Slower Burn: Misguided Americans Are Ditching Microwaves for Incendiary Toaster Ovens

In pursuit of healthier food, toaster oven sales are up. Turns out, they're more hazardous.

Microwave Cooking: Misguided Americans Are Ditching Microwaves for Incendiary Toaster Ovens

(Photo: 'American Hustle'/YouTube)

Staff Writer Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Spoiler alert: In one of the funniest scenes in American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence's character, Rosalyn Rosenfeld, receives a newfangled appliance called a microwave from her husband, Irving. Everything's dandy until Rosalyn promptly destroys it by committing the ultimate microwave sin. She sticks in a metal dish covered with foil and pushes the start button. Within seconds, the microwave is in flames.

Just as the film depicts a bygone era, could the age of the microwave soon be over too?

Maybe.

Although 90 percent of Americans own microwaves, Quartz reports that when the ones we have die, we're not buying new ones. Sales for microwaves are down 25 percent since 2000. As for microwaves that still work, they're being relegated to the cooking back burner in favor of toaster ovens. Yes, toaster ovens. Sales of the appliance are up a full 80 percent—we bought nearly 8 million in 2013—since 2000.

What's to blame for the decline? Is it a matter of everyone following the Hipster Libertarian's advice to buy a toaster oven because "if it's true that microwaves kill you, you will be safer" with a toaster oven?

Ah yes, the endlessly debunked myth that microwaves emit enough radiation to cause cancer. As we've reported in Jane Says, "microwaves are a non-ionizing form of radiation: Their frequency is so low they don't have enough energy to damage the DNA in our cells."

Not only will the appliance not kill you, but microwave cooking can be healthier—it preserves nutrients in vegetables better—than most other forms of cooking. Instead we think about all the unhealthy, prepackaged, salt- and preservative-laden food that can be ready in minutes. We've all had those moments when we've waited by a microwave, cringing as we read the ingredient list while our frozen meal gets zapped.

Sure, it's slow food blasphemy, but it's entirely possible to create fast, nutritious meals in a microwave—try cooking a sweet potato and topping it with warm black beans and salsa—in minutes. Need more ideas? Pinterest is chock-full of healthy microwave recipes.

As for that microwave catching on fire in American Hustle, that's been debunked too. Metal in a microwave will spark, but it's probably not going to burst into flames. If you use a toaster oven, however, you might be setting yourself up for a fiery future.

According to the National Fire Protection Association, from 2007 to 2011, toasters or toaster ovens caused nearly half of the 3,000 reported household fires involving "portable cooking or warming devices"—more than woks, more than your countertop grill, more than deep fryers, and way more than microwaves, which were responsible for 5 percent of fires during the same time period.

That's because grease residue in the toaster oven, or the food itself, ignites. You walk away while the food's cooking, and before you know it, your kitchen's ablaze. So by all means, make healthier, fresher food choices. Just don't cook your meals with an appliance that really puts you in danger.

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