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?
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. The concern is not JUST the basket that touches food. 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.
Most air fryers have plastic casings or components. Even though your food isn't touching the plastic, at cooking temperatures, it can off-gas and pollute the air in your house. If you notice a smell when you are using your Air Fryer, these often indicate VOC's - be sure to ventilate your house well.
How to Avoid Toxicants
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.
The information presented here is what companies tell us when we contact them, and I've not been able to try all of them.
hOmeLabs 11.6 Qt XXL 8-in-1 Air Fryer Oven I had this in my 'best' category but downgraded it for a few reasons. I purchased it to try last year, and I STILL use this one in my home. So it is still in the 'better' category, but the 'glass' door looked plastic on the outside - the website description says double glass doors...and the company insisted it is glass. They also changed their tune and having previously told me the interior is stainless steel, later told me it 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. The plus is that it is free of non-stick material on the inside, and works well. The only part of the air fryer that's non-stick coated is the drip tray, which does not come into contact with food and can be replaced with something else. The mesh trays are chrome-coated steel, 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.
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 the 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 - for some reason, many of these are not available on Amazon anymore.
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]
Ceramic coated: 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. Here's an example: Louise Sturling Stainless Steel Natural Ceramic Coated 5.8Qt Turbo Hot Air Fryer XL . I had an older version of their air fryer, and it did work well. The new model contains a plastic casing with a stainless steel polished finish. The Interior is coated with a ceramic coating which is PFOA, PFOS, and BPA free.
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. An easy rule of thumb is, when you open the air fryer, if the interior looks like a shiny grey-black material resembling Teflon, it probably has PFAs in the coating.
Here are some popular ones that has a non-stick coating that I'm not a fan of:
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.