Does air frying actually have benefits? Here, we take a closer look at the science and compare air frying to other cooking methods to help you look at the pros and cons.

Air fryers have actually been on the market for over 10 years, yet they seem to be more popular than ever right now. But what is it about the air fryer in particular that makes it a top choice? Is air frying even that healthy? Here's what a registered dietitian says.

What Exactly Is Air Frying?

For starters, the air fryer allows us to make crispy foods that taste similar to the deep-fried version but without all of the extra oil. Definitely sounds like a win, but is it really healthy?

An air fryer is basically a hybrid between a deep fryer and a convection oven. The air fryer contains a fry basket that allows food to be suspended and accessible to heat from all sides—great for making things nice and crispy.

However, instead of being placed in hot oil, the food is exposed to very hot, circulating air—similar to the convection oven.

So, now that we know how the air fryer works, how does it compare to traditional cooking methods?

Air Frying vs. Cooking in the Oven

Because cooking in the oven and air frying utilize similar heating techniques (i.e., hot air), food will generally end up with the same nutrient profile regardless of the appliance you choose.

Research has shown that air frying fish may lower the amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids (think heart-healthy omega-3 fats) in the fish and potentially increase the number of inflammatory compounds, per a 2017 publication in the Journal of Food Science. However, it's important to note that any time a food is exposed to heat (aka cooked), its composition will change and inflammatory compounds can form. For example, a 2017 study published in PLoS ONE found that roasting (and even microwaving) fish can change its fat composition and also lead to inflammatory compounds. The same study also found that adding herbs to fish may help reduce the fat oxidation that happens when fish is air fried, so consider cooking your fish with anti-inflammatory herbs.

While there is a chance that the high heat levels in the air fryer can accelerate these processes, more research is needed to determine this effect.

Air Frying vs. Deep Frying

When we look at the difference between deep frying and air frying, there's a clear winner (hint: it's air frying!). The main reason air frying is preferred to deep frying is related to the amount of oil used. The deep fryer requires a few liters of oil, and the air fryer requires none!

Eating too many fried foods is an easy way to overeat. That said, air frying significantly decreases the amount of oil absorbed into foods compared with deep frying. This is a benefit of using the air fryer because less oil generally leads to fewer calories consumed, which can reduce the risk of weight gain, obesity and more.

Air Fryer Chicken Nuggets

Further, when cooking oil is heated, it can lead to increased concentrations of inflammatory compounds, which can actually be absorbed into the food. In this case, less oil retention equals fewer inflammatory compounds in the food we are eating. This translates to a reduced risk for the development of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease. Depending on the type of oil being used, less oil could also mean a decreased intake of saturated fat, which would also contribute to decreased risk for the development of cardiovascular disease.

When food is also exposed to high temperatures and for a prolonged period, whether it is cooked using the air frying or deep frying method, both methods may increase the formation of advanced glycation end products (aka AGEs). While research suggests that air frying may lead to less production of AGEs compared to deep frying, consuming too many AGEs over time may increase the risks of developing chronic diseases.

Still, the air fryer may be particularly helpful when cooking starchy foods like potatoes. Foods generally take a longer time to be air fried than deep-fried, and the starch tends to break down less in this setting. What does this mean? The starch may be more digestible and could potentially have a slightly lower impact on blood sugar (you still need to be mindful of carbohydrates in your air-fried foods).

Is Air Frying Healthy?

So, let's take a step back and answer the final question: Is the air fryer "healthy?" The answer is, it depends on what you mean by healthy and what other cooking methods you are comparing it to.

Generally, when compared to deep frying, the air fryer is a healthier option because it has fewer calories and can result in less inflammation, potentially decreasing the risk for chronic disease down the line.

When comparing the air fryer to the oven, the answer is less clear. The two appliances are similar in functionality, except the former allows you to cook food in a shorter period of time.

Instead, the real driver of "what is healthy" is the kind of foods you eat and put in the air fryer. Nutrient-dense foods like fruits, veggies, whole grains, fatty fish and lean meats are generally just as nutritious in the air fryer as in the oven.

However, the air fryer isn't a "free pass" to eat unlimited amounts of higher-calorie foods just because it's better than deep frying. It's also important to remember that the main benefit of air frying over deep frying is the lack of oil, so if you begin adding significant amounts of oil to air-fried foods, the benefits may not be quite as drastic.

The Bottom Line

If you tend to eat a lot of fried food, the air fryer is definitely a good option for you. Still, the air fryer isn't a magic machine that makes any food "healthy." If you typically use the oven to cook food, the air fryer can be a great tool to add more variety to your cooking—start experimenting with our 30-Minute Recipes for Your Air Fryer!