research, and readily accepted claims from both scientific and unscientific sources—with perhaps a modicum of cherry-picking thrown in. (This is borne out upon an examination of his source list, but we’ll get to that later.)

How Microwaves Work

Let’s start with the author’s description of the process by which microwave ovens heat food:

In order for something to heat in a microwave oven, water must be present within the substance. If water is not present, heating will not occur and it would remain cool. The reason for this is that water molecules within the food vibrate at an incredible speed, creating molecular friction which is responsible for the heating of the food. The structure of the water molecules are torn apart and vigorously deformed. This is much different than any other method of cooking, as other methods such as convection ovens heat up food by transferring heat convectionally from the outside inward.

This description is almost correct, but is guilty of much hyperbole. First of all, it is not true that, lacking water, heating will not occur. What we’re talking about is dielectric heating. While it’s true that dielectric heating works best on water or substances containing water, it will also work on fats, sugars, and anything that contains electric dipoles.

Second, while stating that “the structure of the water molecules are torn apart and vigorously deformed” sounds scary, I’ve been unable to find any evidence that this occurs, and it’s unclear what the dangers would be even if it did. While the molecules certainly do increase in kinetic energy (they move), the author seems to be suggesting that the molecular bonds are actually broken, which would cause the water to decompose into its component hydrogen and oxygen, as occurs in electrolysis. This is a fairly incredible claim that I’ve been unable to substantiate.

The Dangers of Radiation

The author admits that microwaves are not a form of ionizing radiation, although he stresses that non-ionizing radiation can still effect physical alterations. Sure! Like cooking stuff! He then says:

Other forms of ionizing radiation are visible light, ultraviolet and infrared waves, and waves emitted from televisions, cell phones, and electric blankets.

This is completely false. These are forms of non-ionizing radiation. While it is certainly possible that this was simply a typo, it remains irresponsible misinformation.

And then the real absurdity begins:

Although we’ve conducted study after study concluding that no amount of radiation is safe, we don’t really know what all of this means in the long term.

I’m not even sure the author knows what he means, here. He seems to be conflating all forms of radiation, and then stating that the body of scientific literature on the subject concludes that there is no safe amount of any form of radiation.

Of course some amount of radiation is safe! If there were no radiation, we would be blind and we would freeze to death! Just lumping all spectra of electromagnetic radiation together is eggregious, irresponsible nonsense.

The author claims that “Tissues directly exposed to microwaves are subject to the same deformities molecules go through”. This is very misleading.

Sure, microwave radiation can cause burns: that’s why microwave ovens have doors on them specifically designed to block microwave radiation. You don’t want to bathe your hand in high intensity microwaves for the same reason that you don’t want to stick it in a campfire: it’ll burn.

Now you might be worrying that your microwave door could be broken or cracked, and you’re being exposed to dangerous invisible microwaves without your knowledge! Well, stop fretting. If this were happening, you’d know it pretty quickly, because the microwaves would literally be cooking your flesh, and that’s something that we humans tend to notice.

Remember: microwaves are non-ionizing. They don’t cause cancer: they cause heat.

“Microwave Sickness”

The author of the article then provides a laundry-list of nonspecific symptoms that he attributes to so-called “microwave sickness”:

  • Impaired cognition
  • Nausea
  • Vision problems
  • Depression and irritability
  • Weakened immune system
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia and/or sleep disturbances
  • Frequent urination and extreme thirst

Sound familiar?

This so-called “microwave sickness” is just a repackaging of electrosensitivity syndrome, a discredited (and probably psychogenic) disorder that has been shown in controlled trials to no correlation (let alone a causal relationship) to EMF exposure.

Here’s the list of symptoms attributed to electrosensitivity:

  • Fatigue and mental impairment
  • Poor memory and reduced concentration
  • Headache
  • Altered sleep pattern
  • Skin rash

And here are some of the (many, many) symptoms linked to so-called adrenal fatigue:

  • Excessive fatigue and exhaustion, chronic fatigue
  • Sleep disturbance, insomnia
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Difficulty concentrating, brain fog
  • Low immune function
  • Low blood pressure
  • Sensitivity to cold or frequent influenza
  • Anxiety, irritability, or depression
  • Reduced memory

Dr. Steven Novella calls these “the common symptoms of life”. Talking about this purported adrenal fatigue, Dr. Novella notes:

Some of these people may have a real underlying disease, and can get distracted from pursuing a proper diagnosis by the offer of a simple fake one. Many people need lifestyle adjustments, and that is where they should focus their efforts – not on magic supplements to treat nonexistent syndromes.

And finally, just for fun, here are the purported symptoms of being attacked by a psychic vampire:

  • Leaky or diminishing aura
  • Dizziness
  • Loss of energy
  • Muscle tension
  • Mental confusion
  • Headaches
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Irritability
  • Depressed mood
  • Physical illness

I’m convinced.

And while we’re on the subject…

It’s true that mobile phones, WiFi, etc. use radio waves in the microwave spectrum, but they are hilariously low-intensity. One of the ways that you can tell is that even the tiny bit of radiation that leaks out of a microwave oven is enough to interfere with wireless router traffic: and, as I said earlier, that’s obviously not enough to do any damage.

Cell phones and WiFi, and their related impact on health, are heavily scrutinized, and there is no strong or even middling evidence linking these devices to health problems such as cancer. There are a small number of studies by a few fringe researchers which have failed reproduction by the scientific community. Many of these experiments have startling methodological flaws. Dr. Steven Novella has a great summary of some new research on the subject here.

Also worth noting: any case or covering that purports to block the EMF emitted by cell phones, laptops, etc. (and such devices are popular!) will fall into one of two categories: (1) it won’t do anything; or (2) it will work, and your cell phone/WiFi will immediately stop working, because its signal is blocked.

So… keep that in mind.

The Nazi Connection

And this is where the author of this article really jumps the shark:

Microwaves were first invented by the Nazis in order to provide a method of cooking for their troops during World War II.

Godwin always makes me laugh. Also, I can find no evidence that microwaves were invented by the Nazis, and substantial evidence to the contrary.

The Sources

The author of this article has obviously taken no care in choosing his sources, which all seem to share strong (and fairly transparent) ideological convictions that bias them against good science. They are also uniformly hilarious.

Here are the websites linked to in the “Sources” section at the bottom of the article:

  • Relfe: “Valuable natural health, mind, spirit, financial and other information unifying the whole, rather than just educating a part of the whole.” The main page contains multiple embedded Alex Jones videos, which describe in detail exactly how the government and the scientific establishment are trying to kill you.
  • The Library of Halexandria: “Halexandria is a Synthesis of new physics, sacred geometry, ancient and modern history, multiple universes & realities, consciousness, the Ha Qabala and ORME, extraterrestrials, corporate rule and politics, law, order and entropy, trial by jury, astronomy, monetary policy, scientific anomalies, religion and spirituality, and a whole host of other subjects ranging from astrology and astrophysics to superstrings and sonoluminesence to biblical and geologic histories to numerology, the Tarot, and creating your own reality.” Need I say more?
  • Lita Lee: The website of “nutritionist” (and Ph.D. chemist) Lita Lee. She would love to sell you all sorts of herbal concoctions, so why not mosey on over?
  • Global Healing Center: An online pharmacy! Except it only seems to stock those shady end-cap items that cause pharmacists to hang their heads in embarrassment, saying “We don’t decide what to stock, it comes from corporate.” Lots of cleanses and detoxifying foot pads!
  • Natural Society: This site seems to be the evil twin of Skeptic North.

And here is a list of the peer-reviewed literature cited by the author:
 
 
 
 
 
 

That is all.