Heard the one about microwaves causing cancer? Or that aluminium causes Alzheimer’s? We separate the fact from the fiction.
You’re happily enjoying your food when along comes a friend – or maybe an email – stating your food is toxic, perhaps even deadly, thanks to the way you’ve cooked it. But, before you freak out, consider the truth behind the scares.
Using aluminium pans causes Alzheimer’s disease
Cooking with aluminium pans, or storing food in aluminium containers causes the metal to pass into food, and excess aluminium in the diet is linked with Alzheimer’s disease.
Aluminium is the third most common element on earth and is naturally present in certain foods (such as tea, herbs and leafy vegies) as well as drinking water.
Sometimes, it is added to food during processing (particularly to bakery products and cocoa powder). Aluminium can also pass into food from cookware and packaging. However, the body only absorbs a minimal amount of aluminium and most is usually passed out in the urine.
Research in the 1960s first proposed a link between aluminium and Alzheimer’s when it was found that in animal studies high levels of aluminium caused nerve ‘tangles’ in the brain. Then, in 1988, a town in the UK had its drinking water exposed to high levels of aluminium and this was linked with dementia-like disease in the townspeople. However, more recently, an inquiry into the incident found it was unlikely that the aluminium had any long-term health effects.
Both Alzheimer’s Australia and the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare say there is no conclusive evidence that aluminium at the typical levels found in our environment, cooking utensils or deodorants, poses a risk to healthy people or is a primary cause of Alzheimer’s.
What to do
Keep using any aluminium cookware you own, but be aware acidic foods such as tomatoes, cabbage, soft fruits and vinegar are likely to absorb more aluminium, so they may take on a metallic flavour.
If you’re concerned about Alzheimer’s, the most important defences are to exercise regularly, avoid smoking, maintain a healthy weight, and keep cholesterol levels within healthy limits, along with eating a diet rich in fruit and veg and low in saturated fat.
Use a non-aluminium pan when making tomato-based sauces or jam, pickles or chutney, to avoid a metallic flavour. The same goes for dishes which you’re marinating meat, chicken or fish in – use a glass or ceramic bowl instead.
If buying aluminium pans, look for anodised cookware – it conducts heat just as well but has a harder, non-stick surface that reduces the leaching of aluminium into foods (particularly acidic foods).
If you’re concerned about aluminium getting in your food, reserve those pans for dishes that don’t require long cooking. The longer food is cooked in aluminium pans or stored in aluminium containers, the greater the amount absorbed.
Microwaves aren’t safe
Microwaving food ‘nukes’ it, changing its structure, making it dangerous to our health. Other claims include that microwaved food causes cancer and can mess with our hormones and electrical impulses in the brain.
There’s no scientific evidence to support these claims.
Microwave ovens cook using heat, but instead of this heat coming from a flame or element (as in conventional ovens) the heat results from friction created between the food’s molecules by the microwaves. This energy penetrates deep into the food and that’s why it reduces cooking time. There’s a misconception that because microwaves emit a form of radiation, they somehow make foods radioactive and are therefore dangerous to our health.
The World Health Organisation states “food cooked in a microwave oven is as safe and has the same nutrient value as food cooked in a conventional oven.”
In fact, several studies, including one published in the Journal of Food Quality, have shown microwaved foods may actually retain a slightly higher vitamin content, because they’re cooked to the same degree but for a shorter amount of time. And that’s definitely not a bad thing!
What to do
If microwaving is a convenient option for you, continue to use your microwave, safe in the knowledge you’re not doing any harm to your health.
Relocate your instruction booklet for accurate timings and the right power level so you’re not overcooking food and destroying nutrients unnecessarily.
Replace your microwave if there are any defects in the door or the seal around the door. While the lifespan is typically around 10 years, if there are no defects, it’s fine to continue using it.
Don’t ignore ‘standing time’ on pack instructions – the heat continues to spread through the food (as it does with conventional cooking), so technically it’s part of the cooking time. This way you avoid overcooking food and get the most nutrition from meals.
Try this test to see whether a dish you own is microwave-safe: pour a cup of water in your non-metallic dish and heat on full power for 1 minute. If the water gets hot and the dish you’re testing stays cool, it’s okay to use in the microwave. If the dish gets hot, it’s not suitable.
Non-stick pans cause cancer
Carcinogenic chemicals are released into food if you use non-stick pans.
Studies on animals do suggest a chemical traditionally used in the production of non-stick coatings (called PFOA) may be carcinogenic in high doses. However, the possible effects on humans are not completely understood and at this stage there’s no solid proof it causes us any harm.
Cancer Council Australia says there is an unknown cancer risk associated with ingesting PFOA, and that it may have other adverse effects not yet identified.
What to do
Luckily, some of the biggest brands of non-stick cookware are PFOA-free, such as Tefal, Scanpan, Neoflam and Cuisinart. So opt for these if you’re still worried. Read the labelling when buying any new non-stick pots and pans to be sure.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions when it comes to using and cleaning non-stick cookware. As a rule, you shouldn’t put non-stick pans in the dishwasher or use scouring pads on them as this can damage the coating.
Use plastic or silicon utensils with non-stick pans as metal utensils can damage the coating. If the coating is damaged, it’s time to get a new pan.
Expand their life by only using them when you need to, such as when stir-frying or making scrambled eggs. You don’t need a non-stick pan to boil pasta or rice.
Plastic bottles, containers and wraps give you cancer
Reusing plastic water bottles is a big no-no. Rumours warn not to freeze them or let them get warm, while others caution against microwaving plastic bottles, plastic containers or food covered with plastic film. The claim is these actions cause the breakdown of the plastic and release of the cancer-causing chemicals into the food or drink.
Research in 2001 studied the water in bottles made out of PET, a common plastic, that had been exposed to conditions such as sunlight, heat and different storage conditions and times. It found four different chemicals including the carcinogen DEHA in the water. Since then, further research has found that the concentrations of these chemicals were the same in water samples that had not been in contact with PET, essentially debunking the original study. There’s no scientific evidence that microwaving food in plastic containers or wrapped in clingfilm can affect the risk of cancer. Nonetheless, it can increase the likelihood of chemicals being released from the plastic, so just make sure you use a wrap that’s suitable for microwaving and always follow the instructions.
What to do
Professor Matti Lang, Director of the National Research Centre for Environmental Toxicology at the University of Queensland recommends when choosing containers, glass is your best choice and polyethelene is next best as it’s the least reactive plastic. But Lang’s overriding recommendation is the risk posed to our health from plastic containers is minimal.
“Our bodies don’t work like that,” says Lang. “[They have] been designed to encounter stress in various forms. The more your overall habits are good, the more adverse effects you can take.”
Avoid putting margarine tubs and plastic one-use-only tubs in the microwave – they won’t withstand high temperatures.
Choose microwaveable containers that come with a lid so you won’t need to worry about clingfilm.
Rethink whether you need to tote that plastic bottle around with you, and consider whether a drink from a glass before you leave or when you return is enough.
You’ll also be cutting your carbon footprint by buying less plastic.
The body only absorbs a minimal amount of aluminium.
Microwave steaming retains almost double the vitamin C of boiling.
Polyethelene is the best platic for a reuseable water bottle.