Danger of Microwaved String Cheese?

Hi there.

When I was little, I had a thing for microwaved string cheese. But my older sister warned me that I would get cancer because when you microwaved it, the rapid rise in temperature caused some of the molecules to change into compounds similar to plastics. Being the sensible but somewhat delusional child I was, I ignored her warnings and ate the heated cheese strings anyway with delight. My question is is there any molecules in processed string cheese that when heated, causes it to change into plastic-like compounds? If so, will I get cancer from eating it?

No. There’s no difference between cooking it in the microwave and cooking it on the stove or in the oven. Melty mozzarella is melty mozzarella.

When someone makes a claim there is some sort of danger, they need to provide the evidence for it. There’s no way to disprove it, except by pointing out that people have been eating mozzarella for a long time and we’ve never noticed a link to cancer.

Rest assured that big sis was utterly full of shit.

The biggest risk is that you might burn the roof of your mouth with hot cheese.

What your sister was probably thinking of, though, is that if you microwave it while still in the plastic sleeve, some of the chemicals from the plastic wrapper might leech into the cheese. I still wouldn’t worry about it unless it’s affecting the taste, though.

You’re lucky you didn’t have an incident.

Microwaves are not magical mystery machines that can transform cheese into plastic. Nor can they change anything else into plastic, nor can they transform cheese into anything other than hot cheese. Ultimately, a microwave oven works like any other method of making something hot: it makes the molecules inside something move more, which is heat.

There is a small chance that some chemicals can leach from some plastics into some foods, and consuming large quantities of said foods may or may not cause some problems for humans. However, this is merely a function of heat, not some mystical microwave-specific process. It’s the heat which causes the leaching, not the actual microwave radiation.

Relax, and when these questions come up, think to yourself about how many people use microwaves every single day. Have we seen some massive uptick in people getting string-cheese-plastic cancer since microwaves became common? No, probably not. Have we seen the FDA or CDC or anyone catch on and start issuing dire warnings about microwave ovens? Nope, just occasional reminders to follow instructions and use common sense.

In any case, most plastics are pretty biologically inert. (I’m not talking about the additives such as plasticisers that can be harmful.) If part of the cheese really did turn into plastic, it would probably just pass through undigested.

The maximum temperature to which materials can be heated in a conventional oven is limited by the temperature of the air inside it (which, under normal circumstances, is the approximate temperature selected on the dial by the user).

A microwave oven is not limited in the same way, as it’s delivering the energy directly to the food object by radiation. Because of this, things can get considerably hotter - it’s possible to fire ceramics in a microwave oven, for example.

I’m not going to argue that this makes any meaningful difference in the case of cheese cooked for a short period in the microwave (and it doesn’t stop me doing this), but it’s misleading to say that it works like any other method.

(aside) Do you have any more information on this? Are there any special techniques that must be used, or special formulations of clay? I know my mom, for instance, does a lot of ceramic work, and I’m sure she’d love to be able to fire them at home.

I think they make things called “microwave kilns” for that: special containers where you put your project in the special heat-retaining container and then stick the container in the microwave.

WiseGeek sez:

Or she was enjoying one of the perks of being an older sibling, namely that you can fill the heads of younger ones with all sorts of outlandish crap that they won’t figure out for years.

A friend sent me a link to a blog where they did it (they approached it quite routinely, though) - I’ll see if I can find the information when I get home later today, but basically, it consists of making a little nest of refractory blocks, placing the object to be fired inside and running the microwave until the object is glowing. Only works for quite small items, apparently.

I’ve never tried it myself, and I can think of a number of ways in which it could go wrong - variously dangerous to the microwave and/or the user and/or the workpiece being fired. Not something I would ever attempt indoors in a microwave I ever hoped to use for food again.

But in any case, the point is: it’s misleading to say or imply that all methods of delivering heat to food will produce the same kind of results - take pizza and cut it into six slices, then heat each of them as follows:
[li]Heat in microwave[/li][li]Heat in conventional oven[/li][li]Heat in a Panini press[/li][li]Leave out in the sun[/li][li]Impale on a red hot steel rod[/li][li]Dip briefly into molten tungsten[/li][/ol]
-You’ll end up with quite the assortment of different flavours and textures. It’s all just about delivering heat to the food, but the manner in which it is delivered makes enough of a difference that there’s no point generalising about the different methods.

Assuming we’re talking about normal cooking though, I think I would personally be more concerned about grilling or cooking in a conventional oven than in a microwave - because conventional cooking crisps the cheese, pyrolysing some of its component chemicals - and the products of pyrolysis are often potential carcinogens - albeit tasty, toasty ones. (I’m not concerned about any of this enough to stop doing anything I am doing).

Funnily, I was just looking at this the other day. It doesn’t really answer your question, but it is a demonstration of impressive microwave heating:

From looking over some of the microwave kilns for sale, it looks like they’re all pretty small, suitable for jewelry but not for most of the things Mom sculpts. Ah, well.