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Gene Weingarten: Does a spritz of cooking oil really contain zero calories? Let us spray.

(Alex Fine/For The Washington Post)
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Memo to: The Food and Drug Administration

Re: Controversial claims by the food industry that a “single serving” from spray cans of vegetable-based cooking oil contains “zero calories.”

Abstract: The public — including this researcher — has long been publicly skeptical of this assertion. Is the industry crassly manipulating data to make its product more attractive to the diet-conscious? Finally, I performed experiments to test this thesis.

For the current study this researcher used a can of no-stick vegetable oil cooking spray.

The main ingredient of this product is soybean oil, a teaspoon of which, nutritionally, contains 40 calories. Using a bathroom scale in the popular weigh-yourself-then-weigh-yourself-holding-the-dog procedure, the full can appeared to weigh zero ounces. While an intriguing result, I judged it to be due to equipment imprecision, and sought a different methodological approach.

A standard 10-inch diameter frying pan was obtained. Using a new can of oil, I lightly sprayed the bottom of the pan, as the can instructed me to, “over the entire area to be used.” Without draining the pan, I repeated the identical spray pattern 71 times, at which time the can was empty. The entire contents created a pool of oil substantial enough to deep-fry a jelly bean. Using standard kitchen measuring utensils, I determined the volume of this liquid to be 45 teaspoons. At 40 calories per teaspoon, that amounted to 1,800 calories in the can. Dividing 71 servings into 1,800, that worked out not to zero calories per serving, but to 25.35211 calories, which is, by way of scientific comparison, more than the number of calories in a Hershey’s Kiss with Almonds (23.00).

That is when this researcher realized something important, something exculpatory to the food companies. On its “nutrition facts” panel, the can expressly states that it delivers “565 servings.” I had apparently been promiscuous with what I considered to be even a light pan-coating. In fact, in smaller letters the can informed me that each serving was to last “about ¼ of a second.” My light, full-bottom spray had lasted substantially longer.

I set about to rectify my error. The first challenge was to determine how to deliver a quarter-second spray. This proved difficult, at least through conventional means. After several attempts using my index finger timed by a stopwatch, I determined that because of limits in the functions of human neurology — the speed with which the extensor indicis proprius and flexor muscles, powered by the median nerve extending from the brachial plexus, manipulates the actions of the index finger — coupled with inherent mechanical limitations of the aerosol nozzle, a finger-activated quarter-second spray is impossible. I even attempted the old Wild West revolver-fanning quick-draw technique positioning the can on my hip, inches from the pan, which was held vertically parallel to my body. I fanned. I only got greasy pants.

But that did not mean the industry was wrong. What if I eliminated the human element altogether? So I held the can upside down, seven inches above the pan and dropped it onto its nozzle. It landed, popped right back up, excreting a little dollop of oil, the size, we estimate, of a mosquito’s pee. Time of release? Slightly less than one quarter of a second!

Next I attempted to smear this oil throughout the pan but encountered more difficulties. Paper towel soaks it all up, as does the human finger. Eventually, I settled on a single-edged razor blade, which — due to the interplay of differently charged molecular structures — adhered to some oil but distributed most of it into a circle roughly the size of a quarter. And here is where it becomes obvious how the spray-food industry has been unfairly vilified. When they told us to spray the oil over “the entire area to be used,” they did not imagine we would wastefully use the full surface of a pan. We are a society with knives. Any food can be cut up before cooking so each piece is the size of a quarter, with the possible exception of an egg, and you shouldn’t be eating those anyway.

One last matter: Even with the quarter-second spray, there are exactly 3.1858407 calories per serving. At first this seemed a smoking gun. But further research revealed FDA regulations permit the industry to brag of “zero” calories so long as the actual number is under five.

The unfairly maligned food industry is hereby cleared.

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