Microwave Oven: Good or Bad?

This past Spring term I took a Technology, History and Global power class and the only assignment was to write a paper on a single technology. I choose to write on something majority of Americans have in their home: the microwave oven. I hope you find this paper interesting and you learn a bit about this technology.

Microwave Ovens: Good or Bad?

It’s 9:30 pm, Monday June 3rd, 2013. College student John’s history class has just been dismissed and he’s walking to his dorm room; his is stomach grumbling with hunger. He should have eaten before class but he didn’t have time in between getting from work to campus. There are two options: he can walk a bit further to the nearest fast food establishment where he can have a nutritionally empty and grease laden burger and fries and diet coke or he can go home and pop a frozen meal in the microwave oven. He chooses the frozen meal. If the year was 1944, there would have been a different ending to this story. Assuming that John was still in college and living in a dorm, he would have likely gone to the campus cafeteria and eaten a meal cooked in the campus kitchens, or he might have gone to get the burger. Now let’s take this scenario to the family home. Before the year 1946, when physicist Percy Le Baron Spencer invented microwave ovens and even before the first microwave ovens went on sale in 1947, majority of meals were cooked by the many wives and mothers that stayed at home while the men were off at work. With the advent of the new technology of microwave ovens, the face of the family meal, nutrition and women’s role in society changed, for better or for worse.

In 1971, only 5% of American homes had microwave ovens. Fast forward to the year 2011, only 5% of American homes do not have microwave ovens (Abram, “Stephen’s Lighthouse”). Like many new technologies the microwave oven makes every day activities, such as cooking and heating food to eat, faster and easier, but how do they work? First, it’s important to understand that microwave ovens are quite safe to use. Many people fret over the fact that a microwave is a form of radiation. Professor Robert L. Wolfe in his book What Einstein Told His Cook points out that televisions also have radiation “that brings us vapid sitcoms”, yet we don’t necessarily think that they are out to radiate us (pg. 52). The main fear with the microwave oven is that the radiation will “leak” out of the it while it is in use; this fear has caused many to either completely boycott the technology or use extreme measures (like stepping far away from the machine as its operating) to protect themselves against the radiation. The truth is that as soon as the microwave door is opened the magnetron which produces the microwaves shuts off and the microwaves instantly vanish. There is no need to worry that the microwaves will make it through the glass door either. The glass is protected by a metal mesh which doesn’t allow the microwaves to get through. The holes in the mesh are simply too small for the microwaves to fit through (Wolfe, 260).

Secondly, we need to understand the difference between how conventional ovens, stovetops and microwave ovens work. Conventional cooking methods heat the foods by making the atoms in the food pass thermal energy until there is heat throughout. This can be a slow process because there is a reliance on external source of energy. Microwaves, on the other hand, enter the food and cause the water molecules inside the food to excite, creating heat which spreads through all the food (Parker, 7). Due to the quickness of microwave cooking and heating, microwave ovens have become a household fixture and necessity.

Thirdly, food cooked in the microwave oven is safe to eat; the food does not become radiated or a potential health hazard. Yes, the molecular structure of the food changes when cooked by microwaves, as it does when cooked by steam, in the oven or on a stove top. Cooking food by any method will change its molecular structure. The nutrition of a food also undergoes changes as it does when cooked any other way. Minerals in the food are not destroyed but a portion of the vitamins may be compromised (Wolfe, 265)”. This doesn’t make it any less safe to eat and it does not put a person at risk of becoming malnourished. Say what you’d like, but the microwave oven is very safe to use despite all the naysayers out there out to make the microwave the kitchen “bad guy”.  In fact, the rise of microwave ovens in homes has had profound effects for the family dynamic, especially as it concerns women.

The women of the past lived a completely different lifestyle than what modern women do. 1950s era women were typically married off after high school and were expected to have children shortly thereafter. The role they were to fulfill was one that has been perpetuated throughout history: women were the ones meant to keep the house clean, cook and raise the children. The typical housewife would cook breakfast, “the breakfast however was far from the cereal and milk often enjoyed today. This was feast that consisted of towers of pancakes, piles of eggs, and platefuls of bacon and patties, all topped with a pound of syrup” (“A Woman’s Role in the 1950s”). She would make sure the children got ready for school and kiss her husband goodbye before he left for a day of work. She would have the rest of the day to make sure the house was tidy, the laundry: clean, folded and put away, do the household errands and make sure dinner was ready to serve to her husband when he came back home from work.

