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I’ll be the first to admit - I love fried foods - I’m salivating at the thought of fries as I write this but I know they definitely don’t love me back.
Boasting to be a healthier alternative to deep-frying, air fryers have been increasingly popular, and even more so in the past year as the lockdown has inspired many to cook more at home.
So… is air frying a good alternative? And are air fryers safe or can they be bad for your health?
Let’s take a deep dive.
First off, I want to break down how an air fryer works and why it's notoriously claimed to be the "healthy alternative" to deep-fryers. It's essentially just a mini-convection oven that moves hot air around the food quickly. The rapid circulation creates a crispy texture, similar to a deep-fryer, but with little to no oil used. The lack of oil cuts a lot of fat and calories from a meal typically fried without compromising the texture. This is the main reason why they are considered a healthy alternative to frying. It is also marketed as a convenient tool for those who want to prepare home-cooked meals more often without having to spend too much time in the kitchen.
Does this mean that cooking with an air fryer is naturally healthier? It depends.
If you're using it to heat processed foods like pastries, nuggets or pies full of harmful additives, trans fats and inflammatory oils, it is by no means healthy, even if it contains less fat than the deep-fried version.
On the flip side, if you're using the air fryer to prepare nutritious whole foods, like homemade baked sweet potato fries, then it's a totally different story. For that purpose, an air fryer can be an efficient tool for creating healthy and tasty dishes in less time without compromising your health. For example, oven-baked or air-fried homemade ‘fries’ are definitely healthier versions of deep-fried french fries.
But even so, it does not necessarily mean that the food cooked in an air fryer will always be healthier.
Because cooking certain foods at high temperature through frying, roasting, baking or grilling can expose us to the risk of toxic compounds such as acrylamides from starchy foods (potatoes, cereal grains, bread), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and heterocyclic amines (HCA) from cooking muscle meats (beef, pork, poultry, fish). These are potential carcinogens.
Before you start panicking - don’t fret my friend - we can try to reduce these with some simple steps:
Now that we’ve looked at the pros and cons of air-frying as a method of cooking, let’s look at what type of air fryer is best.
What materials are they made out of?
As air fryers became more in demand, hundreds of companies came out with cheaper, lower-quality machines made of harmful materials like PTFE, plastic exteriors and other chemical-laden materials posing health risks and exposure to toxicants when used.
What can air fryers release into our air or leach into our food when cooking?
X PTFE/Non-Stick Coating
Many air fryers have nonstick-coated cooking baskets. Often known as Teflon, or non-stick coating, this material is usually made from a PFAS chemical, PTFE. When heated at normal cooking temperatures, PTFE coated cookware can release various gasses, chemicals and fumes that present mild to severe toxicity.
Studies show that this exposure could be associated with:
Severe exposure can even result in fluoropolymer fever, also called "Teflon flu". And for birds, exposure to such toxic fumes from Teflon can be deadly.
Gen-X Chemicals are the newer generation PFAS, which are increasingly more popular as a replacement for PFOA and PFOS (voluntarily phased out of use in the US). But Gen-X has not been proven to be safe. Animal studies have shown oral exposure to result in health defects on the liver, kidneys, the immune system, development of offspring, and an association with cancer.
Hence, it's crucial to strive to limit your exposure to PFAS as much as you can, as it’s known that these chemicals are harmful, accumulate in the body, and break down very slowly.
Most air fryers have plastic casings or components. Even though your food isn't touching the plastic, once the machine is heated, it can increase off-gassing, polluting the air in your house.
How to Avoid Toxicants
Given the risks mentioned above, the best way to avoid these toxicants is to use the highest quality air fryer available to you. Looking at what’s available in the market currently, this means air fryers that are made with stainless steel and glass rather than non-stick coatings and plastic.
It's also important to keep ventilation in mind when using an air fryer to avoid polluting the air in your home with any fumes that could be released from the machine. Where possible, safely use your air fryer under your stove-hood, or open a nearby window when in use and I always run my HEPA air filter when cooking.
