What Does ‘Food Grade’ Mean?

It is important to understand the difference between food grade and other types of ingredients and additives. This holds true both for individuals working in the food industry; amateur cooks, mixologists, and brewers; as well as anyone who wants to ensure food safety for themselves and loved ones.

Food Grade Defined

In each country, there are certain set standards the set up a dividing line between food that is considered fit for human consumption and all other potentially ingestible ingredients and additives. Essentially, ingredients and additives are considered to be “food grade” when they have been inspected and determined to contain no contaminants, either from within or from preparation, packaging or premises.

International Organizations Set Uniform Standards

Internationally, the World Health Organization (WHO) is responsible for overseeing standard-setting and compliance. The WHO maintains the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Food Code Commission) in concert with the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (UN-FAO). The WHO’s UN-FAO includes 185 nation-members, all members of the European Union (EU) and additional interested parties as appropriate.

It is important to recognize that WHO’s UN-FAO standards are not considered mandatory but optional. In addition, each country and industry can set up additional organizations or committees to set and police standards for everything from consumable produce to food-grade lubricants and packaging.

Determining Legitimacy of Food Safe Claims

Precisely because there is no single over-arching legislative body that sets and governs universally-enforceable food grade standards, it is important to identify relevant codes, symbols, and national enforcement and oversight agencies, such as are applicable.

For example, in the United States, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for approving additives to food intended for human consumption, as well packaging and other material that may come into contact with food. The safety of any new food additive must be demonstrated to the FDA before it can be used. Use of approved substances must comply with certain specifications and restrictions. (For a good introduction on what the FDA does/does not approve: Is It Really FDA Approved?)

Food manufacturers are responsible for making sure the purity of all ingredients used is food grade – and that the use of each substance is authorized by applicable regulations. The FDA provides a Food Ingredient Decision Tree to correctly identify the regulatory status of a food ingredient. This tree is a great starting point for determining compliance with FDA regulations.