Microwaves Part 2: How Safe Are They Really?

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted February 21, 2011 at 1:41 AM
A few posts back I talked about microwaves and their impact on food preparation. I mainly touched on how they have changed everyday life since they were released. I had many comments on the safety aspect of microwaves, so after a little bit of looking around for some facts, I decided to dedicate another post directly to answering those comments.

My mother has always told me that cooking food in plastic containers in the microwave isn’t healthy or safe because the plastics can leach chemicals into the foods they are touching, so I decided to look into the science and research behind this. According to some organizations, some plastic containers are fine to use for cooking in the microwave. Those types of containers that are safe for use in the microwave will be labeled with a microwave-safe icon or have the words “microwave safe” printed on them. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that manufacturers test the products and only those that pass the FDA’s standards will be marked as microwave safe. Some things to avoid putting in the microwave include take-out containers, yogurt or cottage cheese type containers, plastic storage bags, and water bottles. Plastic wraps are fine as long as they don’t touch the food since they can melt if they do. Now what about Styrofoam? That too depends on whether or not it was manufactured for microwave use or not. It too should be labeled. If ever in doubt, avoid using plastic containers in the microwave altogether and instead use glass or ceramic.

So what about the food itself? Does cooking food in the microwave alter the nutrition of that food? The FDA claims that microwaving food does not reduce or change the nutritional value of that food any more than other conventional types of cooking. In fact, they think that microwaving could possibly have less effects on the nutrition of foods than other methods since foods are typically cooked in a shorter period of time than with other methods. Others argue that too much is still unknown about the effects of microwaves on food, and still others claim that the vitamins and minerals in foods are severely decreased. It is possible that we might never know the answer to these questions.

Now whether or not the microwaves change the nutritional values of food is not as important as what sort of nutritional values the food had in the first place. In this day and age most foods that come prepackaged for preparation in the microwave are highly processed before they even get near a microwave oven. One of the biggest concerns is the abundance of processed foods in most American’s diets, especially the frozen meals that are so readily available in supermarkets. They are quick and easy meals, and many of them are advertised as being a healthy choice, but some of them can be misleading. A major concern is the calories in a single meal, which can be too few for most adults. Other concerns include the sodium and trans fat content and the presence of sweeteners and preservatives.

And what about the possible radiation that is omitted from the microwave itself? Are there any health risks simply by standing next to or looking into a microwave? My mother also used to tell me that it wasn’t safe for me to be constantly looking in on my food while it was cooking. The FDA has done much research on the effects of prolonged exposure to microwaves and have determined that exposure to high levels of microwaves can be very harmful. Less is known about the effects of low levels of microwave exposure. The only reason that a person should be exposed to high levels of microwaves is if there is something wrong with the microwave unit itself such as if the hinges, latches or seals are damaged. The FDA states that in order to ensure the safety of anyone using a microwave unit, the manufacturer’s instruction manual with its operating procedures should be followed.

While microwaves are a convenient part of life that most of us take for granted, we should take a bit of time to consider the possible effects that the machine can have on our health both directly and indirectly. My father had a friend who used to say, “If it didn’t grow in nature the way you found it, you probably shouldn’t eat it.” I try to stick by this saying as best that I can, but I’m not perfect and even I take the easy way out and search the freezer for a frozen meal once in a while.

Cheese: From Cows to Your Kitchen

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted February 16, 2011 at 11:44 PM

Have you ever wondered how you get cheese from the milk that is produced from cows? One is a liquid while the other is a solid. There are differences in tastes too! So how does it work? I did a little bit of research to find out.

To begin the transformation from milk into cheese, an enzyme called rennet is introduced to milk, which cases the protein component of milk to coagulate which allows for the separation of  the solid from the liquid component. The solids are the curds and the liquid is called whey.

When you have loosely packed curds suspended in whey and other liquids, the resulting product is cottage cheese. To get other types of cheeses the curds are drained and pressed together to separate out the whey and water. As they are pressed, the curds begin to firm up into fresh cheese or farmer’s cheese. These types of cheeses include cream cheese and ricotta cheese.

For harder types of cheeses, the curds are usually added to a mold. At this point in time the cheese can be flavored using a number of different types of flavorings including brines, wines, spices and herbs. The cheese is then allowed to age to develop its flavor. Since most cheeses are acidic, most harmful bacteria are killed while allowing the mold that gives the cheese its flavor to live. The mold in the cheese can often be concentrated in certain parts of the cheese. Swiss cheese is one such type of cheese where this occurs. In the areas where there are mold, carbon dioxide gas is produced, which causes the unique look of Swiss cheese.

