Zapping metal in a microwave is no longer taboo

August 07, 1991|By Chicago Tribune

Picture this Hollywood scenario: A mad scientist and his young protege gleefully examine a carefully prepared contraption, then cautiously place it in a scary-looking heating machine.

They put on goggles and radiation-resistant smocks and run into a glass-encased fortress. With brows sweating and hands trembling, they turn the machine on with a remote control.

Sparks bounce against the interior walls of the machine, causing the material inside the contraption to smoke. Reluctantly, the scientists turn off the machine.

A bad 1950s' sci-fi thriller filmed on a shoestring budget?

Possibly, but just as likely it's what consumers imagine when -- gasp! -- they consider heating a metal container in a microwave oven.

In the early days of microwaves, some 20 years ago, package labels sternly warned consumers that arcing -- or what one researcher called "miniature lightning bolts" -- would occur if owners placed metal in the oven.

The warnings worked so well that most consumers still refuse to do it, although microwave ovens manufactured since 1980 have been engineered to allow the cooking of foods in metal containers. (It can be done as long as the metal container is flat and does not touch the walls of the oven or another metal container or wrap.)

"It's been difficult to change public opinion. As recently as eight months ago, research showed that consumers questioned the use of aluminum trays," said Betty Cronin, director of the Campbell Microwave Institute.

The consequences of such misconceptions are not minor in the $5 billion-a-year aluminum packaging industry, which makes up one-third of industry revenues. Though beverage cans make up the bulk of the packaging portion, aluminum foil containers are a significant segment.

Industry leaders are now taking steps to educate the public and food processors on what they argue are the advantages of aluminum packaging, including its superior cooking qualities and, now that companies are fighting to appear "greener" than the next, that it can be recycled easily.

Since the 1970s, demand for foil containers for prepared foods has declined as a result of food manufacturers' increasing preference for plastic packaging. Growth in other segments, however, especially in beverage cans, has more than offset those losses for the entire aluminum container industry, according to Geoffrey Fear, a spokesman for the Aluminum Foil Container Manufacturers Association.

Not only has the high-tech ignorance of microwave owners affected the industry, but, of all things, aesthetics have played a role: Foil containers conjure up images of the old, premicrowave-age TV dinners, not that of today's nutrition-conscious, pseudo-gourmet frozen dinners.

"People see aluminum foil and they think 'old TV dinners,' " said Jeanne O'Malley, also speaking for AFCMA. "But these things all come around. First paper was in and then plastic was in and now paper is in again. Foil is coming around, too."

AFCMA and other trade associations are working to turn around foil's image, and some major food manufacturers, such as Stouffer Food Corp., owned by Nestle, have started packaging some of their products in aluminum foil containers. The steel industry is also trying to recapture its share in the food container industry. For example, Weirton Steel Corp. has developed a microwavable steel can.

But other industry experts doubt that companies will drop plastic packaging any time soon.

"The plastic containers are designed so consumers can eat out of them. People like to bring the bowl to the table. The plastic is more aesthetically pleasing," said Charles Buffler, senior scientist in microwave technology with Kraft General Foods, the country's largest food processor.

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