Have you ever seen an egg with pinkish or purplish writing on it? If you have, you have seen an example of food grade ink. The term itself seems to cause confusion and maybe some level of disgust when it’s discussed. The easiest way to describe food grade ink is to simply say what it is. It’s simply dyes and inks designed to be safe for use on food for manufacturers who distribute various types of foods and food packaging. It’s mostly used on packaging, but you may see it on foods like eggs or produce.
The laws for imprinting on food and food packaging exist to protect the consumer from any harmful metals, chemicals, toxins, dyes, and inks that are used in the printing process. If you look at food packages, you will find labeling that tells you what substances are included in the inks and dyes used for printing on food. That is one of the many laws that regulate the industry.
The very fact that inks and dyes are specifically designed for food make this a tricky business. The ink/dye must adhere to the food or packaging and it must resist smudging, abrasion, and smearing to some point. This is true for visible and UV inks used by manufacturers.
The Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) is the entity that regulates printer materials and dilutants used in manufacturing. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t have its hand in this industry. According to the CFR, inks and dyes must comply with GRAS (generally recognized as safe practices) guidelines.
Several types of food grade inks have been created in the past, but nowadays there are only a few with the appropriate attributes that can be used by manufacturers for food and food packaging imprinting. These attributes encompass such traits as smear resistance, viable viscosity, fast drying time, and the proper surface tension for imprinting. As technology in inkjet printing evolves, these devices are constantly making it easier for manufacturers to use special printers that make it more convenient and efficient. New inkjet printers (those designed for food imprinting) have built-in water tanks used to dilute raw inks to meet a variety of viscosities unlike older printer models that could only process inks that had been calibrated for viscosity.
It’s wise to understand that even food grade inks have some chemicals in them in order to meet the requirements for imprinting on foods. While that may be somewhat off-putting, these chemicals are considered within safe guidelines for humans. As far as this issue is concerned, some governing bodies, like in Europe are still seeking to phase out the use of chemicals completely. As you read this, ink and printer manufacturers are working on developing safer and chemical-free inks and dyes for food imprinting.
Even if you think you’re staying away from all food grade inks, if you’ve consumed cookies, rice cakes, taco shells, pie crusts, biscuits, granola bars, or bagels, the chances are you have ingested some form of food grade ink. The industry will eventually make chemical-free inks, but until then, read packaging labels.