May 12, 2022 

The Properties of Food Grade Ink vs. Food Packaging Ink

Learn about the properties of food grade ink vs. food packaging ink and which formula you should choose for your food packaging requirements.

If you’re familiar with food supply chains, you’re likely already aware of how highly regulated the food packaging industry has become. From nationwide labeling acts and state-level laws to distribution network guidelines, those in the food industry have a lot to consider when developing product packaging. 

Although food packaging marking requirements vary based on factors like product type and local legislation, several codes and markings are common throughout the industry. Most frequently, code compliance hinges on the placement of some combination of the following information on all food packaging:

  • A product statement of identity
  • The name and location of the manufacturer
  • The net product weight
  • A traceable lot code or batch number
  • An expiration date and/or “packaged on” date

In most cases, much of this information can be integrated into the actual design of the package. However, variable data elements like lot codes and expiration dates always change from product batch to product batch. Consequently, packaging groups must apply them with direct marking equipment like continuous inkjet or thermal inkjet printers.

Two types of inks are commonly used to mark food packaging with this important information—food grade ink and food packaging ink. While these terms are quite similar, the formulas themselves differ in significant ways. 

In this comparison piece, we look at the properties of food grade ink vs. food packaging ink to help readers understand which option may be right for them. 

The Differing Properties of Food Grade Ink and Food Packaging Ink

To begin, it’s important to note that “food grade ink” is not an official designation created by an authoritative body like the FDA or USDA. Instead, “food grade ink” is a term used by ink developers to signify that a formula can safely come into contact with food and is safe for human consumption. 

How does a developer determine that an ink is “food grade?” The first step is to avoid using any substance considered unsafe for human consumption when creating the formula. 

Even though the FDA doesn’t officially recognize any ink as being “food grade,” the agency does maintain a database called the Inventory of Food Contact Substance that recognizes which substances are cleared to make contact with food. Other countries across the world maintain similar databases to help ink developers create inks that are safe for human consumption. 

The other component is rigorous ink testing on the part of the ink developer. Generally speaking, testing is used to determine the following properties of food grade ink:

  • How the formula interacts with packaging materials
  • How the formula interacts with the food itself
  • Whether the formula has any potential toxic properties

The goal of food grade testing is to confirm the scenarios in which an ink is safe or unsafe. For example, a food grade ink can be considered safe for raw meat packaging but unsafe for microwavable food packaging due to the threat of ink migration. 

On the other hand, food packaging ink is a much broader ink category that doesn’t guarantee that an ink is safe for food contact. Although there are “food grade” food packaging inks, others may be intended for applications that don’t carry a risk of contact (e.g. inks made for marking cereal boxes). 

Should I Use Food Grade Ink or Food Packaging Ink for My Products?

As a general rule of thumb, food grade ink should always be used on packaging that makes direct contact with food. Common examples include:

  • Meat packaging.
  • Flavoring pouches included in ramen noodle packages or soups.
  • Dressing packets included in pre-made salads.
  • The inside of egg cartons.

In addition to these examples, food grade ink is necessary in cases where food packaging is unlikely to serve as a proper barrier between the product and the ink. For instance, codes applied to paper-based coffee bags, plastic cereal pouches, or microwaveable bags are likely to experience a certain degree of invisible set-off over time. To avoid recalls and keep consumers safe, it’s essential to use food grade inks in any similar case. 

However, if food contact is certain not to occur, standard substrate-compatible food packaging ink is fine to use. 

If you’re in the market for food-grade inks for your inkjet printer, we recommend starting your search with the following ink types:

  • Eco-friendly water-based inks, due to their high-quality results, solvent-free formulation, and sustainable qualities
  • Food grade ethanol-based inks, due to their quick drying times and ability to be placed directly onto food items
  • EB (electron beam) inks, due to their low migration risk and solvent-free formulation

Want to learn more about the properties of food grade ink? Stay connected to C&M Digest by subscribing to our newsletter. With information on hardware, formulas, and other important marking topics, our newsletter will keep you updated on the latest industry developments. To get in touch with us about possible collaborations or ideas for coverage, contact us today.

C&M Digest Team

The C&M Digest Team is composed of experts from across the coding and marking world. Comprised of ink developers, hardware veterans, and engineers, our News Team delivers informed coverage that is always free from brand bias.

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