Discover the Truth About Air Fryer Cooking: Experts’ Verdict!

In March 2021, after a year of pandemic cooking, Jackie Alpers decided to buy an air fryer.

“I realized that I’d been relying a bit too much on crispy food, and that was going to be a problem if I didn’t cut back on the oil,” says Alpers, a food photographer and author.

She’s one of 25 million people who purchased air fryers in 2020 and 2021, according to data analysts NPD. Her motivation—to cook with less oil—echoes many companies’ marketing efforts, which promise that air fryers create the taste of fried food without the hassles or health concerns of deep frying.

Of course, “healthy” is a subjective term, and whether or not air fryers are a shortcut to sterling bills of health is more complicated than product descriptions awash with similarly loaded phrases like “guilt free” might have us believe.

How Air Fryers Actually Work

So, how do air fryers work, exactly? A countertop appliance, air fryers rapidly blow hot air around food in an enclosed basket or chamber. When the temperature within that chamber reaches 285-330°F, the exterior of what you’re cooking browns and crisps, creating a texture akin to that of fried foods.

“It’s not really frying,” explains Kaumudi Marathe, a senior editor at America’s Test Kitchen and author of an upcoming healthy air fryer cookbook. “It’s cooking with convection heat in a closed space.”

When It Comes to Frying, Fats Matter

There are benefits to using an air fryer as an alternative to deep frying, but it’s more nuanced than simply how much oil you use, says Ariane Resnick, CNC, a private chef and author. “[Deep-]fried foods are high in fat, and because the oil quality used is usually quite low, it’s generally inflammatory, omega-6 laden fat that can lead to health problems,” Resnick says.

Air-fried foods, however, have less added fat, and you can choose your oil with care.

Avocado oil has what dieticians call “good fats,” and a high smoke point suitable for frying, “but avocado oil is very expensive,” says Beth Lipton, a writer and recipe developer. “The idea of deep-frying in avocado oil and using up half the bottle on one dish is a lot.” Most air fryer recipes only call for a teaspoon or so of oil, however, making it a potentially more reasonable option.

Air frying is gentler on whichever oil you use, too, Resnick says, which prevents oxidation. According to some studies, oxidized oils could potentially cause inflammation, generate free radicals, damage brain cells, and other detrimental effects.

While it may seem obvious, it’s worth noting that what you cook in your air fryer matters.

“Cooking ready-made breaded and pre-fried food like chicken nuggets or mozzarella sticks in an air fryer is not healthy,” says Alpers. Marathe agrees, and notes that the air fryer is a great way to prepare well-seasoned vegetables and lean proteins with little to no added fat.

Can Air Frying Actually Make Foods Less Nutritious?

Some nutritious foods, though, may actually be negatively affected by air frying.

“Air frying fish reduces the amount of beneficial omega-3 in it while increasing an unhealthy form of cholesterol,” says Resnick, citing a 2017 Institute of Food Technologists study. “That impact can be mitigated by adding fresh herbs for their antioxidant properties, but you’ll want to eat more omega-3 rich foods to compensate for the loss there.”

The Bottom Line

Instead of imagining an air fryer as a one-way rocket ship to perfect health, Resnick encourages cooks to take a holistic view of what they eat and why. Fat “isn’t the enemy,” she says. “And many of the vitamins in produce, such as vitamin A, are fat soluble, so they need to be eaten with fat in order for our bodies to use them. Cutting out an entire macronutrient is potentially problematic, so air frying shouldn’t be the way you cook everything.”