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Sustainability special: Induction for the planet

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The foodservice industry is increasingly turning to electric cooking equipment to reduce energy consumption and cut costs. Induction cooking is a key pillar of this trend, though its high upfront cost has slowed its uptake. Jim Banks looks at its benefits, its challenges and considers a future where it might be the mainstay of commercial cooking.

Induction cooking is not new. It was first showcased at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933 and was demonstrated as a groundbreaking technology in the 1950s by the Frigidaire division of GM. In the intervening years, the technology has been refined and commercial induction cookers are now widely available, offering operators significant reductions in energy costs and flowing into the world’s slow but steady move away from fossil fuels.The technology relies on an induction coil that operates as a powerful high- frequency electromagnet. Its electromagnetic field generates a rapid flow of electricity directly to a pan or pot, and the eddy current produced in the cooker causes pans made of ferrous metal such as steel or iron to heat up quicker without making the stove top hot.

“NASA developed induction cookers that they used for the space program,” says consultant Marco Amatti FCSI at MAPA Associates in Brazil. “More units were developed in the United States, but encountered some issues such as low reliability, power as well as noise problems.

“The popularity of induction cooking failed in the US at that time, but further development continued in Asia and Europe,” he adds. “Since the late 1970s, induction cooking technology has become more popular and, since late 2010s, more accessible.”

According to Future Market Insights, the global commercial induction cooktop market is expected to reach $17.5bn in 2032, with strong growth expected over the next 10 years. This growth is largely expected because commercial induction cooktops take up less space and use less energy compared to electric or gas cooktops. They are also considered more durable and can reduce overall cooking time, save energy, and provide a more even heat distribution.

Given these advantages, why has induction cooking not become the norm in the last 15 years?

Fighting convention

In Europe and in Asia, induction cooking is making inroads into commercial foodservice, though the same cannot be said of the US. “Even though induction cooking was invented in the US, induction use here is still relatively small compared to the broad use in Asia and Europe,” says Kristine Holtz, CEO of Spring USA, which supplies the hospitality industry with commercial induction ranges, cooktops, buffet servers and cookware.

“There are many theories on the reason for the gap and the strength of international market conditions including smaller kitchens, higher energy prices, and earlier focus on lower energy consumption,” she adds. “However, most sources agree that the time has arrived for induction and the US will see strong growth over the next decade.”

Indeed, Amatti notes that “the world’s top chefs are becoming induction cooking enthusiasts, which may seem surprising – especially since professional cooks known for their mastery of the gas flame are adopting glass-ceramic induction cooktops, but they can see many advantages.”

Induction cooktops are safer as there is no open flame. Temperature can be controlled precisely, as heat transfer stops as soon as the burner is turned off, which reduces the risk of foods boiling over or overcooking. The cooktops are easy to maintain and have minimal styling, so are quick and simple to clean. They are also designed to be durable and reliable, and they are extremely energy efficient.

“Induction cooktops have sensors that allow them to automatically shut off when the pan is taken off the burner, so, nothing is wasted,” Amatti says. “And they are better for the environment. While there are no Energy Star certifications for induction ranges, research by the US Department of

Energy indicates an induction cooker is 84% efficient at energy transfer, versus 74% for a smooth- top electric unit. And induction is 90% efficient with its power use, which is a substantial improvement over electric coils or gas.”

“Also, it heats the food without heating the ambient atmosphere,” says Paul Bartlett FCSI of Kitchen Solutions Consulting. “Whatever goes on between the pan and the element, it transfers heat directly to the food through the pan without heating the air around it. With gas and electric cooking a lot of ambient energy is wasted.”

There are, however, challenges – though many are in the minds of potential users rather than being actual barriers to adoption. “It is a myth that induction cooking requires special, hard-to-find or expensive pans,” says Holtz. “Most quality ranges will work with a wide variety of pans, if they are made of a ferrous metal or have an induction-ready plate incorporated into the bottom. It is also a myth that chefs cannot control the heat like they can on a gas burner or that induction will take too long to heat. In fact, induction ranges today offer superior control for cooking that is more even and precise than cooking over a flame.”

“The induction plate is heated evenly, unlike conventional gas, which heats most strongly where the flame touches,” she adds. “It is a myth that induction ranges are not durable enough for a professional kitchen. The truth is that commercial-grade manufacturers offer ranges that use heavy-duty glass and are designed with premium features to withstand years of heavy use. This has been proven in quick-service kitchens across the country that use induction ranges for rapid heating of food all day, every day.”

The real sticking point may be the price point, which can be higher than comparable electric or gas units. Nevertheless, the efficiency of an induction cooktop is, in Amatti’s words, “phenomenal and can set the pace of your entire kitchen.”

“Getting tasty meals to your customers at a faster rate is a monetary win for any establishment,” he says. “The energy savings you’ll gain almost pay for the equipment in utility costs alone over the life of the unit. In addition, automated settings help decrease labor hours and provide more opportunities for multi-tasking in the kitchen.”

The challenge now is to overcome misconceptions about induction technology and overcome habits. “People are wedded to doing what they know,” says Bartlett. “I’m not sure that people trust the ability of induction to effectively regulate heat. It is an invisible technology, less visceral, so chefs may feel less in control.”

Innovation to save the climate

Manufacturers continue to refine induction cooking technology, focusing on both usability and energy use.

“Induction is the most energy- efficient technology an operator can have, but the traditional circular zone models have limitations and don’t provide the necessary flexibility many busy restaurants need, which is why we have developed the solid top induction, which offers that increased versatility required by many operators,” says Douglas MacLachlan, technical director at Falcon Foodservice Equipment.

The question is, how much can such a technology contribute to the foodservice industry’s sustainability drive and, ultimately, help to combat climate change?

“If an operation has environmental preservation in its mission then induction cooking fits a lot,” says Amatti. “Doing induction cooking the right way is also profitable in all key factors – ROI, cost to operate, safety and productivity.”

“While we don’t have a full understanding surrounding the impact of induction cooking on climate change, we can say that induction technology is more energy-saving, cost-effective, and produces fewer overall emissions,” says Holtz. “Induction ranges do not create excessive heat, therefore requiring less cooling in the room, which reduces overall energy consumption and costs. Some models are even efficient enough to run on battery.”

Even in the US, induction is starting to become standard in the hospitality sector, though there is much room for growth in commercial foodservice. In Europe and in Asia, the transition to induction cooking is already happening apace, which is good news for operators seeking to reduce energy bills, and good news for the planet.

Jim Banks