How Do Those Nonstick Nonfat Cooking Sprays Work?

There is no such thing as a nonfat edible oil. Fats are a family of specific chemical compounds, and an oil is just a liquid fat. Nor do the sprays have to contain a substitute for oil, because, are you ready?, they are oil.

Those handy little cans, so great for coating baking pans and muffin tins instead of greasing them, contain primarily a vegetable oil, usually with some lecithin and alcohol added. Lecithin is a fat-like substance (Techspeak: a phospholipid) found in egg yolks and soy beans, among other places, and helps to keep food from sticking. But the sprays are still almost entirely oil.

Their main virtue is that they put you more in control of your calories and fat usage. Instead of pouring a heavy-handed glug of oil into your skillet, you just give the pan a quick spritz from the can. The alcohol evaporates and the oil and lecithin remain behind, coating the pan. You’ll still be cooking on a layer of oil, but it’s a very thin and therefore low-calorie one.

In the manufacturers’ effort to earn that highly profitable “nonfat” claim, the cooking spray labels can engage in some pretty bizarre arithmetic. The label on a can of Pam, for example, boasts that it contains “only two calories per serving.” But what is a “serving”?

The label defines it as a one-third-of-a-second spray which, the label advises, is just long enough to cover one-third of a 10-inch skillet. (Just right, we must presume, for making one-third of an omelet.) In the race to claim even fewer calories, the label of one oil spray advises that a “serving” is a spritz that lasts for only one-quarter of a second.

If you don’t have the finely calibrated trigger finger of Billy the Kid, or even if you throw caution to the winds and defiantly spray your pan for an entire second, you’ll still be getting by with fewer than six calories. But even so, a little bit of fat isn’t no fat. So how small must an amount of fat be before a label can legally call it “none?”

According to the FDA, any product that contains less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving may be labeled as containing “zero grams of fat.” A one-third-of-a-second “serving” of cooking spray contains around 0.2 gram of fat; hence, it is legally “nonfat.” If they had defined a serving as a whole second’s worth of spritz, they’d be over the 0.5-gram limit and couldn’t call it nonfat. Cute dodge, eh?

By the way, if you’re a belt-and-suspenders type, spritz a little nonstick spray onto your nonstick frying pan. The food will brown better than it would without the fat. Excuse me, I mean without the nonfat.

Pouring olive oil out of a bottle in a neat stream can be difficult. Every brand seems to have a different kind of pouring spout. And those “oilcan” dispensers are a pain to keep refilling. I leave my oil in the original bottle but replace the top with one of those pouring spout stoppers sold for liquor bottles.

It fits almost all olive oil bottles and dispenses the oil in a reproducible, thin stream with no dripping.