Step away from your microwave. Put down the plasticware. And don’t even think about grabbing that nonstick pan. It seems there’s always a headline decrying our most convenient cooking tools. Yet, the dangers in today’s kitchen are—for the most part—not so clear-cut. How to make sense from the sensational? We asked culinary experts and food scientists to help us separate truth from myth. The answers may surprise you.
CULPRIT: MICROWAVE OVEN
FEAR: The microwave releases radiation into your home and food.
EXPERTS’ TAKE: Microwave ovens heat food using microwaves, electromagnetic radiation similar to radio waves. The microwaves reflect off the metal in the oven and cause water molecules in food to vibrate, and it’s the friction that causes food to cook. “Microwaves are nonionizing radiation, so they do not have the same risks as X-rays or other types of ionizing radiation,” explains Leslie Wooldridge, spokesperson for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). That said, the FDA regulates microwave ovens and requires fewer than 5 milliwatts of microwave radiation at approximately 2 inches from the oven door, over the lifetime of the oven. It’s a limit far below levels that would cause human harm, Wooldridge says. Still, care should be taken with containers used in the microwave: Make sure a product says that it’s microwave-safe before using, especially when it comes to plastics.
CULPRIT: NONSTICK PANS
FEAR: The pans release carcinogenic chemicals into the air and your food.
EXPERTS’ TAKE: The fear is likely valid for pans manufactured with suspected carcinogen perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) in the nonstick coating. In fact, the EPA recommended phasing out this particular chemical, asking companies to voluntarily remove PFOAs from their manufacturing process by the end of this year. Eight major companies agreed to do so and are largely on track to keep the agreement. However, not every manufacturer is participating, and companies are not required to disclose on labels whether they use PFOAs. Also, some people are concerned that the substituting chemicals may also be harmful. The key to safety with nonstick surfaces is not letting them get above 500 degrees. “Once they get above that temperature, the surface can decompose and release chemicals in the air,” says Carl K. Winter, Ph.D., extension food toxicologist and vice chair of the Food Science and Technology Department at the University of California, Davis. Of course knowing the temperature of your frying pan is tricky, so Winter suggests never going above medium heat when cooking on a nonstick pan. Think of the pan as a tool for items that don’t take long to cook, suggests chef Howie Velie, associate dean of culinary specialization at The Culinary Institute of America. “I only use nonstick for eggs, because they don’t need to have a high flame and they cook quickly. But for a heavily sautéed fish or chicken breast, that’s where you’ll have concerns.”
CULPRIT: WOODEN CUTTING BOARDS
FEAR: Food-borne bacteria spreads more quickly on wood surfaces.
EXPERTS’ TAKE: Cutting boards—whether wood or plastic—are prime spots for bacteria, which thrive in the nicks and scratches that emerge from everyday use, says Don Schaffner, Ph.D., professor of food science at Rutgers University and a fellow at the Institute of Food Technologists. “It doesn’t take much for food, meat juices and sugar to get in there, and the bacteria will have a field day,” he explains. Both wood and plastic boards should be cleaned immediately with soap or even a diluted bleach formula; scrubbing is key to eliminating bacteria. And keeping separate cutting boards for meat and vegetables is nonnegotiable, says Schaffner. Some cooks prefer plastic boards, because they can be cleaned in a dishwasher using bacteria-killing hot water, but professional chefs usually prefer wood because it doesn’t dull knives. In either case, once grooves form in the surface, you should toss the plastic or resurface the wooden board.
CULPRIT: FROZEN MEAT
FEAR: Defrosting in the microwave is unsafe.
EXPERTS’ TAKE: Who hasn’t come home from work only to realize dinner is still in the freezer? Unfortunately, it seems there’s really no easy—or safe—way to quickly defrost frozen meats. Although the microwave is tempting, the defrosting process should be used with care: Because water molecules are vibrating within the food, it’s impossible for the food to thaw evenly. “Always thaw overnight in the fridge,” Velie says. If defrosting in the microwave is unavoidable, be sure to check the meat often and cook thoroughly to make sure there are no frozen or raw parts remaining. Better still, let the meat sit in a pot of cold water underneath more cold running water, Velie says. The friction of the running water will defrost the meat thoroughly, but it takes time so a little patience is required.
FEAR: Chemicals with estrogenic activity are entering our food.
EXPERTS’ TAKE: Bisphenol-A (BPA) made headlines a few years back when it was found to leach chemicals with estrogenic activity (EA) into food and ultimately our bloodstreams. Thanks to consumer outrage, the FDA has ruled that BPA can’t be used in baby bottles, sippy cups and infant-formula packaging. Today, finding BPA-free products for the home is certainly possible. Unfortunately, BPA isn’t the only problem. There are 2,000 to 10,000 chemicals suspected to have EA, 500 of which are widely used in plastics and consumer products today. “Just because your plastic is BPA free doesn’t mean it’s EA free,” says George Bittner, Ph.D., professor of neuroscience at the University of Texas. “An estrogenic substitute chemical could actually be worse.” Currently there are no labeling requirements for plastics or any other product that may release chemicals having EA. For his home, Bittner tests all plastics and uses only EA-free containers. (Bittner owns a plastic testing lab.) For the rest of us, he recommends never putting plastic in the microwave, because heat increases the leaching of EAs into food and could also change the chemical makeup to release newly formed EAs. Before you use plastic food-storage containers, Bittner suggests assessing your household’s risk. For example, use glass containers if you are pregnant or living with children 16 years and younger, especially kids 2–10 years old—these family members are most susceptible to chemicals having EA. For households with only mature adults, the risk is probably less of a concern. If you do store food in plastic, allow it to cool completely before placing it in the container.