Emerging Trends in Food Grade Packaging: Regulations, New Research, and Consumer Demand

Is meeting the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDAs) minimum food grade packaging requirements enough for today’s food service establishments? In many cases, complying with FDA requirements is enough to satisfy a baseline commitment to healthy packaging, but it may not quell the health concerns of consumers in the long run. In particular, emerging studies by health researchers suggest that traditional food packaging may be the cause of harmful contaminants entering the food supply despite regulations put in place by the FDA.

Any forward-thinking food service establishment should understand both current food grade regulations and the consumer-driven trend towards healthier packaging. Companies should be aware of what type of food grade packaging supplies they are using, where it comes from, and whether it contains any potentially harmful ingredients. It is important not just from a health standpoint, but from an economic standpoint as consumers increasingly base buying decisions off of how safe food packaging is.

This article will take an in-depth look at the current state of food grade packaging. In particular, it will look at the FDA’s “food contact substance” regulations and how emerging research in health science is influencing new trends in food grade packaging.

What is Food Grade Packaging?

From farm to fork, any food that we put into our bodies is generally subject to a wide range of health and safety standards. When it comes to the type of material our food is packaged in, these regulations are no less rigorous – although continued food safety research improves these regulations all the time.

Packaging material that is suitable for storing food and drinks is referred to as “food grade packaging”. Packaging receives this designation when it is made out of material that does not adversely alter or contaminate food. As such, food grade packaging must be devoid of toxic chemicals and serve as an effective barrier from air and moisture to prevent premature food spoilage.

Any company that serves food and beverages should be aware of the type of packaging they are using for their products. In particular, they should ensure that any packaging that does come in contact with food is at least FDA approved.

FDA Approved Food Grade Packaging: Food Contact Substance Regulations

Part of the FDA’s mandate is to regulate the safety of substances added to food. Since food grade packaging comes into direct contact with food, the FDA considers it a food contact substance (FCS) and it must abide by certain regulations to be considered safe.

Safety is defined as “reasonable certainty in the minds of competent scientists that a substance is not harmful under the intended conditions of use.” Tests are carried out to ensure that food packaging is not hazardous for both humans and animals according to toxicological, environmental, and chemical indicators. When it is determined that a material presents no discernable health hazards, it achieves approval by the FDA.

Although the FCS assessment process may same rigorous, the FDA acknowledges there is still an element of uncertainty when determining the safety of a particular material. As current research suggests, scientific knowledge is constantly evolving to account for emerging health impacts associated with traditional packaging.
In an age where consumers have access to impending health concerns via the media and online social networks, companies who serve food should ensure their packaging satisfies not only FDA regulations but emerging consumer health trends as well.

Is Traditional Food Grade Packaging Safe?

Health researchers are continually studying the chemical by-products present in traditional food grade packaging. As such, packaging that was once considered safe is now being questioned for its potential negative health impacts. In retrospect, it is unsurprising that these health concerns are emerging, since traditional packaging is often synthetically produced from petroleum products using chemically-infused manufacturing processes.

One synthetic compound that health researchers have raised increasing alarm about is Bisphenol A (BPA). BPA has been on the governments’ health safety radar since 2008, when it was discovered that BPA, which is used to make certain plastics and resins for food packaging, exhibits hormone-like properties. Studies were showing a potential association between BPA and adverse effects on human reproduction, fetal growth, the nervous system, and behavioral development. These effects could be mostly acutely felt by children who were exposed to proportionally higher doses of BPA than adults.

While the scientific community was unable to conclusively prove BPA an urgent health hazard, they have frequently urged a precautionary approach to BPA exposure, suggesting the adoption of diets that are BPA-free. Although regulations do not force companies to adopt BPA-free packaging, many consumers are taking matters into their own hands by avoiding such potentially harmful packaging.

Researchers have known about the possibility for substance migration between packaging and food for a number of years. In particular, new research featured in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health has revealed the presence of formaldehyde and 6,500 other potential chemicals in food packaging – many of which have “flown under the radar” of government regulations. They caution that long-term exposure to these chemicals in low doses could be partially responsible for incidences of cancer, autism, and low-fertility.

Given the current state of research, it seems inevitable that consumers will become increasingly wary of the type of material their food is packaged in. While technically food service establishments may be using FDA-approved packaging, a more proactive approach to food packaging suggests the adoption of safer alternatives sooner rather than later.

Future Pathways in Food Grade Packaging: Organic, Petroleum-Free Alternatives

In light of the current research on packaging, many food service establishments have begun to embrace “healthier” packaging alternatives that are devoid of the negative health impacts associated with traditional plastic packaging. In particular, trends in food grade packaging suggest a shift towards sustainable, “petroleum-free” packaging. Consumers are increasingly demanding packaging that is sourced from natural materials and manufactured with as few chemicals as possible.

Fortunately, recent technological advancements have made such sustainable packaging a viable alternative to traditional food packaging. In many ways, sustainable packaging alternatives can achieve the same function as traditional packaging but without the negative health or environmental impacts. Some examples of sustainable packaging material include paper products, Polylactic acid (also known as PLA or bio-plastic), and plant-fiber packaging.

Plant-fiber packaging in particular shows some promise as an ideal type of food-grade packaging due to its fine balance between function, sustainability, and price. For instance, the plant-fiber packaging developed by BeGreen Packaging is a good example of packaging that is created from 100% rapidly, renewable natural resources and without hazardous chemicals or bleaches. Retailers who embrace such high health standards in packaging would not have to worry about concerns over BPA, formaldehyde, or other toxic chemicals leaching into their food.

Food service establishments would be well-advised to ensure their packaging is not only FDA-approved, but produced without hazardous chemicals and from entirely natural materials. Businesses who have already implemented high health standards in their packaging do not typically see it as a huge hurdle to overcome. In fact, implementing high-quality, ultra-safe food packaging presents a unique opportunity to improve a company’s corporate image. Ultimately, by investing in healthy, sustainable, and “petroleum-free packaging”, a company can insulate itself from future government regulations and appeal to the growing health concerns of consumers.