How healthy are air fryers? Air fryers have shot up in popularity in recent years as many of us are becoming more conscious of the benefits of reducing our consumption of fried and processed foods. But is the idea of fries without the guilt too good to be true?
The best air fryers promise the same delicious taste of fried foods minus the adverse health effects. How do these appliances work, are air fryers healthy, and what else do you need to know about them before getting one? We've asked registered dieticians and nutritionists to explain the pros and cons.
How healthy are air fryers?
There's not a simple answer to this question. The answer will always depend on what you're comparing the air fryer to – other methods of frying, or a diet that cuts out fried foods altogether?
If you regularly consume fried foods and are simply looking to replace your deep fat fryer with a healthier option, then an air fryer is definitely the way to go. Lisa Richards, a nutritionist, and author of the Candida Diet (opens in new tab) reminds readers that 'regular consumption of fried food raises the risk of heart disease by increasing bad cholesterol, blood pressure, and obesity risk. Replacing homemade fried foods with air fried foods can significantly decrease these [risk factors].' Air frying rather than deep-frying gives you food that tastes very similar but contains fewer calories, which is great if you're trying to reduce your overall calorie intake.
However, air frying is still not 'healthy' in the same way baking in an oven – and it's certainly in no way healthier than eating fresh vegetables, for example. What you cook is still as important as how you're cooking it. Lahana Vigliano, Certified Clinical Nutritionist and CEO of Nuvitru (opens in new tab), points out that you should still aim to move away from packaged processed foods even if you are using an air fryer: 'It's important to use an air fryer with healthy nutritious food and not just heating up processed frozen food. This is the key to making the air fryer experience healthy!'
According to USDA (opens in new tab), over 40 percent of potatoes consumed by Americans come from frozen products, and while it's healthier to cook a packet of frozen French fries in an air fryer rather than in a deep fat fryer, it's even better to air fry fresh potatoes.
Still not sure the difference between an air fryer or deep fat fryer? We put them to the ultimate test.
How do air fryers work?
Air fryers use convection heating to fry your food – in other words, hot air that rotates inside the fryer. It is possible to use an air fryer without using any oil at all for some foods, but most air fryer recipes do still require the use of oil, just substantially less than a deep fat fryer or your skillet.
Once you've put in the oil (typically about a tablespoonful of it), the air fryer disperses droplets of the oil with the hot air, which gives the food the crispness and enhanced flavor you know from frying.
Richards adds that what 'is placed on the food after it is prepared can still increase the fat, sugar, and harmful nutrients of the food. It is a myth that air fryers make all foods healthy.' In other words, getting an air fryer can be a good step in an overall effort to eat more healthily, but it isn't a panacea.
What are the benefits of using an air fryer?
The main benefit of air frying is reducing the number of calories in fried foods thanks to the reduced amount of oil needed for air frying. An air fryer is very good news for anyone who cannot yet part with their favorite fried treats but is actively trying to reduce their calorie intake.
The other big benefit of using an air fryer is that it lowers the risks associated with consuming acrylamides contained in fried foods. Acrylamides are the by-products of frying and have been linked to some cancers. A study (opens in new tab) has found that 'air-frying reduced acrylamide content by about 90% compared with conventional deep-oil-frying.'
Finally, there is no denying that air fryers are easy and convenient. Food preparation is quicker in an air fryer than in a conventional oven, and it's less messy. In comparison with deep-fat fryers, you're not at risk of scalding yourself using hot oil.
What are the disadvantages of an air fryer?
Despite the many reasons to buy an air fryer, they are not without their cons. One of the biggest cons of air fryers is that they, paradoxically, can prevent people from consuming oils that are good for health, especially olive oil. Vigliano explains that while using less oil is often seen as a benefit of air fryers, this 'isn't always a good thing.
'High-quality oils, such as avocado oil, coconut oil, olive oil, can be great at helping absorb fat-soluble vitamins found in food.' So, do use good oils in your air fryer – just avoid using cheap vegetable oil used in deep fat fryers.
The other drawback is that the air frying process is not completely understood and may also come with health risks. According to Medical News Today, 'while air fryers reduce the likelihood of acrylamide formation, other potentially harmful compounds could still form.' Apparently, this is especially the case when using them to cook fish.
Cheaper air fryers may also be harmful through the materials it's made from, so Vigliano cautions that 'it's important to choose an air fryer that uses stainless steel as the cookware versus a non-stick Teflon or plastic. This can cause your food to be exposed to different environmental toxins found in plastic and non-stick materials.' Vigliano gives the Cuisinart Air Fryer (available from Amazon) (opens in new tab) her seal of approval as it's made from safe and high-quality materials.
Finally, air fryers may give people trying to eat more healthily a false sense of security in eating fried foods too often.
What are the best foods to cook in an air fryer?
Potatoes and chicken may be the old favorites, but there are all sorts of tasty foods you can cook in your air fryer like these easy peasy air fryer recipes. The dietitian Ariana Cucuzza told The Cleveland Clinic (opens in new tab)that her most-recommended food to make in an air fryer is sweet potato fries:
'It can be difficult to make them crispy in a conventional oven. Instead, sprinkle them with your favorite seasoning, throw them in the air fryer, and enjoy!'