You dream about fried chicken, and french fries make you swoon. Alas, what your heart wants isn’t always good for your heart health. What’s a fried-food lover to do?
Maybe you’re considering adding an air fryer to your kitchen gadget lineup, but is air frying healthy?
“Air frying is a healthier option because it essentially eliminates added oils,” confirms registered dietitian Julia Zumpano, RD, LD.
But what is air frying and how does it work?
Despite the name, air fryers don’t technically fry food. Think of them as mini convection ovens. These countertop appliances use a fan to blow hot air around a basket that contains your food. The result: Fries, veggies and other foods that crisp up quickly on the outside while staying moist on the inside.
You can use an air fryer to cook almost anything, like macaroni and cheese or even s’mores, but it can also be used for foods like vegetables and chicken.
And to be fair, an air fryer won’t perfectly simulate the texture of french fries cooked in a vat of hot grease. But it will get you closer to that crispy outcome than baking or steaming your foods will.
“Air frying creates that great crispy texture you’re looking for, without any oil,” Zumpano says.
Air fryer benefits
An air fryer can be an efficient way to get dinner on the table. Are you ready to give an air fryer a try? Zumpano explains some of the health benefits of an air fryer.
It’s healthier than frying in oil
What’s wrong with oil? Even healthier oils, including olive oil and avocado oil, contain a lot of calories. Gram for gram, fats (such as cooking oil) contain more than twice the calories of protein or carbohydrates.
When you’re frying food, those calories can add up quickly.
“Deep frying uses a tremendous amount of oil, and even pan frying meat or vegetables requires a fair amount,” Zumpano says.
Deep-fried foods can also be high in trans fats. Trans fats are partially hydrogenated oils (liquid fats made solid, like vegetable shortening) that can raise LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind) and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Fried foods from restaurants are especially likely to have been bubbled in oils containing trans fats or use unhealthy seed oils.
Using an air fryer — which requires about a tablespoon of oil — may cut calories that you’d normally get from deep frying foods by up to 80%.
It may reduce acrylamide
What is acrylamide? It’s a chemical that’s formed during certain methods of high-heat cooking: frying, roasting and baking. It’s present and forms in plant-based foods such as potatoes and grains. Meats, dairy and fish have low or negligible amounts.
And while more research is needed, there have been some animal studies that show acrylamide in high doses may lead to cancer. Another study shows that an air fryer can reduce acrylamide by 90%. But it’s important to note that some amounts of acrylamide still exist in foods cooked in an air fryer.
Air fryer health risks
Do air fryers cause cancer?
Studies show that using an air fryer can increase the levels of cholesterol oxidation products (COPs) in fish. COPs are linked to an increase in heart disease, cancer and other medical conditions.
You may have also heard about polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are carcinogens that are produced as fumes when foods are cooked at a high temperature. While PAHs may form during the air frying process, it’s a lot less, as air frying uses less oil than deep frying.
“Food prepared in an air fryer still propose some risk, but much lower than in deep-fried foods,” notes Zumpano.
“Limit the amount of oil and heat used to greater minimize the risk, never reuse oil and avoid inhaling smoke generated by high-heat cooking. Also, use an exhaust fan,” she recommends.
You may have also wondered if air fryers emit radiation. Unlike a microwave, which uses radiation to heat food, an air fryer generates heat from a fan and circulates it around food like a convection oven.
So, is an air fryer healthy?
Air fryers may be better for you than deep fryers, but they’re only as healthy as the food you put inside. They won’t magically remove the saturated fat from bacon or the trans fats from a bag of processed chicken wings. To reap the benefits, reach for better-for-you options like vegetables and lean proteins.
“Think of the air fryer as a way to enhance healthier foods, so they’re even more tempting,” Zumpano suggests.