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Clearing the air on air fryers

KathyKolasa

Kathy Kolasa

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Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Q: I am trying to decide if I should buy an air fryer. What are the benefits and the downsides of using one? — T.N., Greenville

A: Several of our patients at ECU Family Medicine have told us how much they like the air fryer. I haven’t had an opportunity to use one yet. Dan Olson, a fourth-year Brody medical student, was contemplating getting one so he wanted to share what he learned.

Air fryers have been gaining in popularity in recent years with their promise of deep-fried flavor at a fraction of the fat content. I have to admit this is what appealed to me when I first heard about them several months ago. However, the first thing you need to know when thinking about buying an air fryer is that it’s not actually a fryer at all.

Fryers heat food via conduction, where the food makes direct contact with a heated medium, like melted shortening, oil or lard. The air fryer uses convection, in which food is cooked via circulated heated air, much the same way your conventional or toaster ovens work. Although most recipes designed for “air frying” require a light coating of oil applied to the outside of the food to make it crispy, the food is still cooked with heated air.

Since the main selling point of air fryers seems to be their healthfulness, let’s take a closer look at just how many calories you’d save by air frying instead of deep-fat frying. According to the USDA’s nutrition database, a raw 11-ounce Russet potato contains 284 calories and less than a gram of fat. When you turn that into 11 ounces of french fries, you typically add 44 grams of fat, and that potato is now 780 calories. Most experts would recommend you eat fewer than 80 grams of fat in a 2,000-calorie diet, so the potato fried would give you half of your daily fat. If you use an air fryer, the recipe for french fries given in the owner’s manual tells you to coat the potatoes in 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Since a tablespoon of oil will have about 120 calories, simple addition will tell us that an equivalent amount of air fried french fries should have about 400 calories (120 from the oil and 284 from the potato). So eating french fries prepared in an air fryer saves half the calories. Not too bad, although the exact amount of calorie savings will vary from meal to meal.

But this isn’t the only advantage to owning an air fryer. It is the perfect size for cooking for one to two people. If you only cook for yourself and you don’t want to turn on your conventional oven just for one serving, you can just cook your meal in the air fryer instead. Its compact size allows it to cook faster and more evenly than a conventional oven. The fryer is portable, so you can take it with you on vacations or business trips. And for those of you who don’t like microwaves, it offers a good alternative for reheating your leftovers.

The downside of air fryers is they don’t fry anything, so it doesn’t taste the same as food that is deep-fried. It still tastes good, just not the same as if it were deep-fried. Consumer Reports did a blind taste test and all the participants were able to pick out which foods were deep-fried or air-fried based on taste alone. Also, while its small size makes it perfect for making one to two servings, it is impractical for large meals. If you are cooking for a whole family, you’re better off using a conventional oven.

So if you were hoping this would give you the same deep-fried taste you love at a fraction of the calories, you may be disappointed. But if you want a portable, versatile little oven that makes crispy food with less fat and fewer calories than a deep fryer, then you might give the air fryer a try. Prices vary based on size and features, but you can get one starting around $60.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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