Are air fryers healthy? For those of us who love the handy kitchen gadget, it’s a question we sometimes wonder about as we load our favorite foods ready to cook. The popular device is often sold as a healthier cooking alternative, but does the claim stack up? We speak to the experts to find out.
Air frying has soared in popularity in recent years, with a surprising amount of healthier versions of foods you can cook in an air fryer. It’s estimated that as of 2020, 40% of US homes owned an air fryer – and we expect that that number has risen significantly in the years since. “The air fryer has really taken off as a kitchen staple," explains Lara Brittain, a kitchen expert at Currys, "over the last 6 months, sales of air fryers have increased 148%."
Often, the draw of air fryers is that they are a ‘healthier’ (and easier and quicker) way to cook certain foods; everything from chicken, to potatoes, to even popcorn. But is this true, and is using the best air fryers actually a healthy way to cook? We asked nutritionists, chefs, and air fryer experts to understand whether our air fryers are a healthy choice, or not.
What is an air fryer and how does it work?
An air fryer is an appliance with a tray at its base, which pulls out to allow you to put food inside. They work by using convection cooking, rather than the heating systems of a conventional oven. Within the top of your air fryer is a heating mechanism and a large fan. The best news is that knowing how to use an air fryer is super easy to master – no doubt contributing to its popularity, as well as the amazing air fryer deals currently available.
Registered nutritionist Jenna Hope (opens in new tab), explains, "air fryers cook your food by heating up really quickly, and then use the fan technology to drive the heat around the food – which is what creates that crispy texture. In frying or oven cooking, you require more oil to create this texture, as these methods don’t use the same technology as air fryers. As such, air fryers use very little, if any oil."
Now we know how they work, are air fryers healthy? Below, we share the health pros and cons of this handy machine.
Are air fryers healthy? The 5 benefits
1. They require much less oil than normal frying
As mentioned, one of the biggest reasons why an air fryer is a healthier choice than some other forms of cooking is the fact that they only require the tiniest amount of oil. And often, once you know how to use an air fryer, you'll find that many air fryer recipes don’t need any oil at all. Chef Jenna Moran, founder of whimsyandspice.com (opens in new tab) explains: "On average, an air fryer needs only a third of the amount of oil (if at all) compared to traditional fried food." Knowing how to clean an air fryer is important when you do use oil, though!
The negatives of cooking with too much oil are well-known. “When you cook with lots of oil, the fats end up being stored in the body, and get deposited within the arterial walls”, Jenna Moran explained. “If a lot of oil is consumed regularly, this can result in blocked blood flow, which can lead to serious health conditions such as unhealthy weight gain, a stroke, or even a heart attack.”
Jenna Hope expands, saying, "Using air fryers can also reduce the trans fats in your food, which are often produced when oil is heated at very high temperatures." In this sense then, air fryers are healthier than their equivalent alternatives, such as deep frying or regular frying.
2. Air frying preserves nutrients
When compared with other forms of cooking, air frying can help to preserve more of the nutrients in your food; many of which can be lost during the cooking process. Nutrients are generally broken down by heat, oil, and water, but the air frying process requires just heat (which is also at a lower temperature when deep frying) –meaning it can be better for keeping those nutrients locked in.
“However,” says Jenna Hope, “nutrient preservation can depend on the nutrient in question, and the food. The absorption of some nutrients increases when foods have been cooked. For example, beta-carotene (the orange component found in butternut squash, carrots, and sweet potato) has a higher bioavailability when cooked.”
3. They’ll help you to consume less calories
When cooking foods with oils, fats and calories can easily and inadvertently stack up. For example, there are around 40 calories in a teaspoon of oil, and many of us will use double or triple this amount. As such, an air fryer can be a great alternative if you are specifically looking to enjoy tasty, crispy foods whilst managing your calorie intake.
Of course, many cooking oils contain healthy fats that, as part of a balanced diet, are beneficial for our bodies. The antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties in olive oil have, for example, been shown by the National Library of Medicine (opens in new tab) to improve heart health and lower disease risk.
But, if you’re currently on a weight loss journey, your air fryer could be a useful tool in helping you achieve your goals.
4. Offers a healthier alternative to deep fried food
To be clear, air frying isn’t exactly the same as deep frying, as Hope explains: “Air fryers are not technically a form of deep frying. Deep frying is where food is placed at very hot temperatures for cooking. Air fryers work more like an oven.”
But for many, they are a great alternative to deep fat fryers, as they both create that ‘crispy-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside’ texture that is so satisfying. And, air fryers do this with minimal oil, as opposed to the masses of oil used in deep frying, or even during stovetop frying.
So if you are someone who likes to eat fried foods such as crispy fish, bacon, or fried shrimp, an air fryer is certainly a healthier way to cook them.
5. There's less of a risk of producing carcinogens
Whether you have one of the best Ninja air fryers or a model from another brand, air fryers can be a great way to lower the risk of carcinogens produced while cooking. Carcinogens are substances, both natural and man-made, that have the potential to cause ill health.
Chef and air fryer expert Liana Green, of Liana's Kitchen (opens in new tab), explains, “Foods cooked at higher temperatures lose more nutrients and have an increased risk of developing acrylamides, which is a carcinogen. A 2015 study by the National library of medicine (opens in new tab) showed that using an air fryer reduces acrylamide by up to 90%, compared to deep fat frying.”
Key disadvantages of cooking in an air fryer
Air fryers reduce healthy fats in some foods
When answering the question, are air fryers healthy? It's important to evaluate the cons of these machines, too. For example, Jenna Moran explains that air frying may reduce the instance of healthier fats in some foods.
She states, “Sometimes when cooking oily fish, for example, air fryers can actually reduce the amount of 'healthy fats' in our food. Because of the way air fryers work, they can 'dry' the food out, sometimes taking out valuable fats. This, in turn, can affect cholesterol levels."
Those with low cholesterol need to boost the number of healthy fats in their diet – so using a device that can reduce these is usually not a good idea.
Air fried food is still fried food
So, are air fryers healthy? It’s important to note that despite the positives, air frying is still just one method of cooking. And while it may be a healthier method in comparison to frying and deep frying, air fryers still produce fried food, which should only be consumed as part of a healthy, balanced diet full of other cooking methods too.
For example, steaming or boiling your food is considered to be healthier, as they also require no oil, and helps to preserve your food's nutrients.
But as ever, balance is key. Hope explains, “While the health of our food is important, the taste, texture, and experience all contribute to the enjoyment, and therefore I recommend combining air frying with methods like boiling, sautéing and steaming."
And, taking a moment to consider what you are actually cooking is still as important as it would be for any other cooking method. "It’s important to note that higher sugar, higher fat foods can be cooked in an air fryer, and therefore the aim should still be to focus on nutritious foods which are rich in vitamins and minerals," says Hope.
Amy Hunt is an experienced digital journalist specialising in homes, interiors and hobbies. She began her career working as the features assistant at woman&home magazine, before moving over to the digital side of the brand where she eventually became the Lifestyle Editor up until January 2022. Amy won the Digital Journalist of the Year award at the AOP Awards in 2019 for her work on womanandhome.com.
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