This video shows how to make a type of homemade soft cheese similar to ricotta or cream cheese that can be easily spread on crackers or bread. The video is a bit long, but it really shows the details needed to make cheese.

This is a really funny video that has really nothing to do with making cheese other than it involves a cow. The first time I saw it I laughed for a good five minutes afterwards, and I just felt like sharing with the rest of you too!

No matter how cheeses are made, they sure are mighty tasty! Who knew mold could taste so good?

Oils: The Differences Between Unsaturated Fats

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,

Posted February 9, 2011 at 3:58 PM
I’m sure many of you readers wonder why you use canola or vegetable oil in baking but not olive oil. What are the real differences between the different types of cooking oils?

There are many different types of oils used in cooking, the most common of which are canola oil, olive oil, safflower oils, sunflower oil, coconut oil, and grapeseed oil. Each of the different types of oils is used for different cooking methods and at different cooking temperatures.

Oils like safflower, sunflower and flax seed oil are mostly used at lower temperatures or used in cold applications such as in salad dressings. Canola oil and olive oil can be used at higher temperatures. Canola oil is often chosen over olive oil in baking due to its more mild taste. Olive oil can often have a very strong flavor which is more suited to cooking and grilling than to baking. However, most any type of oil can be used in baking applications, but most are not since they are either more costly than canola oil or they give an undesirable flavor to the baked goods.

Coconut oil is one of the only types of oil that has a very extensive range of cooking temperatures and uses. It has a very mild flavor, which allows it to be used in both cooking and baking. However, its use is often limited since the oil solidifies at room temperature whereas other types of oils remain liquid.

It is very important to choose the proper oil when cooking at high temperatures  (above 400°F). An oil that is perfectly safe and harmless at room temperature can become unhealthy when cooked at high temperatures. When oils are cooked at high temperatures, their chemical structure begins to break down, and the oil experiences changes in its characteristics, which can cause it to be less healthy than it was prior to being heated. If you are cooking with oils it is recommended that you don’t turn the heat up to more than medium-high (325°F).

I use a variety of oils when I cook, and the type of oil I use depends on what I am doing. If I am sautéing some vegetables such as mushrooms or onions, I typically use the coconut oil since it can be safely used at higher temperatures. If I am making a marinade or a sauce, I typically use olive oil since it has a wonderful flavor. I might also use vegetable or canola oil for this as well if I don’t want the strong flavor of the olive oil. However, most of the time I use vegetable or canola oil only when baking. I personally don’t like the flavor that olive oil gives to my baked goods.

GMOs: What are the True Risks?

Author: L. A. Briggs // Category: ,
Posted February 2, 2011 at 3:50 PM

While reading Investigating Science Communication in the Information Age for class last week, my interest was piqued when genetically modified organisms were repeatedly brought up throughout my reading. Several questions were raised by the author on the topic such as: Is it safe? How safe? How safe is safe enough? Who decides what counts as safe? All of these questions, as well as many others, are very valid ones that we all should ask ourselves when it comes to genetically modified organisms.

What exactly are genetically modified organisms? GMOs are crop plants that are created using biotechnology to produce more produce for animal and human consumption. Several characteristics of the plant can be changed with this biotechnology that allow for greater produce to be produced, greater resistance to pests, diseases, and cold, and greater tolerance to drought-like conditions. Scientists view these changes and some others as beneficial to both humans and animals.

However, there are lots of people who see these changes as harmful to the environment and a potential risk to the humans and animals that consume these products. Some worry that introducing these modified plants into the wild will have a significant impact on other native plants. Another worry is that the modified plants will have an adverse effect on humans and animals.

The government has strict regulations on what is acceptable for public consumption, and GMOs are not exempt from this. Any GMOs are subject to meet governmental regulations, but what those regulations are is still an uncertainty. Certain types of produce, such as corn, are treated the same whether they are GMOs or natural crops while other types of crops are not.

Whenever I am faced with the option between a food that is genetically modified and one that isn’t, I usually pick the food that has not been modified. While I do know that in some cases I have no choice in the matter, I still prefer what is provided by nature to what is genetically altered by humans. Nature I trust, but humans are, well, human, and they make mistakes. There is also the issue that most food products don’t specify where ingredients came from or labels on foods don’t mention whether or not the product has GMOs in it. I guess the most important thing to do if you worry about such things like I do is to check the labels on whatever you buy.