According to Sensient Imaging Technologies, digital inkjet technology will continue to grow and develop for food applications – and we’ll increasingly see its use reaching beyond corporate and promotional events, to everyday use for both large and small brands. There are multiple opportunities out there for manufacturers.

Whether used to refer to ink printed onto food directly – ‘edible inks’ – or, alternatively, food packaging, ‘food compliant ink’ needs to be safe, while also providing excellent performance and visual appeal.

Five things you should know about food-safe inks and what they have to offer the food industry:

1. It all started with eggs

Edible inks started with ensuring both transparency and traceability in the form of date-coding on eggshells. Although it was just a simple line of text, and the ink itself wasn’t consumed, it was the beginning of using food-safe inks to add information and patterns to food products.

The technology has come leaps and bounds since then, alongside the demand for increased customisation and personalisation. Brands are increasingly using food-safe ink to differentiate their products from competitors and appeal to consumers. For both micro-brands who are competing for shelf space, and for more established brands looking to try something new, this is a great way to add value and customer pull without a significant initial investment – especially as the production line does not need to change significantly to accommodate the ink.

2. Creating edible inks is incredibly complex

Although easy to implement, digital inks are by no means simple to create. They’re a complex, low viscosity liquid that must be able to travel at the right speed to form complicated images on specific substrates – from porous cakes to the more impermeable chocolate – via a non-contact process. There are lots of components in a typical ink to ensure high quality and excellent performance – and when the ink needs to be safe for consumption, the complexity increases even further.

When developing a food-safe ink, everything from ink wetting and adhesion to viscosity and surface tension needs to be considered – nothing can be left to chance. For example, did you know that printheads favor a slightly alkaline pH, as acidic inks tend to degrade a printhead faster from the inside? Or that the ideal particle size is incredibly specific, and needs to be exponentially smaller than the printhead nozzle? When you also consider the technology needed to make it edible, while avoiding the risk of impurities or adulteration after processing, the complexity of the entire process becomes clear.

3. Safety comes first

Before an ink can be deemed safe for consumption, there are several critical tests that need to be carried out. There needs to be testing for unauthorised solvents, adulteration, pesticides, heavy metals and microbiological characteristics before ink is allowed to be used for commercial purposes. The printhead and packaging need to be considered as well, as there is an underlying risk of chemical migration.

4. Natural is the future

Today’s consumer wants more natural, plant-based options and less artificial additives and chemicals in their food – and sustainable and traceable ingredients have also become more important when choosing products. It’s not surprising therefore that consumers also want natural colours in their food and beverages.

Naturally-derived edible inks are readily available to meet this increased demand. However, it’s worth considering that some compromises may have to be made on the shade and concentration, the consistency of different batches of the ink – and, of course, how storage and shelf life will be affected.

5. The possibilities are endless

From baked goods to confectionery, it seems that the only limit is imagination, as brands seek to make their products stand out from the crowd, highlight seasonal promotions and display co-branded creatives. Currently, manufacturers are harnessing the power of edible ink to print on wafers and iced cookies, create scorch marks on pet treats and sandwich rolls, and embed personalised messages into cocktails and coffee foam. Food printing not only adds design elements, however, but can also simulate texture or effect, for example, by printing a lemon meringue image on a lemon-flavored cookie so that the visual appearance matches the flavour.

Although this technology is still developing and improving, food and beverage brands are already using this latest technology to push boundaries and create end products that offer a completely new experience for the end consumer.

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