Both air-fried and deep-fried food have a delicious crisp. But unlike deep fryers, air fryers use minimal amounts of oil, translating to tasty morsels with fewer harmful chemicals and less calories.
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As a nutritionist, I get a lot of a questions about whether or not air fryers are healthy. Most people—myself included—find the concept of crisp, golden French fries without the grease quite appealing. But do these relatively affordable kitchen appliances cook food in a healthier way than traditional deep fryers? Here's my take on their health benefits, plus some tips for using one.

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Credit: AdobeStock

How does an air fryer work?

Air fryers seem quite miraculous: you fill a basket with food, pop it into the device, and after hitting a few buttons you've got morsels that are crunchy on the outside, but still tender on the inside—little to no oil necessary.

But despite their name, air fryers don't "fry" food, per se. Unlike deep fryers, which rely on submerging food in sizzling oil, air fryers work by rapidly and evenly circulating hot air around your tasty bites. The air flow, combined with high temperatures of about 350 degrees to 400 degrees Fahrenheit, crisps the outer layer without drying out the center.

However, while nearly anything can be deep fried, the same isn't true for air fryers. For example, air fryers don't do well with very high-moisture foods like cheese. They also don't get along with battered fare since light, loose ingredients will get whipped around in the appliance. Therefore, you may not be able to use the machine as an alternative to deep frying for absolutely everything. Instead, stick to air frying ingredients like tofu, pumpkin seeds, chicken, or starchier veggies.

Are air fryers healthy?

In general, air fryers are a healthy cooking method, particularly when compared to deep fryers. In fact, a 2015 review published in the journal Nutrients found consuming fried foods four or more times a week was associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, and heart failure. Here are some of the health benefits of air fryers:

1. Air fryers reduce the amount of acrylamide in food

Deep-fried foods contain high amounts of acrylamide—a substance formed when carbohydrates are heated to high temperatures—that's been linked to heart disease. The Department of Health and Human Services also classifies acrylamide as a "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen" based on animal studies that have found it can lead to cancer. However, results from human studies are mixed and more research is needed, according to the National Cancer Institute.

The good news is air fryers appear to produce lower amounts of acrylamide. In fact, one 2015 study published in the Journal of Food Science found that air-fried potatoes had 90% less acrylamide compared to deep-fried versions.  

2. Air fryers cut back on calories 

Another benefit of air fryers is that they slash calories, since they require significantly less oil. For example air fried foods may only need one teaspoon of oil, which adds a mere 40 calories. In contrast, just one tablespoon of oil absorbed into foods during deep frying adds about 120 calories. Therefore, swapping deep-fried foods for air-fried ones may help with weight management.

3. Air fryers don't produce some toxic compounds found in deep-fried foods

Cutting back on oil via air frying has other health benefits as well. For instance, when oil is reused for deep frying (as is often the case at restaurants), the quality degrades, depleting food of antioxidants and producing harmful chemicals called reactive oxygen species, per one 2015 study. Consuming foods with fewer antioxidants and more of these harmful byproducts compromise the body's antioxidant defense system, thus increasing the risk of disease. It also might cause blood vessel inflammation (which reduces blood flow) and high blood pressure.

Tips for using an air fryer

An air fryer can be a great addition to your kitchen, and not just because it's a healthier alternative to a deep fryer. It can also save time spent cooking and cleaning. However, here are some of my health-focused tips to keep in mind when using an air fryer:

  • Read the instructions: Most air fryers require you to leave at least five inches of space above the exhaust vent—otherwise, they become a fire hazard.
  • Use minimal amounts of oil: I recommend tossing or brushing food with about one to two teaspoons of oil per serving. Not only can too much oil up the calorie and fat content, but it can also cause smoking which makes food taste bad and impacts your health by producing free radicals that can harm cells.
  • Avoid aerosol sprays: Aerosol cooking oils can potentially break down the air fryer's non-stick basket, releasing toxic fumes.
  • Pair with other cooking methods: While air fryers are great, switch up your cooking methods throughout the week via sautéing, slow cooking, and steaming. This will further reduce your exposure to chemicals like acrylamide. It also ensures you enjoy a wider variety of foods—not just those compatible with air fryers—which increases the spectrum of nutrients you consume.

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