What Is Food Grade Ink?

The term “food grade ink” often brings a lot of confusion, questions and a bit of disgust in the minds of people when you mention it to them.  Little do they know that they handle food grade ink every single day without knowing it.  As its name suggests, food grade ink is simply the dyes and inks that manufacturers are allowed to use by law to print on food.  However, its most common use is on food packaging which is also subject to similar packaging laws.

Food packaging and food printing laws exist to protect the consumer from any dangerous inks, dyes, metals, chemicals and toxins that may be used in the printing process.  The laws also exist to make sure that the consumer is made aware of all substances used in the packaging, labeling and printing of their food.

Printing on food, and even food packaging, can be quite tricky.  The ink has to stay on the surface of the food or packaging, which is difficult in and of itself, but it must also resist smearing and, up to a point, abrasion.  This includes both visible ink as well as UV ink that manufacturers will print containing their internal product information.

Surprisingly, no FDA (Food and Drug Administration) does not issue certificates for the use of food grade inks, because no such certificate exists in the industry.  Instead, manufacturers and printers must comply with materials and dilutants stipulated in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) classified as “GRAS” or generally recognized as safe practices.

Many types of food grade inks have been developed in the past, however there are currently only a handful that have the correct physical characteristics (proper viscosity, resistant to smearing, soluble, surface tension and quick drying time) and can be used with inkjet printers.  Since technology is constantly being pushed forward, new inkjet devices are always being released and making the printing process more efficient and more convenient.  Take viscosity for example.  In previous models you can only use ink that has had its viscosity calibrated to meet the printers requirements.  But there are new printers that come with water tanks that will dilute raw inks with varying viscosities so they can be used.

Printing ink on food, as it exists today, still involves putting chemicals on the surface of foods.  And, while those chemicals are classified as safe to use by governing bodies there are those that still find the idea off-putting, to say the least.  In that regard, there are governing bodies such as those that control the European standards that are continuously pushing for a better, safer and more natural solution, essentially phasing out the use of chemicals.  To meet this demand there are ink and printer manufacturers that are currently working towards a chemically free solution.

Still not a fan of food grade inks?  Have you eaten any of the following lately: rice cakes, cookies, pie crusts, taco shells, granola bars, biscuits, marshmallows or bagels?  If yes, then chances are that you’ve already ingested some food grade ink.

Written by Erryn Deane from Needham Ink

Erryn is the digital business manager for The Needham Group of companies, with a wealth of knowledge in laser marking systems, amongst many other things, he has decades of experience in online development, business analysis and management. In his spare time, he likes to find out how things work and looks to improve them, from vehicles to electronics or even musical instruments.

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