Not every olive oil spray was created the same. Still, with their widespread use come some unexpected "side effects". As benign as oil sprays may seem, health-conscious consumers are more and more cautious about using them. We investigate why...
Always Read Your Labels
An olive oil spray never contains 100% olive oil. Even when it does have mostly olive oil, the chemicals found in the spray bottle... Well, let's just say they are not as harmless as they seem! I looked into the ingredient list of the most common cooking oil spray brands and here are some of the compounds lurking there.
Also known as dimemythlpolysiloxane, this chemical is a mouthful to pronounce. But more than that, it became my first cause of concern. Polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) is a silicone. It's one of the most widely used chemicals of its' group with applications ranging from cosmetics and hydraulic fluids to foods like olive oil spray. The compound stops oil from foaming up inside the bottle. It creates a hydrophobic surface over whatever liquid contains it. In other words, polydimethylsiloxane repels water. A modified version of this chemical is used in herbicides. PDMS is a herbicidal penetrant - the kind of compound that help poison sink in deeper and be more effective. In addition to its' use in cosmetics and even Silly Putty, PDMS makes me more than a little uncomfortable. While silicones are generally recognized as safe, they take very long to degrade in nature and they can cause allergic reactions in some people. In addition to the fact that PDMS is used in all sorts of machinery and cosmetics, I am more than a little worried to ingest it or feed it to my family.
PropellantsThe propellants in a cooking spray are what pushes the oil out of the bottle. It's not easy to force a thick and viscous liquid like oil out in an aerosol form. Trouble is, we don't even know what they are. A lot of companies refuse to disclose the propellant that they use. Legally, they are allowed to do that. Their consumers can protest as much as they want, the recipe for a product can remain company secret. FDA loopholes allow the producer to round up the calories to zero... When propellants actually add calories and they might even add some health hazards. When a consumer contacted the PAM conglomerate about what their propellants contain, this is the resoponse they got:
Thank you for your email concerning our PAM Cooking Spray. Our PAM no-stick sprays meet all FDA and USDA guidelines. When PAM is sprayed, a small, non-harmful amount of gas propels the spray and quickly dissipates, leaving the oil in the pan to prepare your food.
This is all good and polite, but it doesn't really answer the question. What kind of propeller does olive oil spray contain? How does it react with the oil? Can we trust companies to not feed us a dangerous chemical? If we base the answer on previous experience, things don't really look up!
What Can A Propeller Be?
We may not know the exact ingredient, but we can guess some of the chemicals used. Science, after all, is in the public domain. Common propellants include Carbon dioxide, Nitrogen, Nitrous oxide, Butane, Isobutane, Propane, Octafluorocyclobutane. Butane and compounds with a similar structure to it have been shown to have health hazards. If you inhale butane (say from a solvent or an aerosol) you may experience euphoria, drowsiness, unconsciousness, asphyxia, cardiac arrhythmia, fluctuations in blood pressure and temporary memory loss. "Sudden sniffer's death" syndrome has caused 55% of known solvent-related fatalities. Butane enters the blood within seconds of being inhaled because it is incredibly volatile. You can die from asphyxiation (when your breathing is so disrupted that you can't get adequate amounts of oxygen) or ventricular fibrillation (due to the changes in heart physiology that butane causes). The long-term effects of butane are not well-understood. It does make sense to assume, however, that it will have some innate health hazards, considering how powerfully it can affect your system. Butane is indeed one of the most dangerous chemicals that olive oil spray can contain. Plus, you are never sure of exactly what you consume - maybe it's just carbon dioxide but what if it's something more harmful? You can never know as companies rarely disclose this information!
Diacetyl: Detrimental To Lung Health
Diacetyl is a common flavouring used in cooking oil sprays. It gives them a pleasant buttery aftertaste without adding any calories. Unfortunately, this comes at a price. The medical community has long agreed that diacetyl exposure is incredibly dangerous for lung health. Long-term consumption of diacetyl has been associated with chronic lung disease. Considering how common and deadly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is, you should not need any other reasons to avoid this flavouring. In 2012, a man named Wayne Watson was awarded US$7.27 million in damages from a federal jury in Denver. Watson was a regular microwavable popcorn consumer for years (diacetyl is common in microwavable popcorn). The jury considered that his lung disease was indeed caused by the chemical and that the manufacturer and grocery store should have warned him of its dangers. You will probably not end up like Wayne Watson just by consuming olive oil spray. However, it is important to remember that deadly chronic disease has multiple determining factors. Some of them have to do with your genes, your job, or the place where you live. You can't remove them. This is why reducing risk factors that you do have control over is essential for maintaining good health. Diacetyl is no longer as popular in cooking oil sprays. While there are other reasons to avoid sprays altogether if you can't do that at least double check the ingredient list for this dangerous flavouring. Not only is it detrimental to lung health, but we are also yet to learn what other health hazards it may hide!
The Quality Of The Olive Oil
Normally, olive oil is great for high heat cooking. It has a high smoke point and it's fairly resistant to oxidation. If you use high-quality extra virgin olive oil, you are safe from the free radicals formed with other culinary oils. However, olive oil's resistance to oxidation is directly dependant on quality. First off, free fatty acids (FFA) matter. The FFA content is a requirement for oil to receive the extra virgin label. It determines acidy and flavour, but it is also a factor in stability under high heat. Unfortunately, a lot of olive oil producers seem to 'upcycle' the oil that didn't qualify to be sold in a bottle to olive oil spray. This is not even all of the trouble! The lowest quality olive oil is typically used for sprays. Even when it says extra virgin olive oil, that oil might have spent years in a tank. Even when it's a "sealed" tank, some of the oil will oxidise. By the time it makes it to a bottle, the quality can easily become subpar. In normal bottled olive oil this is noticed in flavour. Any rancid, sour, less-than-fresh taste of the oil indicates that it's old or it has been diluted with older oil. Sadly, this method doesn't work for olive oil spray. You can barely taste the spray (which is another disadvantage, your dish loses in the flavour department) and that makes it harder to recognise the fake olive oil. As with high acidic olive oil, older olive oil spray means it will be less resistant to heat and you might end up with some nasty cancer-causing free radicals in your end dish.
The Olive Oil Spray Alternative
It can be tempting to buy a product that claims to be zero calories. It makes the pan non-stick but does not add calories to your food? Count me in! Except I did learn to read my labels a long time ago. With such a beneficial and delicious thing as olive oil, it's sad that olive oil spray has much more cons than it has perks. You can easily switch to an olive oil spray alternative, though. Here are the steps to a healthier alternative:
- Start with high-quality extra virgin olive oil. It should come in a tinted bottle and taste fresh and olive-y. We did an article on recognizing fake olive oil, check it out to help you get the best product available.
- Buy a glass tinted spray bottle. I can't stress the importance of this enough! If you put olive oil in a clear bottle, UV light from the sun will slowly but surely ruin it.
- Keep the bottle well-sealed in a cool but not a cold cupboard. It's perfect at room temperature, just don't keep it near the stove or in the fridge.
This olive oil spray alternative provides the same non-stick qualities without the unpleasant "side effects". Of course, it will contain some calories but those typically don't go over 20-30 calories. And this is for the full recipe. Your calorie increase per portion is so low that it's not even worth considering! So what are you waiting for. Switch your olive oil spray to this healthier homemade alternative and enjoy all the amazing qualities of extra virgin olive oil!
Buy premium olive oil from Selo Oils here.