‘American Hustle’ Didn’t Get Its Microwave Facts Straight

In the film “American Hustle,” which imaginatively retells the 1980 Abscam scandal, Long Island housewife Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence) gets a brand new microwave oven as a gift. She calls it a “science oven.” She is warned: Do not put metal in it. Of course she puts in an aluminum dish covered with foil. It bursts into flame. Furthermore, she reads an article indicating that microwave ovens destroy the nutrients in food.

Bob Schiffmann, president of the International Microwave Power Institute and an expert on the subject, enjoyed the movie but hated the depiction of microwaves, which he calls “nonsense.” We asked him for his take on microwave matters.

Did anyone ever call the microwave a “science oven” like the Jennifer Lawrence character does?

No, no, no, not as far as I know.

I’ve always heard that metal in a microwave can cause a fire. Can it?

That’s wrong. If you put a metal tray in a microwave, the microwaves can’t penetrate the tray. They just bounce off the metals. Now what can happen, if you have aluminum foil touching an aluminum tray, you’d get some sparking. The consumer would get scared. But unless you had paper right where that spark was, a fire wouldn’t happen.

So is it safe to put metal in a microwave?

If I’m reheating my coffee in the microwave, I’ll often leave the metal spoon in there. It doesn’t do anything. But if there’s a gap between two pieces of metal, under a millimeter, you can get a spark.

So could I heat vegetables in a metal bowl?

It just won’t heat up as efficiently as in glass or ceramic. The energy can’t get through the side of a metal bowl, it can only go through the top.

Someone told me he put a bowl of oatmeal in a microwave and forgot to add water and the oatmeal caught fire. Is that possible?

Yeah, right. If he didn’t add any water to absorb the energy, the oatmeal itself will absorb the energy and can get very hot and catch fire.

Yikes! Any other microwave warnings?

There are a lot of crazy things people do. They put socks and underwear in a microwave to dry. That’s a very bad idea. Materials made out of things like cotton or cellulose-based materials like wood are poor microwave absorbers. It’s fine if you get them out quickly but if you don’t they’ll continue to heat a lot faster and can actually catch fire. A microwave should only be used for food, not non-food things. Anything that’s not food is potentially extremely dangerous.

For example…

One of the most dangerous products is the wax depilatories women use to remove facial or body hair. You’re supposed to warm them up in water. Some companies tell you to heat them in the microwave. Wax doesn’t absorb microwaves very well but when it gets warm enough so it softens, it becomes a very good absorber. You put one of those little jars of wax in there three or four minutes, nothing much happens. Then all of a sudden, someplace, usually the middle [of the jar] can go from room temperature to 150 degrees in a matter of ten to 20 seconds. If a woman puts that on her skin, she can get third degree burns.

And there are pillows and stuffed animals that are supposedly to be microwaved to serve as a bed warmer.

These get hottest in the middle, and the heat doesn’t reach the surface for 20, 30, 60 seconds. Then suddenly it gets so hot you can get a third degree burn from it.

And to return to “American Hustle,” there was that claim that an article by Paul Brodeur said microwave ovens destroy a food’s nutritional value.

There’s an angry response from Brodeur on Huffington Post this week, saying, “I never said that.”

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