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How the air fryer became a mass market item

Joanna Feeley Founder and CEO of TrendBible explains ‘the why’ behind the mass market adoption of the air fryer and that when it comes to trends, knowing when to act is crucial.

“Why do you think the air fryer trend has become so popular? I was asked this question by a journalist last week.”

2017 was the first year air fryers made a dent in the US market – and their success was compounded during the pandemic. It’s not difficult to see why the air fryer trend became so popular – they are quicker, use less fat to fry and so have a health benefit, and use less energy to operate.

They are also portable so ‘Generation Rent‘ can take it with them. Plus you can access millions of air fryer recipes on TikTok for quick new meal ideas and novelty snacks (there are over 2.6-billion views for #airfryer). Pretty significant daily life improvements I’d say.

Identifying future opportunities

When you’re a brand or retailer doing a good job of trend forecasting, you’re scoping out future opportunities from a wider source pool than pinpointing one product.

Let’s be honest, pinpointing one product as your entire strategy for success would feel terrifying. It would be very high risk for most mainstream brands to use a black and white approach like that – given that their measure of success when it comes to trends is mass market adoption (by the way the air fryer still hasn’t reached this, but 36% of American households have an air fryer which puts the adoption approximately with an Early Majority audience).

Understand the catalysts for change

“The most successful brands and retailers I work with spend their time understanding the broader context of the change that’s coming.”

Companies that did well out of the air fryer trend in 2022 were – four years ago – already looking at trends coming to the US, UK and Europe from Japan and China around tabletop cooking appliances as a response to smaller kitchens that needed to flex.

They were already looking at how fried food could be a healthier option. They had already acknowledged that householder attention spans had shrunk, influenced by how they were having their habits shaped by the rapid consumption of content on smart phones and social media.

They had already thought about open-plan living reaching its peak and what this would mean to be cooking in the same space you were relaxing (and potentially working) in.

A successful product sits atop a range of influences that hit the spot for the householder. Brands who use trends well synthesise these influences as a means of taking a measured risk on a new innovation or idea.

The underlying factors that sit behind the success of the air fryer aren’t going away, and so they’ll be catalysts for more table top innovations, quieter, prettier, greener, healthier, faster, stove alternative options, and many, many other things!

Why timing is everything

One last point – knowing about the change that is coming isn’t enough on its own – you have to act! Market leader, Ninja Air Fryers were searched 2386% more than the second most popular air fryer brand in December 2022. They stole the market, despite Philips owning the IP for the first air fryer from 2010.

I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this from brands – they owned the IP, they had game-changing technology, they were THE innovator – but missed out on the biggest chunk of the pie!


Fried! – any thought you had that air fryers were a passing fad

Tony Jackman, the delightful food editor for Daily Maverick, has been having a slow-growing, cynic-now-fan affair with air fryers.

In context of the history of the world, convection ovens were introduced just the other day and air fryers last week. Microwave ovens? Their days may yet be numbered. Perhaps. But air fryers aren’t going anywhere just yet. Here’s why.

It all comes down to one word: crisp. We like food that is crispy, that has crunch, and it is frying that gives us that pleasure. In a juicy steak fried golden brown but tender inside. In a hasselback potato or a perfect chip. 

Yet, frying went out of fashion in the headlong rush to eat only the healthiest of healthy food, and frying became seen as unhealthy. Which is why you often find the word “healthy” in the labelling and packaging of air fryers.

There is still fat when “frying” in one – there can be no frying without it – but there is so little of it that it is considered insignificant or no consequence. Which ignores one small salient point: yes, we do cook our chips in lots of fat when deep frying them the old-fashioned way in a deep pot of hot oil. But we discard almost all of that fat. Do you really drink the oil? No, we don’t.

So the actual difference in the amount of fat used for cooking that chip in a pot of oil and that chip straight out of the air fryer is minimal…..

Where did air fryers come from?

The air fryer came into being by chance in 2005 when an inventor in the Netherlands, Fred van der Weij, experimented with a gadget to make lovely crisp chips with less effort and time than known cooking methods. By 2007 he had a prototype and he ultimately sold the idea to Philips, which introduced the world’s first air fryer in 2010. The company was the first to use the term “air fryer”.

It took until 2018 for that little phrase “air fryer”, now on everybody’s lips, to become widely known and used, and then the world under lockdown took to the machines in droves. 

