Michael Hunter, MD on Medika Life

Are Air Fryers Healthy?

YOU HAVE HEARD THE CLAIMS: They are a healthy way to enjoy your favorite fried foods. You consume french fries, fish sticks, and chicken wings without guilt. Air fryers.

Do air fryers live up to the claims? Part of the reason I decided to investigate the claims is that I am thinking of investing in this popular kitchen appliance.

Air fryers reportedly cook food rapidly and appear safe and easy to use. With the endorsement of my mom, I began to explore air fryers.

Air fryers: How do they work?

First, let’s get this out of the way: An air fryer does not fry. Dan Zuccarello, Executive Food Editor for Cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, explains:

“It’s a mini-convection oven that cooks food by circulating hot air around it with a fan. This way, food is cooked by convection, which means it can approach the crispiness of fried food while using far less oil.”

Photo by Sidekix Media on Unsplash

We need to talk about the Maillard reaction, which the air fryer achieves with hot air (instead of hot oil). You see the Maillard reaction when you watch food turn brown and crispy. Crispy chips and seared steak are examples.

The Maillard reaction is the product of heating proteins and sugar. In my air fryer, the food sits in a wire basket, ensuring that all sides of the food contact the hot circulating air.

I still have to put a little oil in, as the air will heat it to create the browning effect — not a deep golden brown as you might get with an air fryer, but with much less fat and oil.

I like that air fryers have a timer, regulated temperature, and automated shut-off. No constantly watching for me. They are efficient, too. Another plus — no splattering oil or numerous pots and pans.

Air fryers and health: The good

I am looking at air fryers because I want to avoid deep-fried foods and their higher fat levels.

An air fryer may cut fried foods’ fat content by 75%. Many deep-friend dishes need up to three cups (750 mL) of oil, while air fryers need only one tablespoon (15 mL).

WebMD’s take: “Air frying is healthier than frying in oil. It cuts calories by 70 to 80 percent and has a lot less fat. Air frying may also avoid other harms associated with oil frying.”

Fry potatoes or other starchy foods, and you create the chemical acrylamide. When heated to high temperatures in the presence of certain sugars, this amino acid asparagine produces the substance.

Here’s the problem: The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies acrylamide as a probable carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

While air frying uses the Maillard reaction to some degree, this cooking method lowers the amount of acrylamide in fried potatoes by 90 percent.

Photo by Clint Bustrillos on Unsplash

Air fryers and health: The bad

So far, so good. But air fryers have perils. They can raise levels of cholesterol oxidation products or COPs, created when the cholesterol in meat or fish breaks down during cooking. COPs are associated with cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other diseases in some studies.

Can you lower COPs when I use my new air fryer? Herbs such as fresh parsley and chives serve as antioxidants, reducing cholesterol oxidation products in the foods in my air fryer.

Another downside? Air fryers cut the omega-3 fatty acids, good fats that can lower your blood pressure and elevate “good” HDL cholesterol levels.

Air fryers: My take

I am going to get out of the way on this one. Let’s listen to what dietician Vanessa Rissetto M.S., RD, CDN, has to say:

“If you tend to eat a lot of fried food, the air fryer is a good option for you. If you typically use the oven for cooking 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.”

Here are my three tips:

  • add only a little oil
  • add herbs (fresh parsley and chives)
  • keep your air fryer clean

I will add an air fryer to my cooking armamentarium, to be used sparingly but with joy. My review suggests that air-fried foods are healthier than deep-fried ones but imperfect. I will continue to edge towards more use of boiling, stewing, and steaming.


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Michael Hunter, MD
Michael Hunter, MD
I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

Michael Hunter, MD

I received an undergraduate degree from Harvard, a medical degree from Yale, and trained in radiation oncology at the University of Pennsylvania. I practice radiation oncology in the Seattle area.

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