Until 1967, installing a microwave in your home kitchen was prohibitively expensive – in some cases, the tune of $11,000 in modern-day dollars.
In fact, the first viable models – created after researchers found corn on the cob would pop if it was even around the power tubes of radar sets (called magnetrons) – were designed for commercial use. Huge, lumbering contraptions for restaurants and airplanes, that weren’t meant for individual meals.
Now, they had the technology as early as the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair – one demonstration showed how a microwave oven could cook a full steak and potatoes meal.
But it wasn’t until they became affordable that cooking was revolutionized all over America.
And by the ‘70s, consumers had questions. After all, the secret phenomenon of microwaving was its use of radiation. Mostly, those kinks have been worked out (depending on who you ask) and there’s nothing inherently dangerous about using a microwave.
With the in-home microwave came food companies eager to feed the glowing, whirring machine with microwavable meals, designed to reduce the busy homemaker’s daily stress and get dinner on the table with expediency.
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw even more advancements in microwavable meals, from TV dinners for kids to pre-packaged flavorless weight loss kits.
As the 2010s experienced a whole foods revolution of sorts, consumers have been encouraged to return to our organic human history and buy pesticide-free produce, or grow it ourselves.
Except we all have and use microwaves, and from time to time, buy frozen meals and nuke ‘em.
Could the toxins and chemicals used to preserve frozen meals have an affect on the microbial composition of our digestive tracts?
Let’s find out…
Prong One of a Two-Prong Problem
There are, effectively, two major concerns regarding your gut health when thinking about microwavable meals: the packaging and the additives.
We know that microplastics can seep from a tea bag into the tea leaves, leaving us ingesting those plastics. So why wouldn’t it be the same for microwaveable meals, wrapped in plastic, often microwaved in the plastic, with concentrated carcinogens leaching into your food?
Well, it turns out that it is the same. Microwavable meals that require you to heat the plastic, or even that are simply packaged in plastic, affect your digestive system with the same disorder as toxic plastic chemicals elsewhere – amplified by the fact that you’re heating the toxins and allowing them to release into the food.
As we know, loading the digestive tract down with toxins decreases the structural integrity of the intestinal lining, allows harmful bacteria to flourish, and hamstrings the functionality of the entire digestive process.
There are competing schools of thought regarding the microwave’s effect on nutritional value:
- 1. Exciting the water particles in your food is what cooks the food. Therefore, more nutrients can be saved this way than by traditional cooking, which conducts heat through the food and cooks it.
- 2. The radiation involved in microwave cooking naturally lessens the presence of nutrients, and the high heat kills bacteria indiscriminately, meaning good die as well as bad.
But what isn’t up for debate is the nutritional value of microwave dinners.
What’s Hiding in Your TV Dinner
In order to increase the shelf-life of frozen dinners, a lot of preservatives and additives are involved.
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, meant to increase the shelf life of foods. Sodium phosphate, for keeping meats tender for longer. Interesterified fat, as a frozen-food alternative to trans fats. Corn syrup, to keep things sweet. Hydrolyzed vegetable protein, to enhance flavor as food heats. Modified food starch, used as an emulsifier, to change food’s response to temperatures, and improve texture.
That’s just a small sampling of the preservatives used in frozen dinners.
Multiple studies tracking the effects of preservatives on the gut microbiome found that they not only inhibited the growth of positive bacteria – in some cases, they killed that bacteria.
In one study, they found that the microbial composition of the test group of mice shifted significantly during five weeks of the experiment, but by week nine, the function of the microbes had shifted to concentrate.
While more research is needed, we know that the process of ingesting preservatives is not natural, and forces microbes to change their behavior in the microbiome, or die.
Microwaves themselves – their radiation and heat – may not have an adverse effect on gut health, beyond burning off bacteria that may otherwise have been helpful.
But the plastic packaging of frozen meals and the preservatives required to keep them edible for longer don’t encourage healthful functionality in our guts.
If your life is busy enough that frozen meals would help you during busy weeks, make your own frozen meals on Sunday and heat them throughout the week!
For the sake of your gut, avoid those TV dinners.