Is Non-Stick Cooking Spray Harmful to your Health?
I know I'm not the only one who’s heard claims that non-stick cooking spray is dangerous to your health and full of “chemicals”. I too have had my doubts about it, albeit largely due to fear mongering rumors. But is it really as bad as some people claim?
I want to start by saying that the word "chemical" is so often misused and taken out of context, especially when it comes to food. Everything is a chemical - for instance, common table salt (sodium chloride) and water (dihydrogen oxide). Even carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals are chemical compounds. We ingest chemicals (many of which keep us alive) every day.
It's also worth mentioning that Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency regulates food additive use and approves only those that undergo scientific assessment, showing no observed adverse effects to human health.
Let’s have a look at some of the common ingredients in non-stick vegetable cooking spray and break them down.
Cooking spray will use a variety of vegetable oils such as canola, corn, and olive oil. Different oils have different smoke points (the temperature at which an oil burns), flavours, uses, and nutrition value. Because of this, I believe every kitchen needs a variety of cooking oils to work with.
Modified Palm Oil
Palm oil plays an important role in food production, especially since the early 2000s when there was growing awareness of the negative effects of trans fatty acids on human health. In 2018, Health Canada formally banned partially hydrogenated oils — a major source of industrially produced trans fat in food. Historically, when producers wished to convert a liquid vegetable oil into a more solid product (e.g. spreadable margarine), the oil underwent partial hydrogenation, changing the chemical structure of the oil and producing trans fats. Trans fat was discovered to greatly increase the risk for cardiovascular health issues.
Palm oil is a saturated vegetable oil meaning it's solid at room temperature. So it stepped in as a trans fat free way to make a liquid vegetable oil slightly more solid without the need for partial hydrogenation (wahoo!). It can also be used in such small amounts that it won’t change the fatty acid composition of the product. For example, although modified palm oil is often found in non-stick cooking spray, there are 0g saturated fat in 0.5g of non-stick spray.
Soy lecithin is an emulsifier derived from soybean oil. Emulsifiers help to stabilize food products by binding two liquids that don’t usually mix well together, like oil and water. Because emulsifiers like soy lecithin have both a water loving and fat loving region, they play a big role in attaining product consistency, such as the smooth, uniform texture we expect from peanut butter or margarine. Soy lecithin also acts as an antioxidant protecting the vegetable oil and other ingredients from oxidation or break down. Soy lecithin is generally present in the food supply in very small amounts and is an approved, safe food additive.
However, the extraction process that goes into getting the lecithin out of soy has had some negative attention. First, soybean oil is extracted from the raw soybeans using a chemical solvent (usually hexane). Then, the soy oil goes through a ‘degumming’ process, where water is mixed with the soy oil until the lecithin becomes hydrated and separates from the oil. While it sounds alarming that lecithin in our food supply could contain solvents like hexane, Health Canada has completed a science-based screening assessment and reports that hexane is not harmful to human health at current levels of exposure.
This is an anti-foaming agent, which reduces the formation of foam in the product. It certainly sounds peculiar but studies show no risk to human health, additionally, The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that, “orally administered dimethylsiloxanes are mainly excreted unchanged in the feces”.
Health Canada permits only 10 parts per million in food products. To put this into perspective, a single spray of Pam Cooking Spray weighs 500mg (0.5g). Thus the permitted level of dimethylsiloxane in each spray is 0.005mg. With the acceptable daily intake (as per WHO) set at 1.5mg/kg body weight, a person weighing ~80 kg can safely consume up to 120 mg dimethylsiloxane. This is equivalent to 24,000 single sprays (or ~70 cans) of Pam daily. I think you get the point.
Isobutane is a gas propellant and is permitted for use in Canada as a food additive only in non-stick cooking oil sprays (you’ll also find it in other aerosol sprays like air fresheners). It helps to establish a balance between the propellant that remains liquid and the portion that vaporizes.
The concern with Isobutane comes from the trace amounts of 1,3 Butadiene found in Isobutane, which has been assessed for risk to human health. Health Canada's science-based screening assessment of isobutene containing 1,3-Butadiene indicates that butadiene is likely carcinogenic in humans (during occupational exposure in the manufacturing of butadiene). However, the concentration of it in Isobutane remains so low that exposure is minimal and below the limit of detection.
Bottom line, there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the use of non-stick cooking sprays pose risk to human health, and exposure to any chemicals in question related to the above food additives seems incredibly minimal. While I feel non-stick cooking sprays are useful in certain circumstances (ie. greasing up my waffle iron!), I personally prefer to use vegetable oils that undergo minimal processing and don't contain a lot of other ingredients. I also love to have a variety of fats and oils in my kitchen for different uses, for example, higher heat baking and frying, making dressings, baking cakes, baking cookies, and adding flavour to dishes.
Submitted by Brooke Bulloch, RD