How could the nuclear family, which was portrayed as perfect and the key to happiness, remain intact if the women went off to work? Would it survive? During the Depression era, 26 states had laws in place which prohibited employers from hiring women. They were discouraged from going to college and were living in a patriarchal society that was pressuring them to remain subservient to men. While many women might have been content with this way of life, many were not. Women in masses entering the work force was encouraged during WWII as a way to instill a sense of patriotism, as well as a necessity if the country was going to continue functioning. The fictional character of Rosie the Riveter was created and placed on advertisements to spread the message, although 80% of the women that were working during the work had already been working in lower wage jobs. The only jobs that had been available to women were clerical, teaching, and health-related jobs. The war had given them the opportunity to finally enter the higher wage work force. When the war ended women were expected to give up their jobs and give way to the men returning from serving in the military, back to cooking and cleaning. Women were either forced to go back to lower paying jobs or, as 4 million women experienced, they were laid off (“Women and Work”). Working women had gotten the taste of independence, pride, confidence and earning their own income and all it was being revoked. Could the microwave help loosen the constraint of household cooking duties for women and allow them to once again enter the workforce?

The microwave oven would allow for the family to still eat at home as a family, without women having to give up working outside the home and without having to spend hours in the kitchen. Women were gradually becoming a major population in the work force, although majority of the managing and supervising jobs were still restricted to men. In fact, in order to be able to attain the “American dream” and live comfortably, both the male and female heads of the household had to work. New technologies were becoming available that would change how Americans lived; the microwave oven helped women manage work life and home life,  which in turn allowed for a household to live off two incomes, making it possible to purchase many new luxuries. Although, there were still many hurdles in the workplace such as discrimination, harassment, inequality and disrespect, the microwave oven at least gave women the opportunity to earn a living  by becoming a useful household technology that would allow them to feed their families at home in a quick and easy manner.

Quick and easy, that seems to be the American way. We work hard all day or go to school, perhaps both, and when we grab a bite to eat its likely going to be on the go or something we can zap in the microwave for a few seconds. Soon, we are scarfing down forkfuls of food without even taking the time to taste what are eating. There is something wrong with this scenario. Food should be savored, bite by bite. A hectic lifestyle is no excuse to take actions that can have negative health impacts. One of the questions that arise with the dependence of the microwave to cook and heat our food is the kinds of foods that are sold for the on-the-go lifestyle. While microwave ovens can and are used to heat up home-cooked leftovers, majority of the time foods that have been frozen and packaged in a manufacturing plant, shipped to a grocery store and purchased at a reasonably cheap price is what we end up reaching for.

Take a stroll down the middle section of nearly any big-box grocery store and you’ll find rows and rows of frozen, packaged foods that are ready –to-eat after a quick spin in the microwave oven. From pizza to pancakes to apple pie, there is an endless amount of options for those that don’t have time to cook themselves. Frozen foods have been around since 1923, when Clarence Birdseye developed a system of packing and flash freezing foods. Albert and Meyer Bernstein were selling frozen dinners on compartmentalized aluminum trays in the Pittsburgh area in 1949. The real rise and boom of frozen food meals came in 1954 when Swanson launched a massive advertising campaign for their products; they are generally credited from coining the term “TV dinner”. How the TV dinner started is an interesting story: they were developed as a solution to the massive amounts of Thanksgiving products “leftovers” after the holiday. Swanson TV dinner was basically a turkey dinner, complete with stuffing, peas and sweet potatoes. Their debut year the meals were a hit, selling more than 25 million at 98 cents per package. According to the American Frozen Food Institute, presently the average American eats 72 frozen meals a year, making frozen foods a $22 billion industry (Trimachi, “History of TV dinners”). Not only have the microwaves made it easier for women to separate themselves from their traditional kitchen duties, but they have also allowed for the rise and boom of a new frozen food industry. The question now is: are the frozen foods we are buying on sale and in large quantities really healthy alternatives for homemade meals?

I was asked once if the microwave oven itself somehow causes people to choose to eat unhealthy frozen food. In truth, no. There is nothing that prevents us from cooking meals for the whole week on a Saturday or Sunday, freeze them in individual containers and then reheat them when we want to eat. Professor Robert Sitton shared with our class that he eats a bran muffins every morning. A clever way of allowing him to enjoy a healthy muffin each morning is baking a batch and freezing them then all that he needs to do is pop one in the microwave when it comes time to eat one. Only one problem with that: it’s not exactly convenient and it takes planning and time to cook or bake and then freeze. Unless we are reheating leftovers, most people will buy foods specifically sold to cook or heat in the microwave. While more and more frozen food companies are making meals specifically targeted to the “healthy eater” or the “dieter”, do these foods really offer a nutritious meal? As with most processed foods, it’s important to check the levels of sodium and fat in frozen meals, they are notorious for having a high amount of both. Consuming a large percentage of fat or sodium in the diet can have serious health effects, especially for those that are suffering from being overweight or obesity. Frozen meals also have a very meager amount of vegetables and very often contain no fruits. If a person’s diet consists mainly of frozen meals, they would need to make sure to supplement their meals with fresh fruits and vegetables. A large variety of frozen meals now boast their low calorie counts on the front of their packaging, but low calories isn’t necessarily a good thing. Registered dietician Karen Collins states that “products that flaunt content “less than 300 calories” may actually be too low in calories for many people.” This can lead to a decreased metabolic rate, making weight loss difficult, causing negative feeling about self and ultimately making it easier for dieters to resort to previous used unhealthy eating habits. On the other hand, a positive aspect about healthy frozen meals is their portions. We are living in a culture in which bigger is better and restaurant serving sizes are double, triple or even quadruple the recommended amounts. Frozen meals help dieters get used to smaller, portion controlled meals. The key to success when eating healthy frozen meals is to think of them as base to add in fresh veggies, eat with a side of fruit and perhaps even adding in some healthy whole grains (O’Boyle, “Frozen Foods: They’re Convenient, but Are They Healthy”).

