Air fryers have taken the 2020s by storm, offering home cooks a quick, easy, apparently delicious, and supposedly healthy way of cooking their food without the perils of deep-fat frying.
With energy bills set to skyrocket in many parts of the world this winter, sales of air fryers have also been reportedly on the rise with consumers looking to keep their bills down.
However, do these plastic contraptions actually live up to the hype? A number of different studies have indicated that, yes, air frying is healthier than some other means of cooking and they may also be more energy efficient.
How does an air fryer work?
An air fryer is a super-charged convection oven that’s small enough to sit on your countertop.
Despite its name, no frying is involved. It works by rapidly circulating hot air around the food using the convection mechanism. Little-to-no oil is required, but it mimics some of the tasty properties of fried food by creating a nice brown crisp on the food through the so-called Maillard reaction.
The Maillard reaction is a series of chemical reactions between amino acids and reducing sugars to form aroma and flavor compounds, while simultaneously browning the food. It’s basically the reason why a chargrilled burger, fried onions, and crispy french fries taste so good.
What are the health benefits of an air fryer?
Air fryers are often considered a healthy means of cooking as they achieve the Maillard reaction without using too much oil.
Deep fried foods are especially bad for your health because they contain high levels of trans fats, which are unsaturated fats that have undergone a process called hydrogenation. Countless studies have shown that trans fats are closely linked with an increased risk of many diseases, from heart attacks and strokes to obesity and diabetes.
A 2015 study looked into the differences between French fries cooked by deep fat frying and air frying. It concluded that the air-fried food had “substantially lower fat content” but maintained similar moisture content and coloring. However, the air-friend product did have less starch gelatinization, which may impact flavor, as well as a slightly harder and drier texture than the deep-fried product.
“Overall, air frying process permits the manufacture of lower fat content products, though these products have different sensory characteristics,” the paper concluded.
There’s also some evidence that air fryers might decrease the formation of harmful compounds. As mentioned, the crisp browning of food is caused by the Maillard reaction. When cooking starchy food at high temperatures, it can result in the formation of acrylamide. This chemical gives food its characteristic brown color, as well as delicious flavor, but some studies have suggested may contribute to cancer.
Another study from 2015 looked into how air-frying impacted the generation of acrylamide in fried potatoes. Promisingly, it determined that air-frying reduced acrylamide content by about 90 percent compared with conventional deep-oil-frying.
That said, air-frying will still produce acrylamide, as well as other potentially dangerous compounds, while other methods like boiling and steaming will not.
Overall, the evidence suggests that air fryers can produce healthier food than deep-fat frying. However, there's currently very little research that's looked into how air fryers fare compared to other means of cooking, most notably grilling or baking.
Do air fryers save money?
Another reason people convert to air fryers is their supposed energy efficiency, which is good news for the environment and could help to cut energy bills. Since their cooking chamber is smaller than a conventional oven, they require less energy to heat up. That's the idea, at least.
There’s not been much formal scientific research into this, but a few curious punters have experimented with it. The BBC tested out this question by comparing an oven and an air fryer's ability to cook chicken legs of the same size.
They found that the chicken took about 35 minutes to cook in the oven and required 1.05-kilowatt hours of electricity, which cost around 21.04 pence at the time. Meanwhile, the air fryer took 20 minutes to cook the chicken and used just 0.43-kilowatt hours of electricity, around 8.6 pence.
So, the air frier also appears to be energy efficient, at least according to this very small and vaguely scientific experiment.