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Are air fryers a healthier way to cook?

Can this cult kitchen product improve your diet, or are the health claims just hot air?

cooking healthy food with airfryer
Last updated: 24 January 2024

Need to know

  • An air fryer can be a healthier alternative to deep frying
  • An air fryer won't magically make unhealthy food healthy – you'll get the same results as cooking foods in the oven
  • Other appliances such as a food processor can also help you prepare healthier foods

As we speed towards the end of January, many of us are finding that our new year resolve is starting to falter. For some, that might mean quietly abandoning the lifestyle changes we only recently adopted. For others, a shiny new appliance might seem like a way to breathe new life into our waning motivation. 

While an air fryer may be one way to help you cook healthier fare, it isn't going to provide a magic solution. However, when used correctly, it can make a difference.

How does an air fryer work?

Whoever it was that came up with the term 'air fryer' must surely be some sort of marketing genius. After all, an appliance that can fry with air sounds like just the ticket for people trying to reduce their use of unhealthy fats. Alas, as is the case with a lot of marketing, describing what this machine does as 'frying' is quite a stretch.

Put simply, an air fryer is just a benchtop fan-forced oven, but that label lacks the pizzazz of 'air fryer'. 

An air fryer is just a benchtop fan-forced oven

Making the category even more complicated is the fact that as these products have risen in popularity over the years the number of features found on them has grown just as rapidly. 

But despite the ever-growing list of bells and whistles to be found on air fryers, the fundamentals remain the same. Essentially, an air fryer has a fan, a heating element and a small cavity that holds the food as it cooks. 

Will an air fryer cook healthier food?

Unfortunately, there isn't a simple answer to that question and while it may seem obvious, it very much depends on what you put into the air fryer. 

While cooking in an air fryer is generally healthier than using a deep fryer (as it doesn't require the use of a large amount of oil), it doesn't magically make inherently unhealthy foods good for you.

And it is certainly no healthier than cooking in your oven (which can perform the same tasks as your air fryer).

cooking greens in airfryer

An air fryer could help you eat better, but it can't make unhealthy food healthy

Highly processed, packaged foods will never be the healthiest choice, no matter how you cook them. But cooking them in an air fryer as opposed to a deep fryer will mean using less oil and if you're focusing on weight loss, that's important. While oils aren't inherently unhealthy, they do have higher kilojoule content per gram than other macronutrients so having more oil in your food means you're likely to be consuming more kilojoules. This can impact your weight and therefore your overall health.

"Cooking in an air fryer can be a healthier option than some other methods of cooking," says CHOICE home economist, Fiona Mair, "but it really depends on the food you choose to cook." 

"Cooking processed frozen foods is not a healthy option but if you prepare the food from scratch it will be a different story," Fiona says.

Highly processed, packaged foods will never be the healthiest choice, no matter how you cook them

Take the chicken nugget, a very popular and usually highly processed frozen food. Most frozen crumbed chicken is par-fried before it's frozen and almost all chicken nuggets are made by blending chicken with starches, flavours and water retainers. No matter how you heat that at home it isn't going to be a healthy option. But making your own version can change that

"You can buy chicken breast, cut it into cubes, coat it with flour, egg and wholemeal bread crumbs, spray it with a little canola oil and air fry it, for a healthier homemade option," says Fiona. "But cooking in an oven will give you the same result as an air fryer when you use the fan-forced mode."

Can you tell the difference between traditional and air-fried?

While the marketing spiel on many air fryers features lots of the words we associate with traditionally fried foods, such as 'crispy', 'juicy' and 'succulent', the flavour and texture of food cooked in an air fryer will be unavoidably different to the fried versions.

"When you deep fry foods you will get an even dark golden colouring," says Fiona. 

"Flavour is also enhanced, especially when the food is battered or bread-crumbed. You'll also find that oil adds flavour along with the calories."

So if you're buying an air fryer with the expectation that you can replace the deep fryer without noticing the difference, you're going to be sorely disappointed.

Will an air fryer help you eat better?

cooking sweet potatoes in airfryer

An air fryer is just one of many appliances that can help you change your eating habits.

On its own, an air fryer won't transform your diet but it might be one tool to help you change the way you eat.

If an air fryer would make you more likely to eat fewer deep fried foods, try new recipes and rethink the way you eat, it could be a useful addition to your kitchen and might help you reach some of your new year healthy eating goals. 

However, if you're going to invest in new kitchen appliances to help you eat a healthier diet there might be some you already own that can also be helpful.

"Multi cookers and slow cookers allow you to cook one-pot meals that are healthier and easier to prepare," says Fiona. 

"Food processors also make the prep so much easier if you're chopping or shredding vegetables for salad."

The options don't end there. 

"Although expensive, high-performance blenders and all-in-one appliances like the Thermomix allow you to prepare foods from scratch, which can reduce the need to buy processed foods from the supermarket," Fiona suggests. 

"Any appliances that help make it easier to prepare or cook healthier options such as fruit and veg and whole foods can be a good thing."

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.