I was speaking to a co-worker about writing this paper and she brought up a point that I had not even considered. In our workplace there is a wall of microwaves, 6 in total. Sometimes, all the microwaves are in use and people have to wait to use them. There are frozen burritos being heated, frozen Lean Cuisine meals, Hot Pockets, canned soups and leftovers. I use the microwaves at work every workday as well, usually to eat up leftovers that I’m going to eat for lunch from the night prior. Lunch at work is made convenient for workers who want to enjoy a hot, cheap and quick lunch with help from the microwave oven. In the days when my grandfather was still working in Ecuador, he would actually be able to go home during his lunch break and eat with my grandmother and then head back to work. That option isn’t available to many of us today. Others may choose to go out to eat frequently, if not every day. Eating out every day can be expensive and quickly adds up. I once was told by a friend that a co-worker of ours ate at the same restaurant every day and had done so for a year. One day, they gave a gift certificate and she was puzzled. Why were they giving her money to spend at their restaurant? It turns out she had spent $1000 by eating there for the past years’ worth of work days. The microwave oven allows workers to choose to eat healthy foods they prepare themselves at home and eat at work or to purchase healthy frozen meals, which don’t have restaurant prices. In the long run using the microwave will save workers money, especially if they are using leftovers and not letting them go to waste.

Another obvious benefit of the microwave oven is that it is a major time saver. From defrosting to reheating, the microwave oven helps fit the necessity of eating into our daily lives. Apart from being convenient in heating precooked food items, many people are learning to utilize the microwave to actually cook food. You can cook bacon and eggs for a quick breakfast. You can cook a potato for a faux “baked” potato. You can even “bake” a cake. It is also convenient for kids to cook themselves a snack after school when the parents are away at work, instead of having them reach for sugary candy or unhealthy processed snacks like potato chips.  There is a whole new culinary world being explored when it comes to what you can cook from start to finish using the microwave.

Although the microwave oven may not be entirely understood by all, there is no doubting that it has become a major convenience factor in the lives of many Americans. While there are those that shun the microwave for fear of it contaminating our food and radiating those that stand close enough to it, experts in technology have not traced negative health effects directly to the microwaves themselves. In fact, the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to this technology. The microwaves helped women who were already fighting for independence and needing to financially support their families by facilitating the everyday duty of feeding the family. It is true that the convenience of microwavable frozen meals and foods tend to be unhealthy, there are many companies that are improving the nutritional quality of their products to meet the demand of highly nutritious and healthy meals. Those meals can be enjoyed by many workers during their lunch breaks, saving them time, money and gas. Microwaves at work also allow for the reheating of leftover food, cutting down further on the cost of food, as well as preventing the waste of food left in refrigerators at home uneaten. Even if time is short and stovetop cooking is not a possibility, many things can be cooked or “baked” in standard microwave ovens, making it easier for people of all ages to eat food that are perhaps healthier than sugary or highly processed snacks. Cooking on the stovetop, or by grilling or by baking in a conventional oven is still considered more traditional methods of cooking, but the times are changing along with our fast paced daily lives. The microwaves has become a more prominent fixture in home and in commercial kitchens, in student and teacher lounges and at the work place to allow us to eat foods that prior to the invention of the microwave we would not be able to heat up without having more complex and bulky cooking appliances. Perhaps in the future the microwave will be able to do more wondrous things, like cook on demand with the push of a button. Until then, we can choose to use this safe kitchen technology to cook, reheat and defrost as we please.

Works Cited

Abram, Stephen. Stephen’s Lighthouse. 27 Feb 2011. Web. 12 June 2013.

O’Boyle, Kelly. “Frozen Foods: They’re Convenient, but Are They Healthy?” Outside. Mariah Media

Network. 26 Apr. 2006. Web. 12 June 2013.

Parker, Janice. Science Q & A: Machines. New York: Weigle Company, 2009. Print.

Trimarchi, Maria. “History of TV Dinners”. TLC. Discovery Communications. 20 July 2009. Web. 12 June

2013.

Wolke, Robert L. What Einstein Told His Cook. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002. Print.

“Women and Work”. University of West Georgia. n.d. Web. 12 June 2013.

“A Woman’s Role in the 1950s”. University of Colorado. 17 Nov 2007. Web 12 June 2013.

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