Best Air Fryers
After researching air fryers for the last 3 months, I’ve come to the conclusion that currently there IS NO perfect air fryer on the market that ticks every box for me. However, there ARE better ones that pose less risk. This compilation is based on my personal opinion, based on the information I obtained from calling and emailing the companies in June 2021. It is possible the companies change materials/construction over time, so I always encourage you to do your own research before committing to a purchase in case the information I found is no longer accurate.
Stainless steel: Many of the air fryers marketed as stainless steel may also contain components made of other materials including non-stick coatings or aluminum - I don’t know the full implications of this yet, but I think zinc galvanized metal is probably still better than PFAS coating, and that’s why these are on the ‘better’ list rather than the best list.
Glass: Not many studies have been done on halogen heat or infrared cooking at high temperatures. So the jury is still out - I am also not sure these work well, for most of these brands, the accessories are made of stainless steel, but the exteriors, which are not in contact with food or heated during use, are still mostly made of plastic. Here are some examples:
Big Boss Oil-less Air Fryer [Note: There is a Prop65 warning which could be related to the lead present in the electrical cord but the company cannot be reached to verify this]
Oyama TRO-110C Turbo Convection Oven
Ceramic coated: This is the one I have at home - it was the best option when I researched the market 3 years ago - note it is not perfect, but I'm ok with that. I don't use it daily and it's all about context and overall toxic burden when it comes to non-toxic living. I take steps to ventilate well and also avoid food directly touching the ceramic coating, just in case.
Not many studies have been done on ceramic coating yet. Risks of exposure to nanoparticles have been associated with wear and tear of ceramic coating, but it’s more of a concern with direct food contact, so I don’t put food directly in contact on my ceramic pan.I line the food with parchment paper or a normal small bowl/plate, so that the food does not touch the ceramic coating.
hOmeLabs 11.6 Qt XXL 8-in-1 Air Fryer Oven I HAVE DOWNGRADED THIS AIR FRYER from best, please read my update below. [The only part of this that's non-stick coated is the drip tray, which does not come into contact with food and can be replaced with something else according to the reviews (I've not personally tried this air fryer). The company initially told me the interior is stainless steel, which made me place it as a 'best' option, and then they updated recently to say it is zinc-coated steel. However, at least it is not non-stick. The mesh trays are chrome-coated stee, not non-stick. It does have a Prop 65 warning but according to the company, this relates to the harmless levels of lead present in the electrical cord]. I've not tried it but looks like a good one and well reviewed.
UPDATE 7.25.22 on Homelabs air fryer - I purchased this air fryer via Amazon and to me, the 'glass' door looked plastic - the website description says double glass doors, and also, when I reached out to Customer service they reassured me it was glass. I am not convinced it is: it is light, and when I tap on it, it sounds like plastic and not glass. However, they insist it is glass... They also changed their tune and told me the interior is galvanized zinc and not stainless steel. So I'm downgrading my review of this air fryer based on the fact this company doesn't seem to be fully transparent and I'm questioning their information.
Air-Fryers I don't love
I’m not here to tell you what to do, and this is MY personal opinion - I encourage you to do your own research and if you have one of the ones below - don’t panic. With non-toxic living, it’s all about overall context and what your OVERALL exposure is - something I teach in my course Detox Right. If you’ve taken steps to reduce your exposures, a little not-so-ideal air fryer use here and there really is NOT a big deal, especially if you are also supporting your detox organs every day.
There are steps you can take to reduce exposure too:
a) line the non-stick coating with If-You-Care Parchment paper so food does not touch the surface
b) when using, open the windows, or invest in a quality HEPA air filter as some (thankfully not all) PFAS chemicals are volatile and can get into indoor air.
If you are shopping for a new air fryer though, try to avoid those that contain either Teflon/PTFE/PFAS nonstick coating or plastic. Here are some popular ones that have one or all of these:
So there you have it, hopefully, you can now be armed with some useful information when you do your own research on Air Fryers!
Remember, there is no such thing as 100% non-toxic life.
The goal is to lower our overall burden, and not to aim for perfection. One important corollary is to support your detox organs so they can eliminate the exposures we cannot avoid.
I teach this inside my course Detox Right - a 6-week journey to reduce your toxic burden and feel your best.