I love cooking fads almost as much as I love food fads. My shelves are cluttered with a fondue pot, George Foreman Grill, Crockpot and an Instant Pot. One of them might just have to find a new home now that the air fryer is here.
Is “air frying” healthy, or does it belong in the crock category, too?
First off, frying food is unarguably one of the tastiest ways to eat anything. Broccoli, mushrooms, even Snickers taste great fried. However, for those of you looking for an argument against intelligent design, it just so happens that many of the tastiest things in our world are also the unhealthiest.
Research has found that people who eat fried potatoes – French fries, hash browns, etc. – more than twice a week were more than twice as likely to die early compared to those who don’t. The study didn’t show causality, just a strong association.
Most people eat fried foods from restaurants. Often restaurants use the unhealthier oils because it is easier to create fried foods with that satisfying crunch. Oil loads on calories. And restaurants tend to over-salt foods. The oil and salt combo is linked to heart disease, type II diabetes and high blood pressure.
Another element of frying starchy food, particularly potatoes, is the creation of the chemical acrylamide. This is a known carcinogen created from the amino acid asparagine reacting with the sugars in the food. The darker the frying process makes the food, like that dark brown French fry, the more acrylamide in it. Until now, those were the best, tastiest ones.
But is “air frying” even frying? Not exactly. It is more like a convection oven in which really hot air is blown by a fan around the food. The hot air gets the outside to get crispy while the inside stays soft (the perfect French fry). The food sits on a slightly elevated rack within the fryer, so that air can get to all sides and that grease can drop away from the food to the bottom of the pan. It sounds healthier to have fat drip away from the food instead of having the food swim in it.
Oil is often lightly coated onto food before air frying. Using healthier oils and a lot less is estimated to cut calories by 70% to 80% when compared with traditional fried foods. A quarter-pound piece of chicken deep-fried will have more than 13 grams of fat in it, whereas that same piece of chicken cooked in an air fryer will have less than 1 gram.
The question is, do owners of air fryers reduce their consumption of fried food from restaurants, or are they increasing their weekly fried food intake by now making a lower-calorie version at home?
One study shows that air frying reduces the amount of acrylamide compared to traditional frying. Another study looked at air-fried fish and found that air frying compared to other forms of cooking raised the levels of cholesterol oxidation products. These chemicals are associated with heart disease and cancer. Air frying lowers the omega-3 fatty acids in fish, too. This is the “good” fat in fish.
For some foods, like meats, frying isn’t healthy no matter what way you do it. The fried food purists will tell you that air frying doesn’t give as satisfying as a crunch or feel. And health food purists will tell you that there are healthier ways to eat anything you might consider frying. It is important to think of air frying as the alternative to deep frying and not a healthy alternative to roasting or baking.
If you’re going to make room on your shelves for an air fryer, make sure that it is the deep fryer that takes a hike.
Dr. Salvatore Iaquinta is a head and neck surgeon at Kaiser Permanente San Rafael and the author of “The Year They Tried To Kill Me.” He takes you on the Highway to Health every fourth Monday.