Food Science: The Science Behind Nonstick Cooking Spray

updated May 3, 2019
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(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

Nonstick cooking sprays like Pam and Mazola are convenient to use and boast fat-free cooking. But these products have also always seemed to us like one of those strange slightly-mystical products akin to Bac-Os bacon bits or pre-grated Parmesan cheese in a can. Just what the heck is nonstick cooking spray?!

From what we can tell, most nonstick cooking sprays are simply an oil (usually canola) thinned out with water. The water and oil are kept suspended with an emulsifying agent like lecithin (found in egg yolks). Nothing terribly unnatural or artificial there. The spray delivery method also allows you to administer a much thinner coating of the oil than you could do by hand.

Some of the mystery surrounds this idea that nonstick cooking sprays allow for fat-free and calorie-free cooking. This makes us scratch our heads a bit, seeing as how the main ingredient is oil and so far we haven’t heard of any fat-free oils being produced.

In reality, this is a bit of tricky (some might say, subversive) advertising. If there are less than 5 calories or 0.5 grams of fat in a single serving of something, the company is legally allowed to advertise that product as zero-calorie and fat-free. Our problem is that most cooking sprays say that one serving is equivalent to a 1/3 second burst, which seems almost impossibly brief to us. Even if we had the reflexes to only trigger the spray for 1/3 second, we can’t imagine getting an entire pan coated in that period.

So how much fat and how many calories are you actually cooking with? According to the Pam website, there is about 1 gram of fat and 7 calories in a one second spray of their product. Other products are roughly equivalent. For comparison, one teaspoon of olive oil contains approximately 4.5 grams of fat and 40 calories. So, while nonstick sprays aren’t exactly fat-free, they are technically lower in fat than other cooking mediums.

For our part, we still prefer to do our every-day cooking with “whole” fats like olive oil or butter (gasp!), but we do keep a can of nonstick cooking spray around for coating pans and cookies sheets for baking. We find that nonstick sprays do a better job of coating these surfaces without interfering with the flavor or texture of what we’re baking.

What are your feelings on nonstick cooking sprays?

(Image: Emma Christensen for the Kitchn)