On Nutrition

Nonstick cooking sprays have been around for more than a half-century, their longevity largely due to their convenience and the lingering legacy of the low-fat era. Most people who use cooking sprays choose them for the convenience and to limit how much butter or oil they use. Cooking sprays can certainly be a convenient way to grease pans and baking dishes, but there are trade-offs. Here are some questions (and answers) to consider when deciding if cooking sprays deserve a place in your kitchen.

Do they really help you cook with less fat? Many cooking sprays list “zero calories, zero fat” on their label, but cooking sprays are not calorie- and fat-free — there’s mathematical trickery going on. The typical recommended serving size is a spray that lasts a fraction of a second, often one-fourth of a second, which is equal to about 1/20 of a teaspoon of oil. This keeps the calories and fat grams so low per “serving” that the manufacturer can round down to zero. But for most home cooks, it’s not realistic to use that little. In reality, there’s close to 1/5 of a teaspoon — and eight calories — for every second of spraying. And many people use even more than that.

Are they a waste of money? Ounce per ounce, cooking sprays are more expensive than cooking oil in a pourable bottle — and the oil used in aerosol cans is going to be of lesser quality than most bottled oils. Plus, while the taste of nonstick cooking spray is generally quite mild, some people may perceive a chemical taste.

What’s in them, anyway? Many brands use canola, olive, coconut or another other oil as the primary ingredient, but some brands may use a mixture of oils and natural or artificial flavorings. “Butter-flavored” cooking sprays are a classic example. Traditional aerosol cooking sprays also contain other ingredients, and that’s often the deal-breaker for many would-be cooking spray users. Specifically, they contain emulsifiers (such as soy lecithin), anti-foaming agents (such as dimethyl silicone) that prevent the oil from foaming or spattering during cooking, and propellants (such as butane or propane) — pressurized gas that disperses the oil when the pressure is released. Some newer sprays eliminate the anti-foaming agent.

Do they harm the environment? Old-school propellants are no longer used in any aerosol cans — because they were found to deplete the ozone layer. Butane and propane don’t have the same issue, and some newer sprays go further, using carbon dioxide or grain alcohol (ethanol) to disperse the product, while others use a spray pump instead of an aerosol nozzle.

Are they safe? The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that cooking sprays are safe to consume. Soy lecithin and dimethyl silicone are considered to be generally safe food additives, and the levels of propellants in aerosol cooking sprays are too low to be toxic, although they can be flammable, so don’t leave them on a stove or near a heat source — and never spray them near an open flame.

If you do use nonstick cooking sprays, keep them in a cool, dark place, as with any cooking oil. However, if you want to avoid the additives in cooking sprays or prefer higher-quality cooking oils, then stick to oils in bottles. Just pour a bit of oil on a paper towel and then rub the paper towel on the cooking surface. This will provide a thin coating, similar to what you would get from the cooking spray.