Now, it seems clear, the air fryer is here to stay, just as the microwave, which became popular for home use in the 1970s though had been invented as early as 1945, was never going to go away. Right? Microwaves are still with us, five (and more) decades later, but there’s the question that only time will answer: does the advent of the air fryer necessarily mean the ultimate demise of the “mike”? 

How does an air fryer work?

The New York Times writes that Van der Weij took three years to develop the prototype of his original egg-shaped machine before Philips introduced it at the Internationale Funkausstellung in Berlin.

“It combined close-range radiation and increased air flow to better heat the food’s surface. Philips now owns the patents for Mr Van der Weij’s air-frying technology,” the NYT reported, adding: “It was kind of a holy grail that many companies were looking for: to make better French fries. He said: ‘To find a way to make the handling much easier and the results much better would be a very big potential, that was clear. But I did not expect it would be as big as it is right now’.”

Among the first to follow suit was Instant Brands, whose combination air fryer plus pressure cooker plus who-knows-what-else did not win favour with me when I first had one on loan in 2021. But the Instant air fryer is a true winner.

My dislike of the combo-do-everything model does not mean there’s anything wrong with it; I have colleagues who swear by it. But I prefer a simple machine that focuses on the one thing it is best at; so a straightforward air fryer is the one for me.

What is an air fryer, precisely?

Wikipedia describes an airfryer like this: “An air fryer is a small countertop convection oven designed to simulate deep frying without submerging the food in oil. A fan circulates hot air at a high speed, producing a crisp layer via browning reactions such as the Maillard reaction. Some product reviewers find that regular convection ovens or convection toaster ovens produce better results, or say that air frying is essentially the same as convection baking.”

Air fryers, adds Wiki, “circulate hot air to cook food that would otherwise be submerged in oil. The air fryer’s cooking chamber radiates heat from a heating element near the food, and a fan circulates hot air.

“The original Philips Airfryer used radiant heat from a heating element just above the food and convection heat from a strong air stream flowing upwards through the open bottom of the food chamber, delivering heat from all sides, with a small volume of hot air forced to pass from the heater surface and over the food, with no idle air circulating as in a convection oven. A shaped guide directed the airflow over the bottom of the food. The technique was patented as Rapid Air technology.”

A bit of air fryer ‘history’

The Chicago Tribune claims that air-frying technology has “a lengthy history that dates back some 70 years”, but there’s a difference between components for a car having been invented and somebody inventing an actual car that you can drive around in. Others say that the technology has existed since 1945 with the invention of the convection oven we all know so well. But the point is that the air fryer is a step away from the floor and the wall on to the countertop, while its most pertinent feature is its ability to give the impression of frying in hardly any fat at all.

So frying, because so little fat is used in an air fryer, becomes fashionable again in a world in which many have argued for years that the very last thing we should be doing is frying.

Many of those same people are now “air frying”.

Stick it in an air fryer

The ubiquity of the appliance is well described in the NYT article: “Fans have tapped into the old habits of a fry cook, air-frying anything they get hold of and hoping it works. You name it, someone has probably stuck it into an air fryer: cooked penne for ‘pasta chips’, or whole, shelled eggs for a soft or boiled texture.”

The piece claims that by 2020 as many as 36% of US households owned an air fryer, and that number can only have soared in the three years since then. That figure was already 20% higher than the previous year.

The story quotes retired science professor Ruth Cowan as saying that “Americans buy more kitchen gadgets than people in the rest of the world, and that’s probably because advertisers promise it will change their lives”. She adds: “The kitchens of US consumers also tend to have more counter and storage space.” 

And this applies in many South African households where an “American kitchen” has been a feature since the 1960s. Almost every South African kitchen that gets “done” is done in the airy, spacious US way with plenty of counter space and wall-fitted cupboards.

The race to make air fryers more than air fryers – which can also dehydrate, bake, grill, answer the phone and babysit the kids – is now on, but I suspect that the models that stick around for the long haul will be the ones that do one thing really well.

Who actually uses all those attachments that come with so many gadgets? Mostly, we use an appliance for its core function.

Not all appliances stick around forever. The electric knife was always going to die a slow, lingering death somewhere in a box that hadn’t been opened since three houses ago.

But air fryers will not be like that. They’re just too good. Their advantages in speed, efficiency and in saving money outweigh any disadvantages there may be, not that there is a long list of those. They’re here to stay and if I were a gambling man I would put a lot of money on that. Read the full article

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