Is Air-Frying Healthy? Here's What a Dietitian Says
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?
Well, 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?
Let's talk about how the air fryer actually works. It's basically a hybrid between a deep fryer and a convection oven. The air fryer contains a fry basket which 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, let's talk a little bit more about how it compares 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. Sounds like a win to me!
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 in the number of inflammatory compounds. 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, studies have also shown 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 up your fish with anti-inflammatory herbs. (Here are 7 spices that help fight inflammation.)
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: its 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!
Air frying significantly decreases the amount of oil absorbed into foods compared with the deep frying. This is a "pro" for the air fryer because less oil generally leads to less calories, which can reduce risk for weight gain and obesity. It's not that you can't eat fat—the Dietary Guidelines recommends fat make up 20-35% of your diet. But eating too many fried foods is an easy way to overdo it on fat, and in turn, calories.
Further, when cooking oil is heated, it can produce increased concentrations of inflammatory compounds, which can actually be absorbed into food. In this case, less oil retention equals fewer inflammatory compounds in the food we are eating. This translates to a reduced risk for development of chronic disease, 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 development of cardiovascular disease.
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).
Related: Air-fryer Sweet Potato Fries
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 we mean by "healthy" and what other cooking methods we are comparing it to.
Generally, when compared to deep frying, the air fryer is a healthier option because it has less 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, but is probably that it doesn't really matter.
However, when we are looking at the question "what is healthy" the real driver is the kind of foods you are eating and putting 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 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.
Related: 30-Minute Recipes for Your Air Fryer
The bottom line
If you tend to eat a lot of fried food, the air fryer is definitely a good option for you. 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 some veggies, potatoes, or even chicken! Just keep in mind the air fryer isn't a magic machine that makes any food "healthy".