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What makes a lubricant a “food-grade” lubricant?

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Lubricants are essential solutions for many enterprises, industries and applications. Available as fluids, oils, sprays and greases among other formats, these products can be all-natural or entirely man-made. While food grade lubricants typically share the common characteristics of all lubrication products, they are designed with specific qualities which allow them to be classified as food grade. Read on to learn more about these built-for-purpose lubricants which are used in industries such as food and beverage manufacturing, as well as cosmetics and pharmaceuticals production.

The role of lubricants

Lubricants are multi-purpose products that must often fulfil multiple roles. For instance, while the key job of a lubricant is to allow mechanical parts to move freely and easily, this is not all they do.

When a lubricant is added to machine systems, it coats moving parts in a thin film, which prevents metal surfaces which would normally connect from encountering one another. While metal parts might appear smooth to the naked eye, they contain miniscule imperfections called asperities, which jut out. When asperities on opposing metal parts collide, friction and wear occur. This friction reduces performance rates while inflicting damage on the metal components. The lubricant prevents this unwanted process from occurring when properly applied.

Lubricants can also act as a coolant for systems, reducing the build-up of heat in work areas reducing damage caused by extreme temperatures. They also keep systems clean, improving their functionality and reducing mechanical downtime and the need for costly replacement parts. As lubricants pass through the innerworkings of a machine they collect unwanted material like dust, dirt, and other detritus. Finally, lubrication films seal parts from harmful process like rust and other corrosives extending the lifespan of equipment.

While high-quality food grade lubricant can perform all these jobs, they have other parameters to meet which allow them to qualify as a “food grade” solution.

Definition of a food-grade lubricant

Sometimes referred to as a food-safe lubricant, a food-grade lubricant is the term used to describe an industrial lubricant that is deemed safe to have incidental contact with products that could be consumed by animals and humans when present in specific quantities. Beverages, food, medicines, health supplements, pet food, cosmetics and animal feed are all examples of items produced which require the use of food-grade lubricants in manufacturing operations.

Food-grade lubricants must be non-toxic, tasteless, physiologically inert, have no odour and be internationally approved by regulators. They must also be resistant to degradation caused by steam and water but also food products and chemicals.

Food-grade lubricant categories explained

Food grade lubricants fall under one of three different categories that were originally introduced in the USA by its State Department for Agriculture, H1, H2 and H3. While H2 lubes are classed as a “food grade” lubricants they are just designed for use on mechanical system and their components in working environments where there is zero chance of food contact.

H1-type lubricants are food-safe lubricants that are recognised as suitable for making incidental contact with beverages and foods in the production line (but only up to 10 parts per million). They are deemed to be “true” food safe or food-grade solutions. Typical applications include lubricating machinery like pumps, gearboxes, corrugators, hydraulic systems, and conveyor belts. They are also used in process like cooking and cutting, as well as blending.

Lubricants in the H1 class are strictly compliant with FDA Regulations with registration for lubrication products according to H1 issued by NSF, the international institution. Furthermore, these products are designed to meet religious dietary requirements like Kosher and Halal.

H3 lubricants are considered direct contact products. They are lubricants which are applied to grills, moulds, and other types of food production equipment to stop foodstuffs from sticking to mechanical parts during manufacturing and processing. H3 lubricants must not only comply with the regulations, but also 21 CFR (Section 172.878). This class of lubricants has a far higher operating temperature range in comparison to standard vegetable oils, which are also used by many manufacturers as it can provide similar performance as a release agent. However, these all-natural oils are not approved by the NSF and can quickly turn rancid. In some cases, they can also cause lasting harm to machinery, leading and result in high overhead costs for manufacturing plants.

Lubricants categorised as H3 are made using only ingredients which are classified as safe for human and animal consumption. They are also formulated to achieve the sought-after effect even when the most minimal quantities are applied. As a result, 3H lubrication products can also be employed when an H1 lubricant is required as they can often serve multiple purposes. For this reason, most £H lubricants are also listed as H1 products.

To sum up, lubricants must tick many boxes to be considered “food grade”, including being non-toxic to animals and people when present in specific quantities, tasteless, odourless able to resist degradation. Finally, they must be certified by independent international regulators like NSF.

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