What is air frying, and is it really healthy?
Recently, air fryers have become incredibly popular.
People say that these machines achieve the same fried food taste and texture we love — without using lots of cooking oil.
Because there’s less oil, many people think of air frying as a healthier way to cook.
In this article, we explain how air fryers work, how air frying compares with other ways of cooking, and whether it’s really the healthiest option.
We also explore what air frying might mean for your cooking habits. And some of the science may surprise you.
What is air frying?
Air frying involves cooking food through the circulation of superheated air.
An air fryer is a small-ish countertop appliance — it’s about the size of a coffee machine or bread maker. It looks like a mini oven and typically has one or more drawers. Inside, these are similar to deep-frying baskets.
The heating element sits at the top of the air fryer and is accompanied by a powerful fan, which blows hot air around the food.
The currents of hot air move like the currents of heat in a pot of boiling oil.
But rather than use large volumes of oil, an air fryer relies on tiny droplets of oil dispersed in the hot air to cook the food and make it crispy.
The result? You get the crunchy crusts and soft centers that you expect from fried foods but with less oil and fewer calories. It’s easy to see why air frying has exploded in popularity.
However, the devil is in the details, as we’ll see.
Air frying may be healthier than some forms of cooking but unhealthier than others.
It depends on what you’re comparing it with and what you’re making to eat.
Is air frying healthier than deep-frying?
Some people consider air frying healthier than deep-frying because it uses less cooking oil. It also creates fewer compounds that could be harmful to your health.
Below, we look at these points in more detail.
1. Air frying uses less oil
It’s definitely true that air frying uses less oil than deep-frying. Figures vary between studies, but there can be up to a 90% reduction in the amount of oil left in food after air frying, compared with deep-frying.
This means that your food has fewer calories.
Overall, air frying is healthier than deep-frying. But if you rarely deep-fry food and have a healthy fat intake, using an air fryer might not make much of a difference to your health.
Also, everyone responds differently to the fats in their diet. For some people, eating a meal high in fat leads to high levels of blood fats for a long time. Over the years, this can increase the risk of poorer health outcomes.
Other people have much smaller responses to fats. If you’d like to know how your body responds to fats, start by taking our free quiz.
2. Air frying creates fewer harmful compounds
The other concern with deep-frying is that it creates compounds that could be harmful. This is due to the high temperatures involved and the breakdown of fat and carbohydrates.
Some studies suggest that air frying creates fewer of these compounds. For example:
One study, which looked at different ways of cooking fish cakes, found that air frying created fewer advanced glycation end products (AGEs) than deep-frying. AGEs are linked to an increased risk of inflammation and the development of chronic diseases.
Another comparison study showed that air frying created less acrylamide than deep-frying. Acrylamide is a compound that forms when you cook starchy foods at high heat, and it might increase the risk of some cancers.
These are just two of the compounds of concern. Depending on the type of food, others can include 5-hydroxymethylfurfural, which is sometimes called 5-HMF, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and heterocyclic amines.
But Dr. Sarah Berry, ZOE’s chief scientist and one of the world’s leading experts on fats, says it’s important not to overstate the risk of these compounds.
“Most of the evidence about the dangerous effects of cooked oils is actually from animal studies,” says Sarah.
Plus, it may not reflect how most of us use these oils.
Sarah explains: “The harmful effects of cooking oil generally only happen when oil is used over and over again at really high temperatures. The reality is: The way that we cook at home will not produce these compounds.”
So, what does this mean for your food? Early research suggests that air frying may create fewer potentially harmful compounds than deep-frying, making it a better choice for your daily cooking.
But that doesn’t mean you should never eat deep-fried food again.
Unless you’re repeatedly using the same oil to deep-fry food for many weeks, you’re unlikely to create truly concerning levels of these compounds.
Here at ZOE, we understand that it’s more complicated than just rating fats as “good” or “bad.” We think that food is there to be enjoyed, and no food should be off-limits.
Air frying vs. panfrying
Most people (scientists included) are interested in air frying as an alternative to deep-frying, so there’s less research comparing it with panfrying.
But the study that analyzed different cooking methods for fish cakes did include panfrying.
Interestingly, the researchers found that air frying and panfrying created similar amounts of AGEs to begin with — but as the cooking time increased, air frying created more AGEs.
So, does this mean that panfrying is better than air frying? Not necessarily.
The reality is that every form of cooking creates some breakdown products. This is because heat changes the structure of your food.
And the longer you cook your food, and the more golden it becomes, the more these breakdown products accumulate.
Ultimately, rather than focusing too much on cooking methods, it’s important to consider your overall dietary pattern.
Is air frying healthier than oven cooking?
Both air frying and oven cooking primarily use hot air, so there’s less difference between the two.
Still, the scientists behind the fish cake study found that baking these cakes in the oven created fewer AGEs overall.
This is likely because more moisture remains in oven-cooked food, which helps prevent the formation of some breakdown products.
Backing this up, the authors of a comprehensive report in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association concluded that water-based cooking produces significantly fewer AGEs than high-heat cooking.
So, should you boil, bake, or steam everything? Not necessarily.
No single way to cook is automatically better all the time. Instead, it’s best to use a range of methods to make a wide variety of foods.
Depending on what you’re cooking, different methods have different effects on the food’s nutritional profile.
Are there any downsides to air fryers?
There are some downsides to air frying. For instance, foods with more moisture, like cheese, don’t cook well in an air fryer.
Also, battered foods can be messy because the powerful airflow can blow the batter around.
Air fryers can be expensive, too, which can keep them out of reach.
Though if you deep-fry often, you might save money by switching to an air fryer because you’ll be buying less oil.
It’s also worth noting that because air fryers are generally much smaller than conventional ovens, they can’t always cook enough for a whole family at once.
So, what should you do?
As you can see, the health impact of air frying is a surprisingly nuanced topic.
The evidence so far suggests that air frying is healthier than deep-frying, but it’s not necessarily healthier than pan frying or baking in an oven.
What really matters is your overall dietary pattern and the quality of the food you’re eating.
How you cook is less important, though deep-frying everything isn’t the best idea.
So, cook with an air fryer if you like, but know that it’s not essential for creating a healthy meal.
Air fryers cook food by circulating superheated air. They’re popular because they can create the texture and flavor of fried foods while using much less oil.
Air-fried foods have less fat and fewer calories than deep-fried foods. Plus, the evidence so far suggests that they have fewer potentially harmful compounds than deep-fried foods.
But using less oil doesn’t automatically make your food healthier.
While deep-frying everything may not be the best idea, it’s OK to cook with oil in other ways.
Ultimately, there’s no single best way to cook. Your overall dietary pattern is what matters most.
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