To the average consumer, it may come as a shock to discover that nitrogen gas is used so widely in food packaging. After all, this elemental gas is something we don’t hear about very often, even though it comprises approximately 78% of the atmosphere that sustains life on earth, including us.
Food-grade nitrogen is something totally unique, however, and deserves some further exploration to find out what really goes into our packs of snacks like potato chips, and the other favorites that fill our grocery carts.
Let’s find out how and why nitrogen gas is used for packaging our food items and the best practices that manufacturers employ to create the freshest, tastiest products possible.
What Is Nitrogen Gas?
As the fifth most abundant element in the universe, nitrogen is vital to all organic systems on Earth. Solid and liquid nitrogen may only be found in labs, but the gas version is key to making materials, foods, and industrial products.
With our ability to isolate and harness the power of nitrogen gas for various purposes, we have unlocked more efficient agriculture, made leaps in modern medicine, and even improved the shelf life of items in the food industry, among countless other achievements.
In excess, nitrogen gas generation can harm the environment, posing a challenge to organizations like the EPA. This is part of a widespread effort to attain sustainability across industries and keep the natural balance of our varied ecosystems in check.
Why Is Nitrogen Gas Used in Packaging?
Not only is nitrogen gas readily available and easy to utilize in manufacturing, but it’s the perfect gas for filling up bags of chips, snacks, and other packaging necessities across sectors.
Nitrogen is also used widely by beverage manufacturers, with the increased popularity of nitrogen-infused coffee, soda, and alcoholic drinks. By adding nitrogen to the bottle or can, the beverage gains a unique texture and greater volume, replicating the look and feel of a drink served from a draft tap.
Most importantly, the use of nitrogen gas is effective, stable, and does the job in various packaging applications. From transit and storage to store shelves and user experience, nitrogen is unmatched in terms of safety, efficacy, and overall results.
What Are the Benefits of Using Nitrogen Gas in Packaging?
The uses of nitrogen gas in packaging are plentiful, but how exactly does the packaging industry benefit from this substance?
Here’s what makes nitrogen best in class for packaging food, medicine, and more.
Doesn’t Affect Flavors
After years of perfecting the winning formula for a tasty snack or drink, the last thing a company wants is to have those flavors spoiled by oxidation and other unwanted gases introduced to a package.
Producers need every advantage when bringing snacks to market, especially as ingredient combinations become more complex and proprietary. Thankfully, nitrogen is totally flavorless and doesn’t change how ingredients taste.
Nitrogen fills the package completely and prevents oxygen from entering, ensuring that flavors are locked in for longer, and that customers get the fresh food quality they desire. Long term, this equates to more happy snackers and better business outcomes at large.
Reduces Spoilage Rate
The world’s top food producers work hard to prevent spoilage from every possible angle. Culprit number one is oxidation, a chemical reaction that accelerates food spoilage in the form of browning, molding, staling, and other conditions that nobody wants when they open a bag of snacks.
Spoilage is more than just a disappointment for customers — it has major repercussions on the business overall. When a large shipment of snacks is spoiled, that means instant losses, and a damaged reputation that can be hard to revive.
Nitrogen gas, combined with strong packaging with high barrier properties to keep out contaminants, prevents spoilage from ruining snacks before they even hit store shelves. This packaging process is good for retailers, customers, and the business overall.
Keeps Food Fresh Longer
In a global economy, it may be weeks or even months before a product hits store shelves and ends up in the hands of consumers. The long journey from factory to snacktime means that food must be kept fresh for longer, and nitrogen makes that happen more easily and safely.
With a longer shelf life to work with, companies can distribute products more widely and overcome supply chain challenges like delays and other obstacles. This allows brands to expand into new territory rather than only shipping locally.
Retailers also prefer to carry products that last longer on shelves, since it means sustaining inventory with less turnover and less potential for spoiled food material.
Provides a Buffer
Nitrogen flushed bags fill empty space surrounding food products themselves, creating a buffer that can protect units during transit, storage, and any events that may cause damage.
Chips, pretzels, and other snacks tend to be delicate foods. Customers prefer to have each piece intact for full enjoyment. While it’s unlikely to preserve 100% of the product in all scenarios, proper nitrogen flushing allows the “pillow effect” to keep snacks in one piece.
This allows snacks to better survive long supply chain journeys, school backpacks, construction site lunch bags, and any number of other challenges along the way.
What Products Use Nitrogen Flushed Packaging?
Nitrogen flushed packaging is used in the full spectrum of popular snack foods, including chips, corn snacks, rice crisps, pretzels, fruit snacks, mixed nuts, and more. Anything that can benefit from preservation and an air buffer during shipping is a good candidate.
This goes not only for individual serving size snacks, but also wholesale bags used in larger food service applications. Dry products tend to see more benefits than frozen or refrigerated items.
Even some pre-packaged perishable products, like salads, now get a nitrogen flush for additional preservation and to keep ingredients looking fresh.
Less frequently, nitrogen flushed packaging is used for other consumable products like medicines and cannabis, and even non-consumbale components like electronics and supplies.
How Does Nitrogen Flushed Packaging Work?
Specially designed sealers are required to execute nitrogen flushed packaging with accuracy and scale. The machine must replace oxygen present in the package with nitrogen gas in an instant, allowing little to no oxygen to remain.
It’s also worth considering the type of package used to attain a lasting nitrogen cushion. The best packaging systems have strong barrier properties with resilient seals that don’t detract from the user experience.
Is Nitrogen Flushing Bad for You?
Since most of the nitrogen is released within moments of opening a package, there are virtually no health risks associated with this process. We naturally breathe in nitrogen gas from our atmospheric air every day.
When Did the FDA Allow Nitrogen Gas Use in Packaging?
Oxygen-free packaging has been around since the 1970s, and the FDA has called it “generally recognized as safe” since the early 80s. Food manufacturers should curb risk by partnering with trusted packaging solutions providers and following best practices and regulations to the letter.
The Bottom Line
Of all the naturally-occurring elements that surround us, who would have thought that nitrogen had such game-changing benefits for packaging?
Manufacturers shouldn’t hesitate to employ nitrogen flush techniques as they create packaging systems for their products, especially if they want to extend shelf life and protect individual pieces during shipping.
Use nitrogen gas in conjunction with the right food-safe, child-resistant packaging, like Secure Sacks, properly and your business could see major gains in key metrics across the board.