After a particularly long and grueling day, there’s nothing I want more than to sit down and eat an entire plate of French fries for dinner. It may feel great in the moment, but you know what I don’t love? The feeling that comes after. All that oil and grease comes with a price, which often includes heartburn, indigestion, and an overwhelming sense of regret.
What if there was a way to get those delicious fries without the oil? Sounds great, right? This selling point is part of the reason air fryers have skyrocketed in popularity in recent years.
Air fryers are your ticket to healthier frying—by using air instead of oil, these appliances offer a more health-conscious way to prepare fried foods. There's no denying that it’s healthier than deep-frying, but is this method actually healthy?
What is an air fryer, and how does it work?
Unlike conventional frying, which uses excessive amounts of oil, air fryers use air to achieve the same texture. By circulating hot air around your food of choice, air fryers use convection technology to produce that crispy outer layer you love. You can air fry just about anything you’d deep fry, including chicken, frozen foods and Oreos. Yes, that is unfortunately still a thing.
Some air fryers use hot air alone to cook foods, while others require a small amount of oil to do the trick. This distinction comes down to the type of air fryer you’ve purchased.
Are air fryers healthy?
As with many things in life, there's no simple answer to this question. There are both pros and cons of cooking with an air fryer, and the answer to whether your air-fried meal can be deemed "healthy" comes down to several factors, including what you're cooking and what you're comparing it to.
Let’s review the positives and negatives when it comes to determining whether these appliances are healthy.
The advantages of air frying
There are a number of factors that weigh the scale in the air fryer’s favor here, including reduced calorie count and fat content—at least when compared to deep-fried food.
- Lower fat content: Deep frying calls for cups—sometimes entire quarts—of oil, which seeps into your food and bolsters the fat content. One study in the Journal of Food Science found that air frying French fries produces “substantially lower fat content” than deep frying.
- Fewer calories than deep frying: As a result of using air instead of oil, meals prepped in the air fryer tend to have fewer calories than their deep-fried alternatives. However, foods prepared by other methods, like roasting, baking or sauteing, will have fewer calories than air frying.
- More food options: Frozen foods are a good choice for the air fryer, but you don’t have to stop there. If you’re aiming to keep meals on the healthier side, look into air-frying fresh vegetables, chicken breasts and even chickpeas.
- May reduce harmful chemicals: Fried foods are linked to a number of health concerns, including those associated with a heightened intake of the chemical acrylamide. This compound forms on foods cooked in high-temperature environments, but a study in the Journal of Food Science found that air-fried foods contained 80 to 90 percent lower acrylamide levels than deep-fried foods.
- No hot oil: One of the most dangerous parts of deep frying is the act of heating oils high in trans fat. When left on the heat for too long, oil can overheat and become unstable, releasing chemicals into the air that can harm your throat, eyes and lungs. Not to mention that hot oil can cause serious burns if mishandled.
The disadvantages of air frying
However, there are several disadvantages to consider as well, including quality and the fact that the food is still, you know, fried.
- Food is still fried: Though your air fryer is using less oil, it’s still frying—using high temperatures to produce crispy results. Heating foods beyond 250 degrees runs the risk of forming harmful chemicals that can negatively impact your health, according to the National Cancer Institute.
- Leaves you wanting more: “I fried it with air, so it’s healthy,” you say to yourself, reaching for your another handful of fries. This isn’t uncommon—you may be more likely to go back for seconds or give yourself a larger portion if you perceive air-fried food to be healthier. Moderation is key!
- Upkeep and cleaning: When you’re done deep frying, you know you have to clean out your appliance. However, since an air fryer doesn’t use much (if any) oil, you may be tempted to close the lid and just put it back in its spot on the counter. But cleaning your air fryer is critical—small pieces of food may land at the bottom and become charred next time you use the fryer, leading to smoke and altered cooking times.
Is air-fried food good for you?
Another major factor that determines whether or not air fryers can be constituted as "healthy" is the type of food you’re preparing. Chicken breasts or vegetables prepared in the air fryer will not be as fatty as those that you deep fry, and they still contain important nutrients. But an Oreo is an Oreo—air frying won’t suddenly make a cookie healthy.
Air frying offers a healthy alternative to deep frying, but at the end of the day, your healthiest meals will come from baking, blanching and roasting your favorite foods. You can—and should—use an air fryer in place of deep frying, but don’t let it replace your daily cooking habits.