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The benzene scare.


The enormous popularity of microwaveable foods has introduced a new potential health hazard, and not just to persons using cardiac pacemakers. In an effort to make microwave products more palatable, the food industry has come up with a means of browning or crisping such things as French fries, fish sticks, popcorn and pizza - items that previously became soggy when cooked in a microwave oven. The secret lies in the package itself, which contains thin metallized plastic strips called heat susceptors. Unfortunately, these strips contain various chemicals that can be released by heat - benzene being one currently under investigation by the Food and Drug Administration.

Thus far, there is no evidence that the amount of benzene released is more than a harmless trace - and there is evidence that even that tiny amount is not retained in the food but passes out of the package with the steam. Nevertheless, some consumer groups recommend not purchasing foods in such packages until the situation has been more thoroughly studied. The heat susceptors are plainly visible in most packaging, although ones used for popcorn may be hidden at the bottom of the package.

If further research suggests a real problem, the microwave foods industry will feel the financial crunch unless they can quickly come up with alternatives. One possibility is heat-stable susceptors; another is special coatings on the food that cause browning or crisping when microwaved. Whatever the solution, the problem is one the manufacturers are very much concerned about, because microwaveable foods are big business. Until the data are more convincing, however, those who rely on microwaved food for a tasty meal at work will probably do no harm to themselves by continuing to enjoy their luncheon pizza. On the other hand, a brown-bag lunch prepared at home could offer much better nutrition!
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Title Annotation:in microwaveable foods
Publication:Medical Update
Date:Apr 1, 1990
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